The Douvan ‘no show’ is clearly a blow for Sandown and their feature, the Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday.
Nevertheless, no one should be surprised, as Willie Mullins has previous. Antepost punters must learn that lumping on a Mullins contender comes with a serious health risk. The trainer would say that his only loyalty is to the horse and the paying owners. Jump racing fans will be hoping that Douvan returns to his best sooner rather than later, and that a clash with the best two-milers takes place at Cheltenham in March.
The Tingle Creek was already missing one of the most exciting young chasers, in the Nicky Henderson-trained Altior. Stunning at the end of the last campaign when romping to victory in Sandown’s Celebration Chase, he’ll hopefully be back in time to lock horns with Douvan at Prestbury Park.
In the absence of arguably the most exciting pair of two-mile chasers, the money has come for the Colin Tizzard-trained Fox Norton. Impressive winner of the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham on his seasonal return, he has yet to run at Sandown, though did win the Champion Chase at Punchestown in April going right-handed. Robbie Power gave him a fabulous ride that day, bustling the horse along early to ensure the speedier Un De Sceaux didn’t give them the slip. He both outstayed and out-battled the Mullins chaser that day.
Of his six opponents on Saturday I’m struggling to find one that is likely to trouble the favourite. A back to his best Ar Mad may have what it takes to get Fox Norton out of his comfort zone, though Gary Moore’s brittle seven-year-old has only run three times in the past two years. If allowed to bowl along at the head of affairs, he could have plenty of these in trouble, and he did run well to finish fourth in last year’s renewal despite having made a serious error at a crucial stage.
Politologue is the other contender with the potential to improve and become a serious challenger. The six-year-old is trained by Paul Nicholls, who just happens to be the most successful handler in the history of the race. He has nine wins in total, with eight of those coming in the last dozen years. The horse was an impressive winner on his seasonal return, when giving weight and a beating to San Benedeto in the Haldon Gold Cup. I’d expect him to be up the front end with Ar Mad, though whether he can hold off the late rattle of Fox Norton has to be doubtful.
I can’t see beyond the favourite, though Ar Mad at 20s has to worth a punt on finishing in the top two.
The other highlight of Saturday’s action is the Becher Chase at Aintree. The 3m2f trip over the National fences is always a major test for the staying chasers, but with ground described as ‘heavy’ this renewal looks sure to be a war of attrition.
Blaklion is as short as 5/2 in places for Saturday’s race, which seems incredibly mean for a 16-runner handicap of this nature. Nigel Twiston-Davies has had a terrific start to the campaign, and this fella ran a cracker on his seasonal debut when getting close to Bristol De Mai in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby. That performance came on soft ground and I’m convinced he’ll revel in conditions. He thoroughly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when looking the likely winner of the Grand National in April. He looks sure to go close, though is undoubtedly vulnerable to one off a low weight.
Vieux Lion Rouge and The Last Samuri are next best in the betting though I can’t see either beating the favourite. The former won the race last year with the latter third. Pipe’s chaser has gone up 10lbs since that victory and was 40 lengths behind Blaklion at Wetherby last time. The Last Samuri is likely to put-in a solid performance, but I can’t see him winning off top-weight.
As De Mee proved his liking for these unique fences when winning the Grand Sefton a year ago. He’s another that has seen his handicap mark suffer, and I’m far from sure he’ll enjoy the gruelling conditions. He’s talented, but he’s not for me in this ground.
Highland Lodge is not without a chance having won this race in 2015 and finished runner-up last year. He’s now an 11-year-old, though equine pensioners cannot be discounted from this. A 12, 13 and 14-year-old have won in the past seven renewals, and this fella is much better off at the weights with Vieux Lion Rouge this time around. The ground is no concern and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the shake-up.
Kerry Lee’s Goodtoknow will enjoy the test, having performed at his best in challenging conditions. He finished runner-up to One For Arthur in the Betfred Classic at Warwick back in January and then won in desperate ground at Hereford. He failed to see-out the trip in the National, but was prominent for a long way. I think he’ll run well.
Rogue Angel has proved a disappointment since winning the Irish National in 2016, but the nine-year-old has now dropped to a nice handicap mark and could go well. Mouse Morris won the ‘big-one’ with Rule The World and if this fella puts his best foot forward he’s capable of a huge performance. He was down the field in last year’s renewal though is 10lb better off. He led the Grand National for a long way in April before fading late-on. His odds of 18s look fair though not generous.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if Federici goes well from the bottom of the handicap. The eight-year-old is trained by Donald McCain, a man who knows a thing or two about the National course and how to win. Fifth in the Ulster National back in March, there is a slight concern over the ground, but the trip should prove ideal. He ran reasonably well in the Grand Sefton last winter, though would need a lifetime best to win this.
Despite my concerns over the weight he’s set to carry in such testing conditions I think Blaklion will take some beating. He’ll love the ground and a repeat of his run at Wetherby may well be good enough. Goodtoknow looks the main danger and will be my each-way punt.
Best of luck to those having a bet on Saturday.