Alex Hammond: Ford focus

  • By: Alex Hammond
  • Last Updated: February 1 2014, 15:07 GMT

There is light at the end of this incredibly rain-sodden tunnel as in six weeks' time we will be in the midst of the Cheltenham festival.

Saphir Du Rheu goes clear to score
Saphir Du Rheu goes clear to score

For now, however, we are once again hoping it isn't 1-0 to the weather this weekend.

Sandown have an all-chase card as a back-up in case the hurdle course is a washout. It's currently waterlogged and as the country is set for another soaking on Friday there must be some doubt surrounding the cards at Ffos Las and Wetherby, too.

If we do get some jump racing, the Grade One action comes from Sandown where the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase is their feature.

Oscar Whisky will be short enough if he lines up in a race run over a distance just beyond two and a half miles, as well he might be.

Nicky Henderson's horse is rated 12lb superior to anything else in the field and reversed the form with his old foe Taquin Du Seuil in the Dipper at Cheltenham last time out. He won't mind the testing ground and the trip is perfect - his Festival target is the Jewson rather than the Arkle as this trip has always suited better than two miles.

Benvolio is trained by Paul Nicholls who will be winding his string up now that January is almost behind us. He has had a relatively quiet month by his high standards and the defeats of Big Buck's, Unioniste and Rocky Creek were disappointing last weekend, but he usually starts churning out a regular flow of winners from here on in.

Benvolio is working his way up the ranks and whilst he's not flashy, he's a grafter and he's also on the up. This is a big step up in class, but he'll enjoy the conditions.

It was great to see Alan King back among the winners last weekend with his first runners since shutting up shop with a virus. Manyriverstocross is his representative here and whilst this horse has work to do to beat Oscar Whisky, he could be one at the prices.

Alex Hammond "Manyriverstocross could finish second to the Henderson horse at a track he goes well at and on ground he handles. He jumps very well as we saw on his debut at Exeter and his defeat second time over fences can be excused as the stable were under a bit of a cloud."
Alex Hammond

At Ffos Las,the Welsh Champion Hurdle has attracted a decent entry. The title of this race is slightly misleading as it's a handicap hurdle, and it's run over a trip of two and a half miles.

Oscar Whisky made the race his own for Ffos Las supremo Dai Walters and Walters is trying to win it again as he has Whisper (Nicky Henderson) and Top Gamble (David Pipe) amongst the entries.

Whisper has a blemish-free record at the track and it's interesting to see him over hurdles this season as Henderson seemed adamant the only way he would stay over the smaller obstacles would be if he didn't take to jumping fences this autumn. He hasn't been jumping his hurdles too fluently this term, but was better when winning at Newbury last time out. The race should be run to suit here.

Last weekend Paul Nicholls said he wanted to protect Harry Derham's 5lb claim and he wasn't letting him ride too much (he only needed two winners to reduce it to 3lbs at the time). The reason behind those comments was that he would like to take that valuable 5lb off the back of Saphir Du Rheu, who has top weight in this contest. The horse is a lively outsider for the World Hurdle (14/1 with Sky Bet) after his easy win in the Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton last time out under Derham. He's a lovely big horse who will progress when he's sent chasing, but in the meantime if he runs here with that conditional jockey's allowance he will be a leading contender.

Non-runner money back on Saphir Du Rheu for the World Hurdle!

So, fingers crossed the weather doesn't put paid to the card, I'm going with the top weight to give Harry Derham and his uncle Paul a nice winner.

The West Wales National will be a real slog and there are some familiar faces lining up for this three and a half mile handicap chase.

Walters could have a winner on his big day in the other feature contest as Moutainous is bidding to add to his Welsh National win. If he is to win, it will have to be off a 7lb higher mark than for that Chepstow success and Richard Lee said after that win that he isn't the easiest horse to train. He does love heavy ground though and he will get that here.

If Rebecca Curtis's Bob Ford can settle better he is also of interest at a track that suits and on ground that doesn't faze him. He is lightly raced and has a fly weight with Patrick Corbett's claim taken into account and he can't be ignored. He is entered in the four-mile National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham. The stable is a but quiet this month, but it was good to see At Fishers Cross run a much better race in the Cleeve last weekend, so maybe the horses are returning to form. He could be worth a punt.

Alex Hammond "If Rebecca Curtis's Bob Ford can settle better he is also of interest at a track that suits and on ground that doesn't faze him. He is lightly raced and has a fly weight with Patrick Corbett's claim taken into account and he can't be ignored...he could be worth a punt."
Alex Hammond

If Wetherby goes ahead then their feature is the Grade Two Towton Novices' Chase over three miles and a furlong and I hope Shutthefrontdoor runs in this.

He has been a bit of a frustrating horse to follow this term as he looked to be going places before the start of the season. Although he won a novices' chase at Aintree on his reappearance, he has been beaten twice since including a last place when favourite at Cheltenham last time out.

No explanation could be offered by trainer Jonjo O'Neill, although it was thought that maybe he would appreciate more testing ground - he'll certainly get that here. That run was too bad to be true and as Jonjo's horses have also been under a bit of a cloud there are reasons to hope he'll bounce back. The yard's horses are running much better now so I'm keeping the faith.

Watch Shutthefrontdoor's win at Aintree with our free video form!

Moving onto Sunday and the Tied Cottage Chase looks potentially decent at Punchestown.

The Grade Two contest is run over two miles and once again Willie Mullins has a strong hand with two of the leading contenders. He has entered both Arvika Ligeonniere and Twinlight. Bog Warrior (Tony Martin), Toner D'Oudairies (Gordon Elliott) and Rathlin (Mouse Morris) are all owned by Gigginstown House Stud, with Morris also entering Baily Green under different ownership. Special Tiara is trained by Henry de Bromhead with the only British entry coming from Donald McCain with Desert Cry.

Arvika Ligeonniere could only finish third in the Dial-A-Bet Chase last time out, but a return to a right-handed track is expected to suit. He stays further than this two mile trip, but Mullins says he is more inclined to run over shorter rather than further with him as he has loads of pace.

His stablemate, Twinlight, is an exciting young horse who finished third to Captain Chris at Kempton last time out. He made jumping errors that day, but it was over two and a half miles and the drop in trip will suit.

Rathlin reappeared over hurdles last time out after an Autumn break; he seems better over further and the same comment applies to stablemate Baily Green.

Bog Warrior hasn't run since his fifth in the World Hurdle, but he has won three times over fences including in Grade One company. He hasn't been easy to train, but he's got plenty of ability and it he's straight for this first run since last March he'll be interesting, even over a trip that looks short of his best nowadays.

Toner D'Oudairies has been in more recent action, but was beaten by Arvika Ligeonniere earlier in the season, while the McCain horse Desert Cry will enjoy the ground and was a winner of his last two starts.

We'll know more when the declarations are made, but Arvika Ligeonniere is the obvious choice and I'll be interested to see which horse Bryan Cooper chooses to ride.



Manyriverstocross in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase

Ffos Las

Saphir Du Rheu in the Welsh Champion Hurdle
Bob Ford in the West Wales National


Shutthefrontdoor in the Towton Novices' Chase

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