1pt win Press Your Luck in 1.50 Sandown at 25/1 (Hills)
1pt e.w. Hasanabad in 2.25 Sandown at 20/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5)
1pt win Up The Straight in 3.35 Sandown at 20/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair)
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Sandown stages its traditional 'eve of Cheltenham' card on Saturday with the traditional highlights, the EBF Paddy Power National Hunt Novices’ Handicap Final and Paddy Power Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle, leading us into the best four days of the year.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls won the race with Malaya the last time it was run two years ago and his nine-year-old mare is entered here after not seeming to stay at Ascot last time over three furlongs further. A strong traveller who won here in 2019 from a 2lbs lower mark she has been in decent form all year but has hovered around this mark long enough for the assessor to know what he’s dealing with.
The stable also have Miranda entered off top weight and, while she made a mockery of a Doncaster Grade Two Mares’ Hurdle the last time, her earlier Musselburgh form indicates that there should be something better treated lower down the weights.
Diego Du Charmil is also in here off an 8lbs lower mark than he runs off over fences but Sandown has never really been his track and there’s no reason to fancy him finding sudden improvements after some average efforts this season and, as another nine-year-old, he’ll surely be exposed.
If the stable are to win the race again, their best chance appears to lie with the Million In Mind-owned Rockadenn on just his third stable start, having joined after finishing second to the stable’s smart juvenile Sir Psycho in last year’s Victor Ludorum Hurdle at Haydock.
He ran out at the fifth first time out this year when well fancied at Musselburgh’s Trials Day but beat last year’s Betfair Hurdle hero, Pic D’Orhy - who would be my number one Coral Cup fancy if allowed to take his chance at the Festival next Wednesday - at Taunton last time. All his form says he loves heavy ground, though, and he’s had quite a bit more experience than normal winners of this race so finding the necessary improvement may prove difficult with the going currently edging towards good to soft.
Dan Skelton shows almost every weekend that runners from his stable should be respected in this type of contest and his Langer Dan, who finished a close-up sixth in last year’s Boodles at the Festival, seems to be coming to hand with his recent fourth at Market Rasen a marked improvement on previous efforts although strictly on the book he has it to do to turn the form around with Mick’s Maestro on just 1lb better terms.
Highway One O Two also returned to form in a good handicap on Saturday at Newbury behind Miller’s Tale and that run does put him in with a shout, still 6lbs lower than his highest hurdles rating, but he now has to back that up just seven days later.
Also on Saturday, Michael Scudamore’s Do Your Job, who I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the trainer describe as his best ever horse, ran very well at Kelso behind potential superstar My Drogo. Time may tell that was a smart effort but he had a hard enough race and I wouldn’t fancy him backing that up in such a short time although his Ayr victory over Cadzand and Wetlands reveals him to have potential from his mark.
Evan Williams trains a couple of these entries both owned by the Ruckers and either of Grade One novice chase winner, Esprit Du Large, or Mack The Man, who beat Protektorat here last season in a good handicap, could be fancied if returning to form but neither has really shown that to be likely in recent times.
Leoncavallo, from the Pipe stable who have been resurgent this term, looks weighted up to his best, Fransham always runs his best but gets no rest from the handicapper as a result and Hang In There is a lot lower in the weights than he was at the start of the season but I find it difficult to take much encouragement from his recent efforts so all are passed over.
Gary Moore is a trainer for the big handicap hurdles as his record demonstrates and it’s pretty hard not to be sucked in by the former Andrew Balding-trained, 101-rated Flat horse Natural History, who ran in the royal colours on the level but finds himself on a hurdles rating of just 116 after scooting home round Plumpton the last time we saw him.
The signs are all there with this one who I was about to tip at 5/1 but that price soon vanished and history tells us that chasing short priced winners, however obvious they may appear, is rarely the way to go in the long term.
One factor I really believe is underplayed in punting is that of trainer form with a few of the big stables struggling for winners and having plenty of shorties turned over in recent weeks, but there are no such issues attached to the Ian Williams stable and I reckon his ex-Dermot Weld trained, Aga Khan owned six-year-old HASANABAD may be about to take off in his new career as a hurdler after staying on well to fill the minor berth at Newbury last weekend.
It's safe to say this six-year-old Nathaniel gelding will not have come cheaply when purchased after winning at Galway two summers ago and he went off just 8/1 for a Newmarket Listed event when ridden by Ryan Moore on his first start for Williams.
The horse he beat at Galway is rated 94 on the Flat, 133 over hurdles, and has a Coral Cup entry and the third is a 102-rated Flat performer so that was a strong race and Galway has a similar right-handed layout with a stiff finish which Sandown mirrors.
His form has been patchy both on the Flat and over hurdles in the interim but he looked to be coming to himself last time and he had the highly-regarded Flat winner Proschema behind him there in what might turn out to be a good little race so, with the stable 8-29 winners at 28% in the last fortnight including the winner of the Grimthorpe at Doncaster on Saturday, it’s fair to say we can expect significant improvement from a mark of just 122, which I doubt was expected to be the ceiling of his abilities when purchased.
I cannot see the 20/1 each-way with five places lasting long and feel that is some way the best value on offer at this stage.
In the EBF Final, a race synonymous with producing high-class future novice chasers, it really is difficult to find an edge but the rank outsider, PRESS YOUR LUCK, looked good in victories at Newton Abbott and Uttoxeter in the autumn before finding My Drogo, Llandinabo Lad and Soaring Glory too hot at Ascot before Christmas.
Subsequent events have shown that form to be red hot and I feel he’s worth chancing at 25/1 now he steps up in trip as a former Irish point-to-point winner. He warmed up for this with a run in a Kempton jumpers’ bumper when sent off just 7/1 in a field of 13 and, although the stable have one of the favourites in here with Annual Invictus, I believe this one could be primed for a big run.
Elsewhere, as previously mentioned, Dan Skelton’s horses are in tremendous nick (Southwell four-timer on Monday) but I wouldn’t want to get carried away by the victory of No Getaway in an ordinary race here last time and both he and the Dr Newland-trained Mr Muldoon make the market for Richard Rowe’s highly-tried UP THE STRAIGHT.
Rowe rode some of his finest winners for Josh Gifford here in a glittering career and every year pulls a decent horse out of the bag and, after running in a Grade One here last time, will be in much calmer waters in this race from a rating of 135. I think he’ll be a decent handicapper at least when he starts putting it together and can’t resist a bit on at 20/1.
Previously second from a 1lb higher mark to Umbrigado at Fontwell, that horse has won twice since, the most recent in a very good renewal of the Greatwood Gold Cup from a 5lbs higher mark, and very few in here can boast such a good recent effort.
Published 1655 GMT on 08/03/21