Valdez looks mint in Imperial
There is a £75,000 bonus on offer to any horse who can win Saturday's Paddy Power Imperial Cup at Sandown and then follow-up in one of the races at next week's Cheltenham Festival, and it looks as if champion trainer Paul Nicholls and top owner JP McManus have their eyes on the booty with the promising Mr Mole who holds an entry in the County Hurdle.
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Successful in two of his three starts over hurdles so far, the lightly-raced five-year-old could be thrown-in at these weights on a defeat of smart novice Melodic Rendezvous at Exeter in October.
However, whereas the runner-up has been impressive since, Mr Mole was a beaten odds-on favourite next time out before a comfortable defeat of the now-exposed Home Run at Taunton most recently for which he went up 12lb in the handicapper's ratings.
There can be little doubt this is a promising horse but he still looked green at Taunton (carrying his head high) and it remains to be seen if he is streetwise enough to cope with 23 rivals. His current odds at the head of the market hardly scream out value.
I feel duty bound to seek a better-priced alternative and that horse could be Valdez, who ran the best race of his short career so far when third (conceding weight all round) behind two promising novices in Minella Forfitness and Cheltenian on good ground at Doncaster two weeks ago.
So far, the only blip in this horse's campaign came on very testing going behind Melodic Rendezvous at Cheltenham in December and Sandown's likely surface (good or good to soft) should be ideal.
On certain lines of form, Valdez may have been slightly underestimated by the handicapper and he looks a genuine sort who, at odds of around 20/1, should give us an exciting run for our money.
Victory for this horse would be rough luck on Alan King's stable jockey Robert Thornton who is now out for the season after a fall earlier in the week - but Wayne Hutchinson is a more than able deputy.
In a hugely competitive contest, the eye is also drawn to former smart Flat stayer Tominator who has won two of his three starts over hurdles without looking the most natural of jumpers.
But, for a horse who was rated 98 on the Flat when finishing third in the Cesarewitch last autumn, he is certainly not harshly treated at these weights.
Ground conditions will, as ever, be important; if it dries up then Claret Cloak (who would have been fancied but for the quiet form of trainer Emma Lavelle) and Changing The Guard must enter calculations while Pine Creek, Minella Definitely and top weight Tanerko Emery have shown all their form so far on a deep surface.
The last named, whose burden will be lightened by Kieran Edgar's 7lb allowance, represents David Pipe who has won this race twice before thereby following family traditions as his father Martin sent out the winner six times. The Pipe family will also be represented by Kazlian who came good last March when finishing fourth at the Cheltenham Festival.
Last year's surprise winner Paintball returns off a 1lb higher mark but has performed poorly in his five outings since that success.
As well as four races at Sandown, Channel 4 will show the first two events from Wolverhampton which stages it's most valuable raceday of the year.
In the William Hill Lincoln Trial, I like the look of Strictly Silver who runs the course well, is probably racing over his ideal distance and seems in good form. Alan Bailey's grey wasn't always the luckiest horse last season on turf but for which he might figure on a slightly higher rating.
However, the crucial factor here could be Strictly Silver's rider Robert Tart who has made a very good impression this winter and whose 7lb allowance is a considerable advantage.