Sandown holds a cracking card on Saturday, weather permitting, with the highlight being the Grade 1 Betfred TV Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase.
It’s a race run over two and a half miles and has gone to some seriously good horses in recent times, including the late and great Oscar Whisky, Captain Conan, Medermit and Punchestowns. Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls have shared seven of the last nine renewals and prior to their dominance Best Mate won for Henrietta Knight in 2001.
The race has a pretty dismal record as a ‘prep’ for the Cheltenham Festival. Medermit followed his win here with a fourth in the Arkle and For Non Stop went one better in the Jewson. Often winners of this head for the JLT (formerly Jewson) though this is by no means a given.
Henderson has entered Josses Hill for this year’s race, but it seems certain that he will be absent with his trainer looking for a more suitable event over the minimum trip. Paul Nicholls looks set to run Irish Saint who was an impressive winner last time at Ascot. Prior to that run he had met with defeat at Sandown over two miles in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase. This trip and ground conditions look sure to suit and he should run a huge race.
The Hobbs stable have had a terrific winter and they will be represented by Champagne West. He was no match Ptit Zig last time at Cheltenham though that horse is close-on favourite for the JLT. Thought likely to be aimed at the RSA in March this son of Westerner is not short of speed and is proven on testing ground. There seems little to choose between him and the Ditcheat contender.
Grumeti could run in this but is also entered in the earlier handicap chase over two miles. In his Weekender column King hinted that he would prefer a crack at this to see how his horse coped with the step-up in trip. It would also represent a decent leap in class if he was to take up the entry. Much could depend on just how testing the ground is come Saturday.
Nigel Twiston-Davies looks set to send Splash Of Ginge into battle. Soundly thrashed by Champagne West back in November, he was giving plenty of weight away on that occasion and certainly looks to have improved since. Impressive at Cheltenham last time this does however look a tougher assignment, and the result will tell if he is to head down the handicap route for the festival, or compete in a strong looking JLT.
There’s a chance that Willie Mullins could send over a raiding party as he has three entered for the race. Either of his mares would not be out of place in this. Adriana Des Mottes beat Rule The World two starts back and Gitane De Berlais put in a devastating display against her own sex at Limerick in December. She is yet another potential star owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.
Hopefully the majority of entrants will arrive at the track, in what could be a very competitive and informative race.
It could be another fruitful day for the Munir-Souede partnership with one of their top juveniles likely to run on the card. Bristol De Mai was sensational at Chepstow in the Future Champions Finale Hurdle and he’ll take some beating if he takes on his fellow four-year-olds here. With ground likely to be ideal another French import Pain Au Chocolat could be his main rival, though it’s hard to imagine any landing a blow.
He is however also entered in the Contenders Hurdle which would be an all more difficult proposition against the likes of Garde La Victoire and Sign Of A Victory. Promising novice Jollyallan is also an eye-catching entry as he builds towards a tilt at the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in March. This would be a tough ask for Harry Fry’s charge as he would only be in receipt of 2lbs from his more experienced rivals in this listed contest. Should he run well in this, we would surely say goodbye to 20/1 for the festival opener.
With further quality racing at Wetherby, a Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las and terrific action from Musselburgh on Sunday, fingers are crossed that the weather relents and all meetings go ahead.