West End set for encore
Channel 4 commentator Simon Holt previews this weekend's action at Aintree, Sandown and Punchestown.
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The clash between Sprinter Sacre and Sanctuaire - rated within 3lb of each other by the BHA Handicapper - in Saturday's Sportingbet Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown has been a mark in many a diary since the start of the season.
Both horses displayed a thrilling aptitude for fencing last term; Sprinter Sacre was unbeaten in five starts culminating in runaway victories in the Arkle and at Aintree while Sanctuaire put up one of the most impressive performances of the whole campaign when slamming Somersby by 17 lengths over this course and distance in April.
It's pretty clear how this race will be run as Sanctuaire is a horse who races freely and attacks his fences, and it is highly unlikely that trainer Paul Nicholls will seek to curb (even if he were able) that natural bravado.
However, I feel that such tactics can only play to the strengths of Sprinter Sacre who settles well, has a very high cruising speed and whose giant stride could soon erode any sizeable lead that his main rival might achieve.
While Sanctuaire has been a little bit hit and miss during his career, Sprinter Sacre has been beaten only twice in 11 starts and, since being sent chasing, has looked a potential superstar.
Jumping will be all important here, especially in Sandown's back straight where seven fences await them, but both horses have been very sure-footed so far and two clear rounds could provide a feast for the eyes.
Meanwhile, the big Aintree obstacles - four of them altered since the Grand National - get their first airing of the season in the Betfred Becher Chase.
West End Rocker was a 22 length winner of this searching contest 12 months ago and looks set to stage a repeat off just a 5lb higher mark with the likely testing conditions again in his favour.
Alan King's stayer, an early faller in the National itself here in the spring, was beaten some way when third on his reappearance at Wincanton but tends to need a race to put him right as proved the case when pulling up on his seasonal reappearance last year before going onto land this event.
It is good to see the return of several Aintree specialists - the likes of Ballabriggs, Big Fella Thanks and Hello Bud - but the biggest danger to West End Rocker could be Any Currency, an out-and-out stayer who shaped well at Cheltenham last time.
Meanwhile, the eyes of the jumping world will be focused on the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown on Sunday when Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar, the country's two most promising staying chasers, clash for the first time.
I am a big fan of Sir Des Champs, a winner at the last two Cheltenham Festivals - and particularly impressive when sprinting up the hill in the Jewson Novices' Chase in March - and feel he could have the edge even though his main rival has the advantage of a previous (winning) run this season.
The Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old is ante-post favourite in many lists for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Flemenstar has created a big reputation in winning his last six chases and jumps particularly well, but this is the race in which we find out how good he really is.
It's his stiffest task to date - not only against Sir Des Champs as last year's winner Rubi Light is also smart and not to be discounted.