Heading into the New Year and it is the jumping game which continues to take centre stage in the horse racing arena, with the countdown towards the Cheltenham Festival now well and truly on. This weekend sees the ITV cameras head to Sandown and Wincanton for an excellent afternoon of National Hunt entertainment.
Wincanton provides a trio of cracking handicaps for punters to get stuck into, but the pick of the action comes from Sandown Park. The Grade 1 Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle provides the headline act, whilst the Veterans’ Handicap Chase grants the opportunity to see a selection of old favourites in action. A total of eight races provides plenty of opportunity to find a winner or two, and here we give it our best shot in this week’s Saturday Racing Tips.
1:15 Read Nicky Henderson’s Unibet Blog Handicap Chase
Class 3, 2m4f
We kick things off with a very tricky-looking opener in which much of the field has questions to answer, whether that be in relation to current form, jumping ability, or the suitability of soft ground. Gemirande has more going for him than most having won nicely at around this trip at Southwell last time out. He is up 10 pounds for that though which doesn’t make life easy, particularly as he steps up from Class 4 into Class 3 company. At around the 15/8 mark, he’s a little on the short side for our liking.
The one to take a chance on is Scipion from the yard of Tom Lacey. This seven year old gelding was just about the best of these over hurdles having twice finished third in Grade 2 company, and if able to transfer that ability to the larger obstacles, he may well be the one to beat. A 12-length third on his chase debut over 2m6½f will need improving upon, but that was his first run in 208 days, and he can be expected to improve for the experience.
1:30 Virgin Bet Handicap Chase
Class 2, 2m4f
A small but select field goes to post in the first of the day’s events from Wincanton, in what looks to be a good race for the grade. Celebre D’Allen currently shades favouritism and goes for trainer Philip Hobbs who has won this three times in the past seven years. He’s respected, but whether he deserves to head the market on the back of a fourth-placed effort in a veteran’s event we aren’t so sure.
Elixir De Nutz makes more appeal having taken a big step forward at Doncaster last time out, but the one for us is Messire Des Obeaux from the yard of Alan King. This horse has undoubtedly had his fair share of issues, but on the plus side, he remains lightly raced for an eleven-year-old, and on his day is the classiest runner in this line-up. A perfect two from two at the track, the most recent of those efforts saw him beat no less a horse than Protektorat who subsequently finished third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Reportedly working well at home, he looks worth chancing here.
1:50 Unibet Horserace Betting Operator Of The Year Handicap Chase
Class 2, 1m7½f
Seven go to post in a competitive contest for the speedy chasers, with three of the field already boasting a win over the course and distance to their name. That proven ability to handle conditions counts for plenty around Sandown, and Corrigeen Rock, Grey Diamond and Frero Banbou may be the three to focus on.
The form of Grey Diamond’s third last time out at Cheltenham is working out well, but the fact that he is zero from five in chase events on soft or worse going is just enough to put us off. Corrigeen Rock makes more appeal, but is also unproven on soft going, and is passed over in favour of the rock-solid Frero Banbou. Venetia Williams charge is a three-time winner in gruelling conditions and is taken to grind it out late under Charlie Deutsch.
2:05 Virgin Bet Fives Handicap Chase
Class 3, 1m7½f
Another intriguing small-field affair sees seven go to post over the minimum trip at Wincanton. Just about the most interesting runner in the field is the five-year-old Interne De Sivola from the yard of Jane Williams, with the horse having hinted at being festival class in his hurdling campaign. He has shown little in two starts over fences but can be expected to fare better taking a big drop in trip.
Hot favourite Desque De L’Isle arrives seeking a hat-trick but could manage no better than fifth in this race 12 months ago and runs off the same mark of 119 here. Ahead of Desque De L’Isle, that day was Another Crick, and the 10 year old gelding returns to defend his crown. Enjoying a similar preparation this time around, he gets into the race three pounds lower than in 2022 and looks fairly priced to enter the winner’s enclosure once again.
2:25 Unibet Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle
Grade 1, 2m
The feature race of the day boasts an illustrious roll of honour, with the brilliant Constitution Hill storming to victory 12 months ago. Whether there is anything close to that class in this year’s field is doubtful, but we do have a field jam-packed with potential.
Authorized Speed arrives seeking a four-timer and looks set to make a bold bid from the front for Gary Moore, but the suspicion is he may be vulnerable to a runner with a greater turn of foot in the closing stages. Arctic Bresil would rate a major threat if making the trip over from Ireland but, with alternative engagements touted for the Henry de Bromhead runner, the one to be on is Tahmuras from the yard of Paul Nicholls. Also looking for a fourth successive win, this one oozed class when quickening clear in the straight to land a Listed event at Haydock last time out and, ominously for his rivals, didn’t look to have hit top gear at the line.
3:00 Unibet Veterans’ Handicap Chase
Class 2, 3m
We have a host of familiar names up next in the final of the popular Veterans Series. Eighteen are set go to post in what is the biggest field of the day on the ITV card and, with several firms paying out each way on the first five or six, this looks like a solid event for an each-way punt.
A trend or two always helps when attempting to whittle down a list of runners such as this, and it may be worth noting that six of the seven winners to date have carried 11st3lb or less on the day. Of those that fit the bill this time around, Saint Xavier makes obvious appeal for Harry Fry having won his qualifying event in good style at Haydock. However, it is last year’s winner, Prime Venture who gets the each-way vote. Arriving on the back of a pulled-up effort to score by nine lengths 12 months ago, he fared better in his prep run this year when fourth at Ffos Las. Running off the same mark as when winning in 2022, he is fancied to go very close.
3:15 Virgin Bet Handicap Hurdle
Class 3, 2m5½f
It may pay to keep things simple in our final race from Wincanton as, on current form, Kim Bailey’s Chianti Classico looks the most likely winner here. A perfect two from two over obstacles, he impressed when forging clear over 2m4½f last time out, giving the strong impression a step up in distance would suit. The fact he has won a point-to-point over three miles further allays any concerns regarding stamina. The going should also suit as his best bumper display came when scoring by 11 lengths in a soft-ground event at Market Rasen. All things considered, an opening handicap mark of 131 looks perfectly fair and he is taken to continue his progression.
3:35 Unibet New And Improved Bet Builder Handicap Hurdle
Class 2, 2m
The finale from Sandown brings down the curtain on the TV racing action in what looks like a cracking handicap for the two-mile hurdlers. Last time out winner Lightly Squeeze, and the unexposed Djelo make the shortlist, but the bet for us is an each-way punt on Olly Murphy’s Dr T J Eckleburg.
Only once outside of the first two in five starts over hurdles, his only disappointing outing came on a quick surface at Ascot, whilst the pick of his efforts came when winning as he liked in a soft ground event at Ludlow. A comeback second at Leicester should tee him up nicely for this and, with significant give underfoot expected, he is fancied to come with a strong run from off the pace and at least make the frame.