While most Irish eyes will be on the jumps finale at Punchestown today, this afternoon also sees this season’s British National Hunt campaign draw to a close at Sandown.
The feature is the bet365 Gold Cup Handicap Chase (the Whitbread in old money), a race that boasts an illustrious roll of honour.
However, it is also invariably a fiendish difficult puzzle to solve, illustrated by the fact no favourite has won since Mr Frisk obliged in 1990. That stat alone is reason to take on Blaklion. And that’s before you consider the fact he must shoulder 11st 12lbs.
After his gutsy victory in the Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival, Missed Approach is entitled to be towards the head of the market but an 8lb rise complicates matters.
In a wide-open handicap, a case can be made for several but my two against the field are Sugar Baron and Step Back at odds of around 12-1.
On ground softer than ideal, Sugar Baron never landed a blow in the Kim Muir when last seen but he only just failed to peg back Benbens over course and distance in December.
Nicky Henderson’s charge only managed to finish seventh in this race last year but he was only beaten by two and a half lengths at the line. His jumping cost him that day and remains a concern.
However, if it holds up today, he certainly possesses the raw ability to win a race of this nature.
Unlike Sugar Baron, Step Back has visited the winner’s enclosure this season.
The bare form of his victory at Fakenham three weeks ago is nothing special but Mark Bradstock’s charge could not have been more impressive, making all to win by 16 lengths.
Added to that, the fact Step Back got to within four and a half lengths of the promising Thomas Patrick on his first chase start in February suggests his Fakenham effort was no flash in the pan.
His lack of experience is an obvious worry but he looks a promising individual and it would be no surprise if he goes close.
No-one will be getting rich backing Altior in the Celebration Chase but the best jumps horse in training simply can’t be opposed here.
The way this magnificent horse powered clear of Min up the Cheltenham hill to win the Champion Chase by sevenlengths was this observer’s highlight of the jumps campaign and it’ll be the biggest shock of the season if he fails to round off his campaign in style.
It could be a day to savour for Henderson as the man who will today be crowned champion trainer for the fifth time also has leading claims in the bet365 Oaksey Chase.
Top Notch was slightly below par when fourth behind Waiting Patiently at Ascot in February but has been given time to rediscover his mojo and is fancied to see off Double Shuffle, whom he beat by eight lengths in November, again.
Sandown’s opening race, the bet365 Novices’ Championship Final Handicap Hurdle, looks pretty tough but, at odds of 12-1, an each-way chance is taken on Equus Amadeus for emerging trainer Tom Lacey.
Switching to the Flat, the fragile Emmaus is fancied to oblige in the totepool EBF Stallions King Richard III Stakes at Leicester while Lualiwa gets the vote in the Best Odds Guaranteed At 188Bet Handicap at Haydock.
Equus Amadeus (Each-way)
Top Notch (NB)
Sugar Baron (Each-way)
Step Back (Each-way)
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