Alex Hammond: Sanctuaire the call
This weekend sees a host of duels and although far from being two horses races there are some fascinating match ups. None more so than in the Tingle Creek which sees Arkle winner Sprinter Sacre take on Sanctuaire.
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With just 3lbs between the pair on ratings I don't think the 4/9 favourite Sprinter Sacre is a shoe in and there's no doubt this is likely to be the toughest test so far for the Nicky Henderson trained horse.
2/1 second favourite Sanctuaire (trained by current champion Paul Nicholls) has in the past been called a few names and he went through a phase of looking reluctant over hurdles.
However, he seems to have been reformed by a switch to fences and a change of tactics and he looked mighty impressive when winning the Celebration Chase at Sandown back in April.
Like Sprinter Sacre, he is unbeaten over fences. The ground could be testing and neither would appreciate a slog. Henderson withdrew his horse from his intended debut at Cheltenham's Open meeting due to the ground and it isn't ideal to start the season in the sort of ground they could encounter, but it's the same for everyone
When I visited the Nicholls yard last month the vibes were positive about Sanctuaire and with very little between them on official ratings I'm going to take the favourite on. One thing is for sure, there is little in horseracing to match the thrill of top 2 mile chasers in action and we should enjoy a great race.
Also at Sandown, the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase looks superb too. Nicky Henderson's Captain Conan could meet Donald McCain's likeable Overturn and Paul Nicholls has also entered Hinterland who would get the 4 year-old weight allowance in this 2 mile contest.
Captain Conan is a gorgeous individual and he impressed me on a recent visit to Seven Barrows. He made the perfect start to his chasing career in the Arkle Trial Trophy at Cheltenham's Open meeting, jumping well and winning comfortably. He looks a natural at this game and whilst he could be vying for 2 mile honours with stablemate Simonsig when he reappears, he looks a fair old stand in for the time being.
Captain Conan and Overturn are both 7/1 shots with Sky Bet for the Arkle at this stage.
Overturn is a horse you can't help but warm to. He made a pleasing chasing debut over this course and distance last month and he jumped the fences like a natural. The railway fences can be very tricky for a novice but he pinged them and showed plenty of scope. I would be concerned about his claims on the type of ground he is likely to encounter on Saturday and whilst normally I would hate to take him on, I don't think conditions are in his favour.
Hinterland was too keen on his chase debut last time out and although he gets the weight allowance he will need to settle better round here. So, as much as I hate to desert Overturn, it's Captain Conan for me in this.
One of my horses to follow for the season, My Tent or Yours, continues his hurdling education in the opening race at Sandown on Saturday. He won at Ascot on his hurdles debut for Nicky Henderson, a battered AP McCoy and owner JP McManus. It's hard to say what he will face here as final declarations hadn't been made at the time of writing, but there are some decent horses entered in opposition.
I'm going to stick with My Tent Or Yours to win again and I know he is highly thought of. If you could criticise him at all for his Ascot win, he was a fraction too keen. I'll put that down to freshness on his seasonal reappearance, although it is something he has been guilty of in his bumper days. Hopefully he will get a decent pace in this 2 mile Novice's Hurdle which should help him settle a bit better.
There is some decent racing at Anitree too with the Becher Chase the feature over the National fences. There are some real old favourites in this (and in fact a horse I've sat on recently!).
Sky Bet's favourite is Alan King's West End Rocker at 5/1. He won the race 12 months ago in good style and his trainer fancies him to repeat the performance off a 5lb higher rating. He didn't have the best of times in the National when falling early, but this is another day and he deserves to be favourite.
2011 National hero Ballabriggs is an 8/1 chance and he has top weight. There is another former Becher winner in the line up, Hello Bud who is 12/1 to repeat his win of 2010, but he is 14 years old now and hasn't won since that victory, he is out of the handicap proper thanks to Ballabriggs.
Join Together is 7/1 second favourite for Paul Nicholls who has booked Daryl Jacob to ride. This horse reappeared at Ascot last month, but he was hampered after making a mistake which put paid to his chance. He should be sharper for the outing and is an interesting second season chaser. He could be one for the National in the spring and it will be interesting to see how he takes to the fences.
I'm not sure the ground will be ideal for the David Pipe trained 8/1 chance Problema Tic if it were to get too soft. He ran an encouraging race on his reappearance at Cheltenham though. Big Fella Thanks was unlucky to unseat his rider on his debut for Tom George at this track in October. That was his first run since his 7th place in the 2011 Grand National and he was travelling well at the time of his departure. He didn't stay in the National so this 3m2f trip should be ideal for him.
I quite like his chance in this. Peter Bowen will be hoping 12/1 shot Mumbles Head can continue his good record as a trainer with his runners over the National fences. This horse will be having his first look at them mind you, but his trainer expects him to take to them.
Dessie Hughes has a good record in this race and he has In Compliance (12/1) declared. Minella Theatre (20/1) had the disadvantage of carrying me up Lawney's Hills picturesque gallops a couple of weeks ago. He is an absolute gentleman and I hope he runs well on his second go over these fences, although he is also out of the handicap.
So you could give half a dozen horses a very good chance in this but I fancy Big Fella Thanks to shine over these fences which he has jumped well in the past.
In Ireland there is another potential thrilling head to head in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown. It sees the clash of two top chasers, Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar.
Flemenstar is Sky Bet's even money favourite for this 2m4f Grade 1 and has the benefit of a win under his belt already this term. Peter Casey's star chaser was impressive in the Fortria Chase at Navan last month where he jumped particularly well. That was over two miles and I think his superior speed gives him another advantage over the 13/8 second favourite.
Much was made of the fact that he will have improved for that run too and remember none of these top horses will be fully wound up at this stage of the season.
The Willie Mullins trained Sir Des Champs is unbeaten since joining Ireland's champion jumps trainer. He capped a magnificent season with a win in the Grade 1 Champion Novice Chase over 3m1f at Punchestown in April.
As far as the Gold Cup is concerned I'd rather be on Sir Des Champs (and I've already backed him for the Cheltenham race for which he is currently 5/1 2nd fav). He looks the much more convincing stayer of the duo, whilst Flemenstar has bags of speed.
I think that speed and the fact he has had a run this season could see
The International meeting takes place in Hong Kong on Sunday with plenty of British interest. Watch out for the likes of Cirrus des Aigles and Carlton House (Cup), Sea Moon, Dunaden and Red Cadeaux (Vase) amongst others and I'll bring you the latest news and market movers ahead of the races on Sky Sports News on Saturday. Have a great weekend's racing.
Sanctuaire in the Tingle Creek @ 2/1 with Sky Bet
Captain Conan in the Henry VIII Novices' Chase
My Tent Or Yours in the National Hunt Novices' Hurdle at Sandown
Big Fella Thanks in the Becher Chase @ 8/1 with Sky Bet
Flemenstar in the John Durkan Memorial Chase @ Evs with Sky Bet