Jim Lewis believes his triple Gold Cup winner Best Mate can make an encouraging start to the season at Exeter today despite conditions being far from ideal.

The Henrietta Knighttrained ten-year-old has not raced since finishing second to Beef Or Salmon in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in December and faces ten rivals in the William Hill Haldon Gold Cup.

Lewis's charge was denied a crack at a fourth blue riband when he broke a blood vessel during his last serious piece of work before the Festival.

But all has gone well with his preparation as he makes his seasonal debut on softish ground over two miles oneanda-half furlongs.

Lewis said: "The weather's a worry. They had a lot of rain yesterday [Sunday] and there are showers about. If it's good to soft ground, we'll be happy.

"He wants further but with it being his first race back, we didn't want to run him over a long trip. We have to start him off somewhere.

"Henrietta is happy with him and his blood is good."

Miss Knight said: "We're not necessarily expecting him to win but it should be a nice outing for him. He's ready for a race. The distance is on the short side and there are good, quicker horses in there."

With Jim Culloty having retired and Timmy Murphy being claimed by Martin Pipe's principal owner David Johnson for Arkle winner Contraband, Best Mate will have a new jockey in Paul Carberry.

Contraband's connections are also keeping an eye on the weather. "He's very well but we wouldn't want much more rain," Johnson said.

"I think Ashley Brook is the one to beat. We're 5lb better off with him than when we beat him in the Arkle, but he easily beat us at Aintree when we weren't at the races."

Kevin Bishop is hoping Ashley Brook can prove himself worthy of going for two- mile championship honours.

The dual course winner signed off the last campaign with a convincing win in a Grade One novice chase at Aintree where he accounted for War Of Attrition by 16 lengths.

Bishop said: "Before Ashley Brook won at Liverpool, we were thinking of going further with him but he was so impressive over two miles on a tight track.

"We thought after that we would explore the two-mile route. We'll stick to around that distance unless Paddy (Brennan) comes in tomorrow and says he's crying out for further."

Bishop is aware of the task facing his stable star, saying: "It's a very hot contest. Being a handicap, it looks a very open race. One or two of the outsiders are not out of it.

"We've got to give Kauto Star 9lb. That looks a big ask if he's as good as connections believe he is. Best Mate may well want further but he's come down the ratings and we are getting only 6lb from him."

Kauto Star has been injured since being shortheaded by Mistral De La Cour after being remounted at this track nine months ago. The French-bred five-year-old trounced Foreman in a novice chase at Newbury a month earlier. Nicholls also saddles Kadarann, who was third in this race for the past two years. Stable companion Azertyuiop won 12 months ago.

An inch of rain fell at Exeter over the weekend and clerk of the course Barry Johnson said: "The chase course is good to soft, soft in places, although it's only really one place and I can't see the ground changing a lot."