Intriguing Gordon Richards Stakes in store at Sandown

Dante one-two Thunderous and Highest Ground renew rivalry in the bet365 Gordon Richards Stakes at Sandown on Friday.

Usually one of the key trials for the Derby at Epsom, last season’s Dante Stakes was not run until early July due to the outbreak of coronavirus in the spring.

The York feature nevertheless threw up a stirring finish, with the Mark Johnston-trained Thunderous getting the better of Sir Michael Stoute’s odds-on favourite Highest Ground by a neck.

Thunderous will make his first competitive appearance since that triumph in the Group Three contest.

Charlie Johnston, assistant to his father, said: “We’re really looking forward to getting him back out.

“Obviously he’s a horse who still has a huge amount of potential and we’ve only managed to get to the track with him five times in his first two seasons, so we’re just pleased to be back and looking forward to it really.

“We’re 100 per cent happy in terms of the injuries – there’s no concerns there whatsoever. He’s been back in full work since before Christmas and I would fully expect him to improve for the run.

“He’s not run any further than the Dante trip at this stage, so we thought this ticks a lot of boxes as a comeback race and then we can learn a bit from this and hopefully build and go forward to even bigger and better things down the line.”

Highest Ground remains a colt of potential
Highest Ground remains a colt of potential (Steve Davies/PA)

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Highest Ground was impressive in winning his first two starts, before coming up narrowly short in his hat-trick bid on the Knavesmire last summer.

The Frankel colt subsequently disappointed on his final start of 2020 in the Darley Stakes at Newmarket, but connections feel rain-softened ground was to blame for that below-par performance.

Alan Cooper, racing manager for owners the Niarchos family, said: “It’s very exciting to get him back on the track. He’s wintered very well and has been pleasing Sir Michael and Ryan (Moore).

“We felt he didn’t handle the soft ground at all at Newmarket the last time he ran. The weather forecast is good, so we should have perfect ground on Friday.

“It’s his first run for a long time and we’ll see what happens. Hopefully he’ll run a very good race.

“He’s a lightly-raced horse who missed part of last year. It’s a very nice race to start off the season in, so let’s hope it’s a nice introduction to get his season going.”

The father-son team of John and Thady Gosden is represented by Waldkonig – a half-brother to Arc winner Waldgeist.

Runner-up to Highest Ground at Haydock last summer, the son of Kingman made a successful return from 10 months off the track when landing a Pontefract handicap on his recent reappearance.

Thady Gosden said: “It was good to get him off to a good start this season at Pontefract as it can be a difficult track to handle. It was good to get his career back on track and give him some confidence.

“We have always thought plenty of him as he is a half-brother to an Arc winner by Kingman, so he has got the right sort of pedigree and hopefully things will start coming right on track for him.

“He was always a horse we hoped would improve from three to four, but at the same time it was a bit of a frustrating season last year as things didn’t go to plan – hopefully this year they will.

“This is a completely different challenge to the one at Pontefract and though it is a bit of a task, he is doing well at home.”

Hukum is an interesting contender for trainer Owen Burrows and late owner Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Shadwell operation.

Hukum winning the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury
Hukum winning the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Last season’s Geoffrey Freer Stakes winner drops half a mile in trip on his first start since finishing a creditable fifth in the St Leger at Doncaster in September.

Shadwell racing manager, Angus Gold, said: “He’s been in good form at home and was obviously a progressive horse last year. He always looked like he’d be a better four-year-old, so let’s hope that’s correct.

“I know Owen and his team have been very happy with the horse and I would have thought coming back in trip is in his favour, to be honest – I don’t think he’s an out-and-out stayer.

Extra Elusive is the mount of Hollie Doyle
Extra Elusive is the mount of Hollie Doyle (Tim Goode/PA)

“He’s got enough speed to be a mile and a half horse certainly, and there was this question mark over whether he’d stay the Leger trip.

“I don’t think it will be trip that beats him.”

Roger Charlton’s Extra Elusive returns to turf action after finishing well beaten but on dirt in February’s Saudi Cup.

Desert Encounter (Simcock) and Winter Reprise (David Menuisier) are the other hopefuls.

Meade puts Lone Eagle on Classic trial

Lone Eagle puts his Cazoo Derby credentials on the line in the bet365 Classic Trial at Sandown on Friday.

Trainer Martyn Meade believes this Group Three contest over a mile and a quarter will reveal whether the Galileo colt justifies being aimed at the premier Classic at Epsom.

Lone Eagle progressed through the ranks as a juvenile, winning the last three of his four races, culminating in the Group Three Zetland Stakes at Newmarket.

“He improved all the time last year and did everything we asked of him. He is totally laid-back at home,” said Meade.

“He is a horse that never shows anything at home, but just gives his all on the racecourse.

“He coped with Sandown well first time out there when he was a bit unlucky, so hopefully he can go one better there this time.

“After the race on Friday it will tell us where we are and whether we need to work him on our Derby gallop at home, but so far he is going the right way.

“I think he is pretty versatile ground-wise and I don’t think he is ground dependent as far as I can ascertain, both from what we have seen at home or on the race track.”

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It is a similar scenario for Charlie Appleby, who is looking forward to testing the qualifications of Yibir and Adayar.

“It’s a nice draw for Yibir (stall six). He’s done well through the winter and progressed with each run as a two-year-old, ultimately winning the Haynes Hanson and Clark Conditions Stakes at Newbury – form which got a nice boost at the start of the season,” he said.

“His preparation has gone well and we feel he’s hopefully one of our nicer middle-distance horses, so we’re expecting a nice run from him.

“It was a very pleasing victory for Adayar at Nottingham on his second start and he’s done well through the winter.

Yibir is one of two runners for Charlie Appleby
Yibir is one of two runners for Charlie Appleby (Tim Goode/PA)

“He’s drawn down in stall one, which isn’t ideal, but it all depends on the pace angles really.

“We’re hopeful they’re two nice middle-distance horses that can start their three-year-old careers off and we’ll see where we’re pitching them in the first half of the season after Friday.”

Etonian returns to the scene of his two victories as he tries to return to winning ways after finishing down the field behind St Mark’s Basilica in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket in October.

Trainer Richard Hannon feels the step up in distance will suit the son of Olympic Glory.

“He’s in good form, he loves that track and we’ve been very happy with him over the winter,” said Hannon.

“He’s won twice there and hopefully he can do the business again, but it’s a step up again.

“In his work he looks like he wants this trip, which is a good thing.”

Belloccio takes a perfect record to the Esher track with two wins, including a Listed success at Toulouse.

Trainer David Menuisier is hoping this race will be a platform for the rest of the season.

“He’s in good form – obviously that will be his first run of the season so he’s likely to need it like the rest of my horses, but physically and mentally he’s in a good place,” said Menuisier.

“He’s unbeaten in two starts and both races have worked out really well, so we’re really hopeful that he can show a very good level of ability and let’s hope that Friday will be a stepping stone to something better down the line.”

Aidan O’Brien tests the water by sending Cork winner Sir Lucan, while Hugo Palmer saddles Irish Legend winner of his two starts to date in what looks a fascinating contest.

Palace Pier preps for Lockinge date with Sandown outing

Palace Pier is the star attraction in the bet365 Mile at Sandown on Friday.

A dual winner at the Esher venue as a juvenile, the Kingman colt made his mark at the highest level last season with Group One victories in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville.

He met with defeat for the first time when only third behind French ace The Revenant on his final start of 2020 in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, but will be widely expected to make a successful return to action for the father-son team of John and Thady Gosden.

Thady Gosden said: “The plan was to go straight to the Lockinge (at Newbury), but we have decided to give Palace Pier a run at Sandown as he seems quite fresh at home.

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“He started life off last season in a handicap at Newcastle and ended up winning two Group Ones, so he did well throughout the season, but he had previously shown some good form as a juvenile.

“He lost a shoe coming out of the gate at Ascot on Champions Day. Although he had won on soft ground, the ground at Ascot was bottomless and it was a bit too deep – finishing third was a credit to him.

“He has been working nicely, he appears to be enjoying himself and seems to have improved from three to four.

“I’m sure there will be some nice three-year-old milers emerge, but hopefully he can be among the best of the older ones.”

Palace Pier’s biggest threat appears to be the Roger Varian-trained Khuzaam.

A gelding operation during the off-season appears to have done the trick for the five-year-old, who was thoroughly impressive on All-Weather Championships Finals Day at Lingfield three weeks ago.

Angus Gold, racing manager for the late Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Shadwell operation, said: “Taking on Palace Pier is certainly no easy task, but it will tell us where we are with the horse.

“He’s gone the right way. We gelded him at the end of last year and he has come out and won well twice.

Khuzaam on his way to victory at Lingfield
Khuzaam on his way to victory at Lingfield (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“We want to see where he fits in by running him on Friday.”

Andrew Balding’s Happy Power, who won in Group Three and Group Two company last term, steps up in distance after finishing ninth in the Qipco British Champions Sprint when last seen.

David Simcock’s Bless Him completes the line-up.

Altior and Put The Kettle on clash at Sandown

Altior will face six rivals as he bids to win the bet365 Celebration Chase for a fourth time at Sandown on Saturday.

Nicky Henderson’s dual Queen Mother Champion Chase hero took the prize in 2017, 2018 and 2019 – but was denied a four-timer 12 months ago as racing was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Altior has just had the three races since that success two years ago and was beaten on his latest start at Kempton in December by Nube Negra.

He missed the Champion Chase at Cheltenham last month with a setback, where the latter, trained by Dan Skelton, was runner-up to the Henry de Bromhead-trained Put The Kettle On.

Aidan Coleman celebrates Cheltenham glory with Put The Kettle On
Aidan Coleman celebrates Cheltenham glory with Put The Kettle On (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Nube Negra heads to Punchestown rather than Sandown, but Put The Kettle on does take her chance, with the line-up completed by Dolos, Greanateen, Ornua and Sceau Royal.

The Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon heads a field of four for the bet365 Oaksey Chase.

This season’s King George VI Chase winner drops back in trip after finishing fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Taking him on are Mister Fisher, Born Survivor and Militarian. Tiger Roll, the two-time Grand National victor, was one of the three horses withdrawn at the 48-hour final declaration stage.

Rachael Blackmore  rides at Sandown on Saturday
Rachael Blackmore rides at Sandown on Saturday (Tim Goode/PA)

The Young Master, winner of the bet365 Gold Cup in 2016, is one of 16 horses declared for the prestigious handicap chase over an extended three and a half miles.

Trainer Neil Mulholland also runs Doing Fine while the weights are headed by Caroline Bailey’s Crosspark.

Among others seeking to land the big pot on the last day of the jumps season are Kim Bailey’s El Presente, the Nicholls-trained Enrilo, Christian Williams’ pair of Cap Du Nord and Kitty’s Light and Irish raider Plan Of Attack from the De Bromhead stable, the mount of Rachael Blackmore.

Palace Pier returns on star-studded Sandown card

Palace Pier is the star attraction on what promises to be a fascinating afternoon at Sandown on Friday.

The Kingman colt was unbeaten in his first five starts for John Gosden, including Group One triumphs in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville last summer.

Palace Pier tasted defeat for the first time when rounding off his campaign with a third placed finish behind French star The Revenant in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in October, but will be a hot favourite to make a successful return under Frankie Dettori.

His three rivals in the Group Two bet365 Mile include the Roger Varian-trained Khuzaam, who ran out an emphatic winner on All-Weather Championships Finals Day at Lingfield three weeks ago.

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The quartet is completed by Andrew Balding’s Happy Power and Bless Him from David Simcock’s yard.

The first of three Pattern races on the card is the Group Three bet365 Gordon Richards Stakes, for which seven horses have been declared.

Gosden, who now trains in partnership with his son Thady, again has a leading contender in the form of Waldkonig. The one-time Classic hope steps up in class after making a winning reappearance in a Pontefract handicap earlier in the month.

Sir Michael Stoute saddles Highest Ground, who beat Waldkonig in a novice event at Haydock last season, before finishing second when odds-on for the rescheduled Dante Stakes at York. He disappointed on his final start of 2020 in the Darley Stakes at Newmarket.

Thunderous after winning the Dante Stakes at York
Thunderous after winning the Dante Stakes at York (Dan Abraham/PA)

Mark Johnston’s Thunderous makes his first appearance since winning the Dante in July, while Hollie Doyle’s mount Extra Elusive – trained by Roger Charlton – returns to turf action after finishing well beaten but on dirt in February’s Saudi Cup.

Desert Encounter (Simcock), Hukum (Owen Burrows) and Winter Reprise (David Menuisier) are the other hopefuls.

Yibir and Adayar give Charlie Appleby a strong hand in the Group Three bet365 Classic Trial.

The Godolphin handler has made a flying start to the season with his three-year-olds and will be hoping one or both of this pair can throw their hat into the ring for the Derby at Epsom in early June.

Yibir is one of two Charlie Appleby-trained runners in the Classic Trial
Yibir is one of two Charlie Appleby-trained runners in the Classic Trial (Megan Ridgewell/PA)

William Buick is aboard Yibir, who won a conditions race at Newbury when last seen in September, with James Doyle taking the ride on runaway Nottingham maiden winner Adayar.

Trawlerman is a third Godolphin representative, trained by the Gosden team.

Martyn Meade will have high hopes for Lone Eagle, who won three of his four starts as a juvenile including the Group Three Zetland Stakes, while Irish hopes are carried by Aidan O’Brien’s Sir Lucan.

Recovery Run (Balding), Etonian (Richard Hannon) and Belloccio (Menuisier) also feature in what should be prove an informative affair.

Clan Des Obeaux to be supplemented for Punchestown

Clan Des Obeaux will run in the Punchestown Gold Cup next week rather than this weekend’s bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown.

The dual King George VI Chase winner, who was third in the latest renewal of the Kempton showpiece, returned to winning ways with a smooth victory at Aintree.

His 26-length triumph in the Betway Bowl was one of three winners on the opening day of the Grand National meeting for his co-owner Sir Alex Ferguson.

Trainer Paul Nicholls had been considering the big end-of-season handicap at the Esher track, where he would have been giving upwards of 12lb to all his rivals.

But the Ditcheat handler tweeted on Tuesday evening: “After discussions with the owners of Clan Des Obeaux we have decided that we are going to supplement him for the Punchestown Gold Cup next Wednesday and run him there and not at @Sandownpark.”

The decision to run in Ireland sets up a clash with Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo, among others.

Altior could clash with Put The Kettle on at Sandown

Queen Mother Champion Chase heroine Put The Kettle On is among Altior’s potential rivals in the bet365 Celebration Chase at Sandown.

Having missed out on bidding for a hat-trick in the Champion Chase for the second year in succession following a late setback, Nicky Henderson’s Altior looks set to round off his campaign by bidding for a fourth win in the final Grade One of the season on Saturday.

The 11-year-old might not have things all his own way, however, with Henry de Bromhead’s mare Put The Kettle On set to be in opposition.

Aidan Coleman celebrates at Cheltenham with Put The Kettle On
Aidan Coleman celebrates at Cheltenham with Put The Kettle On (David Davies/Jockey Club)

The Stowaway mare claimed her second Festival success in the Champion Chase last month, following on from her victory in the Arkle Trophy 12 months earlier.

De Bromhead could also saddle Ornua, while Paul Nicholls has a couple of hopefuls in Dolos and Greaneteen.

Another leading contender is Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra, who inflicted a shock defeat on Altior in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton earlier in the season, before finishing second to Put The Kettle On at Cheltenham.

Gary Moore’s Editeur Du Gite, Ann Hamilton’s stable star Nuts Well and Sceau Royal from Alan King’s yard also feature.

Frodon and Tiger Roll could lock horns in the Grade Two bet365 Oaksey Chase.

Tiger Roll could be seen at Sandown on Saturday
Tiger Roll could be seen at Sandown on Saturday (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Winner of the King George at Kempton, the Nicholls-trained Frodon was last seen finishing an honourable fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while Tiger Roll was fourth on his latest outing in Aintree’s Betway Bowl.

Grade Two honours are also up for grabs in the bet365 Hurdle, in which Goshen is the headline act.

The five-year-old hung his chance away in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last month and connections will be hoping he can bounce back to his best on his return to a right-handed track.

He could be taken on by the last two winners of the race in Call Me Lord and Younevercall, among others.

Clan Des Obeaux still in Sandown contention

Clan Des Obeaux heads 20 horses confirmed for the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown on Saturday.

The dual King George hero was last seen bouncing back to winning ways in the Betway Bowl at Aintree earlier this month – one of three winners on the card for co-owner Sir Alex Ferguson.

In the immediate aftermath of that Grade One victory, trainer Paul Nicholls raised the possibility of the nine-year-old contesting the traditional end-of-season highlight.

Should he take his chance, Clan Des Obeaux will carry 11st 12lb and concede upwards of 12lb to his rivals, including stablemates Soldier Of Love and Enrilo.

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Welsh trainer Christian Williams has a couple of contenders for the three-mile-five-furlong contest in Kitty’s Light and Cap Du Nord, while Neil Mulholland is set to saddle both The Young Master and Doing Fine.

Williams said of his pair: “The plan is to run the two of them.

“I’m not sure if Clan Des Obeaux will run or not. Paul does like to run them, but it’s a question of whether he’ll run him on that ground.

“It probably won’t make much difference to us if he runs or not. If he does we’ll be slightly out of the weights, which isn’t ideal, but Kitty’s Light isn’t over-big, so if he carries 10st it wouldn’t hurt.

“If Clan Des Obeaux does come out, then he’ll nudge up in the weights, but I wouldn’t be too worried either way.”

The Young Master won the race in 2016 and was second when the race was last run two years ago, while Doing Fine also has winning form over the course and distance.

Mulholland said: “The plan is to run both horses, all going well.

“It’s five years since The Young Master won it, but he’s still going strong and is as fit as we can get him.

The Young Master (left) on his way to winning the 2016 Bet365 Gold Cup
The Young Master (left) on his way to winning the 2016 Bet365 Gold Cup (Julian Herbert/PA)

“He hasn’t had a run for a while (since August), but he’s had a couple of away-days and this has always been the plan for him.

“Doing Fine won the London National at Sandown earlier in the season and likes it around there – he’s run well in this race in the past.

“The Young Master is 12 and Doing Fine is 13. It’s a pity they’re getting on in age, but it happens to us all!”

Henry de Bromhead’s Plan Of Attack and the Sean Doyle-trained Crosshue Boy could travel from Ireland.

Other hopefuls include Kim Bailey’s El Presente and the Venetia Williams-trained Cepage.

Palace Pier tops Sandown hopefuls

Palace Pier is the star name among eight entries for the bet365 Mile at Sandown.

The four-year-old, who represents John and Thady Gosden, won his first five starts – including the St James’s Palace Stakes and Prix Jacques Le Marois – before meeting with his only defeat to date when third behind The Revenant in the QEII Stakes on Champions Day at Ascot.

Palace Pier boasts a rating of 125, which puts him 9lb ahead of the next best in Friday’s Group Two – Roger Varian’s All-Weather Mile Championships winner Khuzaam and John Quinn’s Safe Voyage, who was last seen at the Breeders’ Cup meeting.

The Group Three bet365 Gordon Richards Stakes has drawn nine possibles on the same card, including the Gosdens’ one-time Classic hope Waldkonig – who returned to winning form at Pontefract this month.

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Dante first and second, Thunderous and Highest Ground, could renew rivalry for Mark Johnston and Sir Michael Stoute respectively – while St Leger fifth Hukum and Saudi Cup also-ran Extra Elusive also feature.

The bet365 Classic Trial is Friday’s other Group Three and has 20 contenders, headed by Zetland Stakes winner Lone Eagle for Martyn Meade.

Trawlerman and Uncle Bryn feature for the Gosden team – while Charlie Appleby has three possibles in nine-length Nottingham winner Adayar, Yibir and Wirko.

David Menuisier is also planning to unleash Belloccio, who is unbeaten in two starts but unlikely to take up his Qipco 2000 Guineas entry next month.

The Sussex trainer said: “He won’t be running in the Guineas – we’ll give him a French Derby trial instead.

“He’s going to Sandown for the Classic Trial, then we might look at a French Derby trial next month or the Dante, if he shows he’s good enough.

“His form last year was good. He won at Salisbury, and the second (Aleas) has won twice since and the third (Mohaafeth) won at Newmarket earlier in the week.

“Then he won a Listed race at Toulouse, and the placed horses there had some nice form too. He’s a nice horse, but I think a mile would be too short for him now, so we’ll move up to 10 furlongs.”

Aidan O’Brien has Hector De Maris and Sir Lucan in the mix, with Joseph O’Brien entering Southern Lights and Isle Of Sark.

Etonian would be a notable contender for Richard Hannon after winning the Solario Stakes at the track last term, while Johnston’s dual all-weather winner Sea The Shells and Hugo Palmer’s Irish Legend are so far unbeaten.

Williams retains faith in Potters Corner

Potters Corner is recovering from his Grand National exertions – and may well be back at Aintree for the Becher Chase next season.

Christian Williams reports his popular stayer slightly “stiff and sore” after eventually pulling up behind Minella Times at Aintree on Saturday, but otherwise none the worse for his experience.

The Glamorgan trainer has big plans for a clutch of other stable stars in what remains of this season – with Kitty’s Light and Cap Du Nord both on course for this month’s bet365 Gold Cup Handicap Chase at Sandown.

Potters Corner, however, has earned a rest. Asked how his Welsh and Midlands National winner is faring after his latest marathon attempt, Williams said: “He’s not too bad. He’s a little bit stiff and sore, but he’s okay.

“We’ll probably leave him now for the season and aim him for the cross-country race (at Cheltenham) and then maybe go back for the Becher Chase.

“The Welsh National-type horses, perhaps that type of race (Grand National) doesn’t suit them (these days).

“Bottomless ground at Chepstow, then Aintree on quicker ground, it’s a different test.”

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He went on: “We’ll put him away now. He hasn’t got masses of mileage – I think he’s only run four times in the last two years.

“We’ve picked out races for him a little bit, so we hope there’s a little bit left in him.

“But he’s been such a great horse for the yard and the owners – we’ll run him in the cross-country, then the Becher, and take a view from there what route we go down, whether to carry on running or we should retire him.”

Kitty’s Light is six years Potters Corner’s junior – and a remarkable example of how horses can defy expectations.

Williams bought the Flat-bred cheaply, has seen him win four of six chases over ever increasing distances in his first season over fences – and is ready to set him his most exacting test yet in Sandown’s big handicap.

He said: “We’re looking forward to Kitty – we’ve had the Sandown race in the back of our mind since he finished third in the Badger Beer (at Wincanton) last year.

“That’s been his main aim for a long time, so it’s all systems go.

“We popped the tongue tie on him at Kelso, and found a little bit of improvement with that as well.

“He’ll be relatively fresh going into the race, and we hope the trip will suit him.

“We think the track, with the nice uphill finish, will suit him.”

Kitty’s Light and Jack Tudor (right) make ground en route to victory at Warwick
Kitty’s Light and Jack Tudor (right) make ground en route to victory at Warwick (David Davies/PA)

Kitty’s Light will be joined by Cap Du Nord, winner of a Newbury handicap and third in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster this season.

“Cap Du Nord will go for Sandown as well,” added Williams.

“He’s got a good profile, just had a blip last time when he pulled up over hurdles – like a lot of those chasers too.

“With his profile before that, we’ll be looking forward to running him.

“He’ll be no back number. We hope he’ll turn into one of those good staying chasers as well.”

Fry eyes bet365 Gold Cup with Ask Me Early

Harry Fry has pencilled in the bet365 Gold Cup as an end-of-season target for recent Uttoxeter winner Ask Me Early, as long as the ground is suitable.

The seven-year-old bounced back from a disappointing effort at Sandown to run out a cosy two-and-a-quarter-length winner on Midlands National day, and his trainer is now eyeing a return to Esher on the last day of the campaign.

He said: “He is in the Scottish National, but it is unlikely he will run there – and the preference at this stage would be the bet365 Gold Cup.

“His plans very much depend on the ground conditions, because his form has all been on slower ground, but we thought at this stage to give him this option.

“He was never comfortable from the word go on his previous start at Sandown, but Sean Bowen said he wasn’t happy going to post – and you could see early on he wasn’t travelling like he usually does.

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“He has come out of the Uttoxeter race in really good order. This would be a good race to go for, because we have some good targets in mind as a second season chaser next season. We always thought he was a chaser and out-and-out, three-mile-plus stayer.

“Up until his Sandown run I was training him for the Midlands National. On the back of Sandown we decided not to aim quite that high, but the novice handicap chase on the same card was a nice stepping stone – and he came through that well.

“I think he is a proper National horse next season, certainly a Welsh National type and potentially one for the Grand National.”

Ask Me Early is one of 66 entries for the three-mile-five-furlong feature – with other notable contenders at this stage including the Randox Grand National favourite Cloth Cap, multiple Grade One winner Bristol De Mai, Cheltenham Festival winner Vintage Clouds and Kitty’s Light, who heads the ante-post market with the sponsor at odds of 10-1.

The David Pipe-trained Ramses De Teillee finished down the field in the Midlands National, where his trainer felt he perhaps did not see out the four-and-a-quarter-mile trip, but his participation would also depend on conditions at Sandown.

Pipe said: “Ramses is only nine, but it feels like he has been around for a long time. He would need softer ground to run. I would say he would be OK if it was good to soft.

“He ran well in the Midlands National, where he probably didn’t quite get the trip. But he has come out well, and I was happy to put the entry in the bet365 Gold Cup.

“We will just have to see what the weather is like now. We always thought it would be a tough season. He won well at Cheltenham (in November), though, and ran well in defeat in France (first time out). He disappointed in the Welsh National – but since then he has run well at Haydock and the Midlands National.

“A horse like him is in the grip of the handicapper at the moment, but he has come down 2lb for his latest run. With his rating, it makes life a bit harder for him, but he always runs his heart out every time.”

Bet365 has backed the National Hunt finale since 2008, and announced an extension of its sponsorship for a further three years on Wednesday.

The firm also sponsors Sandown’s Classic Trial Day, which is staged 24 hours before the top-class jumps card on April 23.

Bailey outlines Punchestown and Sandown options for Flow

First Flow could be a rare British-trained runner in Ireland this season with Kim Bailey considering Punchestown or Sandown for his Champion Chase sixth.

Bailey is keen to go back right-handed with the Clarence House Chase winner, who was beaten six and a half lengths by Put The Kettle On.

“He will go, if the ground is suitable, for either the Celebration Chase or to Punchestown. He has improved so much this season and seems a bit more versatile with the ground,” said Bailey.

“If the Champion Chase was run at Ascot, he would have won. David (Bass) struggled to steer him around Cheltenham and he really struggled to handle the bends there, but that was always going to be the worry we had.

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“At one point down the back straight it looked as though he was going to be pulled up, so how he has got back to finish where he did in sixth I don’t know, but it was a fantastic effort.”

Having taken his strongest team ever to Cheltenham, Bailey left empty handed, but he was enthused by the performances of Vinndication (sixth) and Younevercall (eighth) in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

Of the former, Bailey said: “If you take all the Irish runners out of the race, he was second to Paisley Park! The problem with him is he jumps most of his hurdles like fences and that has happened as most of his schooling has been over fences, which he will be going back over next season.

“There is nothing to really run him in over fences and I think it would be too tight for him over fences at Aintree. The only other race is the bet365 Gold Cup, but he won’t be going for that, so he will go for the three-mile hurdle at Aintree.”

Vinndication is likely to head to Aintree
Vinndication is likely to head to Aintree (Tim Goode/PA)

Younevercall is to head to for the bet365 Select Hurdle.

Bailey added: “The plan is to go for the Sandown race he won two years ago. He ran a smashing race in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Half-way down the hill we started to get a bit excited.”

Ultima runner-up Happygolucky could run in either a handicap or Grade One over three miles at Aintree, but Imperial Aura, who pulled up in the Ryanair, is finished for the season.

“Unfortunately Imperial Aura broke a blood vessel in the Ryanair and he will now be roughed off for the season,” said Bailey.

“He was out of his comfort zone from the word go, but I think even if he was on song he wouldn’t have won that race as they went so fast. I think we will probably look to step him up in trip to three miles next year.”

Aintree and Sandown options for Indefatigable

Indefatigable is to seek a big-race success at either Aintree or Sandown following a creditable effort in the Grade One Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Trainer Paul Webber will look at running the eight-year-old in the Ryanair Stayers’ Hurdle (Liverpool Hurdle) at Aintree on April 10 or the bet365 Select Hurdle at Sandown on the final day of the jumps’ season, two weeks later.

The Banbury handler believes Indefatigable can landed a graded prize to add to her two Listed successes over hurdles.

Webber was pleased with her run at Cheltenham, where she had taken the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle in 2020, but felt the rain the previous weekend did not help her.

“It was a very good run. It was just that 10 millimetres of rain they had at the weekend didn’t help, it made the ground deader than she would have liked,” he said.

“If it had been better ground she might have gone past Roksana. She was running on at the end.

“She’s come out of it well and she seems great.

“We’ll look at Aintree for the three-mile Liverpool Hurdle, but if that looks too frightening we might leave her for Sandown, a two-mile-five-and-a-half furlong Grade Two, on the last day of the season.

“I’m sure we can win a Grade Two. I just hope we might be able to sneak a Grade One one day. She’s getting there. Improving spring ground would be ideal for her.”

Flirtatious Girl powers home for Sandown Listed gold

Kim Bailey appears to hold a strong hand ahead of next week’s Cheltenham Festival and advertised the yard’s good form when Flirtatious Girl landed a cracking renewal of the Listed British Stallion Studs EBF Mares’ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race.

The going on the Sandown hurdles course was described as soft, heavy in places and was all the more testing after the preceding Imperial Cup.

But Flirtatious Girl, who had been beaten when taking a while to settle at Huntingdon on her second start, looked much more professional this time and sauntered to a two-and-a-quarter-length success over Speech Bubble, with Tweed Skirt a further three and three-quarter lengths back in third.

Bailey said: “She has improved since her last run in December. She is a really good mare and she is so tough.

“I was slightly concerned that the ground might have been too soft for her. She really is unbelievably tough, so to go and do what she did was great. She is not very big, but at the end of the day, she’s done it now.

“She won a Listed race and she’s been placed in Listed company and if she never runs again, she’s worth her weight.

“She is very different to my other winner of the race, Molly’s A Diva (2013), who was a big tank of a horse and as slow as a hearse. This little, tiny thing in comparison is quite quick, but both loved soft ground and hopefully she will go on to better things.”

Bailey’s Festival team is headed by First Flow in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and Vinndication in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle and he added: “I had a really good morning, watching the Cheltenham prospects on the gallops and I’m really looking forward to it.”

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The conditions, testing as they were, got worse ahead of the Listed Paddy’s Rewards Club Novices’ Handicap Chase, which was run in a cloud-burst.

The torrential downpour did not hurt the chances of the mud-loving Farinet (13-2), who got off the mark over fences with a gutsy display to overhaul Up The Straight after both had made blunders late on.

Winning rider Charlie Deutsch said: “After the last time I rode him at Haydock, I thought this lad would stay really well and I think he’d get three miles.

“I wanted it to be a test, but coming into the last, which I missed, the horse in front had stopped a bit. But to be fair to him, he was very tough to be able to pick up again and run to the line like he did. He’s a very good horse.”

The Gary Moore yard have their sights firmly fixed on the future with Hudson de Grugy (4-5 favourite), who took apart a sparse field in the Paddy’s Giving Away £1 Million Today Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.

The four-year-old made light work of his three rivals to come home 17 lengths clear of Global Agreement in the four-runner contest, despite making a complete hash of the third last.

Winning rider Joshua Moore said: “I saw the wood come flying past me three out!

“But he really does keep on galloping and he’s a big, strong horse who has plenty of scope.

“He has not been the most natural hurdler in his early days, but he is getting a lot better and the first time around here (last time) he was a bit novicey and it cost him the race. He does need a galloping track, which suits him very well.

“I would say he is more of a future chaser. A fence would help him to back off a bit. He’s a big strong, horse and next year we will have to feel our way with him and pick our races carefully and keep him in mind for the following season. He wouldn’t want any jar in the ground and would prefer the ground on the soft side of good.”

Richard Johnson rarely comes away from Sandown without having a winner and this card was no exception, as Fortescue (8-1) made the most of the taxing ground to overhaul the front-running Debece and claim the fourth chase win of his career in the ‘From The Horse’s Mouth’ Podcast Handicap Chase.

Johnson said: “If anything, I was almost in top gear around the first circuit. He is one of those horses who benefit from these conditions today. I’m sure, in the future, there will be some nice staying chases to go for.

“There are one or two options for him maybe later in the year, but it largely depends on the ground. Perhaps races like the Welsh National or extremes of trip is where is future lies.”

Five Star Getaway (11-8 favourite) was arguably the most impressive winner of the afternoon, landing the concluding ‘Paddy Power ‘3 Sleeps To Cheltenham’ Handicap Chase in the hands of Nick Schofield.

The seven-year-old, who raced off bottom weight, was always travelling well and his rider was looking over his shoulder after the last on his way to a five-and-a-half-length victory.

Trainer Christian Williams said: “He’d have probably won with 14st on his back today! We have always thought a lot of him.

“We have tried to avoid running in the worst of the ground over the winter, but felt it would pay dividends today. It looks like he’s handled soft ground, but we were not sure.

“He will probably have his last run of the season in the final of this race at Haydock (April 3).”

Langer Dan delivers for Skelton team in Imperial Cup

Langer Dan kicked off what could be an excellent few days for Dan and Harry Skelton when cruising to victory in the Paddy Power Imperial Cup at Sandown.

Once again Dan Skelton proved he is among the best at targeting the big prizes, while his brother Harry is putting up a stern challenge in his quest to be champion jockey.

With the likes of Roksana, Third Time Lucki, Shan Blue, Nube Negra and Allmankind heading to Cheltenham next week, the Skeltons could have the week of their lives and now Langer Dan is as low as 8-1 with Paddy Power for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle – the closing event of the Festival.

His supporters in this race had a brief moment of worry coming out of the back straight when Harry Skelton was short of room and got shuffled to the back of the pack.

However, in a matter of strides he was soon back on the bridle and breezed around the field to challenge Miss Heritage.

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By then ante-post favourite Natural History had cried enough and Langer Dan (5-1) breezed to victory by four lengths from Miss Heritage, with Mack The Man back in third.

Dan Skelton said: “I have got so much admiration for this little horse. Colm (Donlon, owner) bought him last year, as he always likes to have a juvenile.

“When he started this year, we thought he’d be one of those horses who would just have a juvenile season. But he is a credit to himself. He’s so tough and we took the pressure off him after the autumn and he has thrived.

“He’s tiny, but he has a great attitude and he’s all heart. He won a Listed race as a juvenile and we bought him as a foal and I said to Colm one day when he was trotting round as a three-year-old, ‘I think we should give you your money back, because he hasn’t grown’.

“But it is not the size of the horse, it is the size of the heart and he is all heart.

“His chances of getting in the Martin Pipe are nil, but if that nil becomes something, he’ll run. And whatever price he is, then he is what he is and his chance will be what it will be. It is hard to turn around quickly at this time of year, but given the prestige, he’ll have to have a go if he gets in.”

He added: “He is a magic little horse and he deserved it. He is tough competitor. He ran really well in last year’s Boodles and actually, funnily enough, that is our first winner over hurdles at Sandown.

“I’ve never had a winner on the hurdles track. He made a good jump two out after he had been shuffled back, which put him in a good position. He doesn’t like to be produced too soon and he needs to do as little as possible in the race. If you put him in the race too soon, he does too much.

“Maybe it is not the strongest Imperial Cup, but you can only beat what is put in front of you.

“I would like to think we will go to Aintree, but he is a horse who thrives with not having pressure. He had all that pressure last year and handled it well, but this year we have taken that pressure off him and he’s thrived because of it.

“Let’s see what the ground is like. He is only five and hopefully we have plenty of time with this horse.

“If everything is OK, we’ll run on Friday with him and we’ll consider Aintree. But at the end of the day he has won a big race today, so we will celebrate that.”