Never has a Sandown Park card taken place in such testing conditions, with the GoingStick reading at a record-low 3.7, but the desperate ground proved no hindrance to Sporting John, whose stamina kicked in as he strode away up the hill to land the feature Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase.
The Philip Hobbs-trained 14-1 chance looked all at sea early on in the two-and-a-half-mile contest and was all but tailed off on the first circuit, but Richard Johnson’s mount, who had been beaten 33 lengths on his seasonal bow at Exeter, gradually warmed to the task and crept into contention at the Railway fences.
Unbeaten over the bigger obstacles going into this was Dan Skelton’s Shan Blue (2-1 joint-favourite), who had been very impressive in three outings, including when beating The Big Breakaway in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton last time out.
When the other joint-favourite Hitman departed at the sixth-last when a close-up third, Harry Skelton’s mount looked the likeliest winner, and had the dogged Paint The Dream struggling in pursuit.
A great leap at the last appeared to give Shan Bleu the momentum, but Johnson’s mount kept responding to pressure and the six-year-old, who had winning point form over three miles in Ireland, wore down his rival to score by three and three-quarter lengths.
Paint The Dream stayed on to be third, a further nine and a half lengths back.
Johnson said: “They have gone a good, strong gallop and he has had only one run over fences at Exeter. He was disappointing there. Before Christmas a lot of the horses were not finishing their races, but owner JP McManus is very good. There is no rush and he said to wait until the horse is right.
“Philip thought he was in good form the last couple of weeks and he’s come here today and proved it. It has taken him a good mile to just get him into that rhythm and start to operate. With the ground, the race has come back to me a bit from the Pond Fence and it worked out really well.
“He is probably a three-miler as such, but with conditions as they are at the moment, that is probably what you need. It is fantastic today and it’s great to get a Grade One winner.”
Plans are fluid for Shan Blue according to his trainer, who felt there were no excuses and the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival is still an option.
Skelton said: “The third horse stays well, so it gives a solid look to the form and there are no excuses. He is in the Mash and handled the ground, of course he has.
“But I think every horse is going to be a bit better on better ground. The ground is what it is. You either want to run on it or you don’t. We’re happy with it. We’ll talk to owner Colm Donlon about Cheltenham. We’ll worry about tomorrow rather than what happens in six weeks. There is always Aintree and that is exactly what we need to talk to Colm about.
“At the end of the day, he is a very good novice chaser and we have the option to go three miles or not.”
Four-time champion jockey Johnson may have conceded defeat in chasing the title this term, yet his experience shone through in testing conditions, as the 43-year-old recorded a 1,067-1 treble, which included the two feature events.
Having landed Scilly Isles with Sporting John and the Grade Two Cotswold Chase with Native River (13-2), he was at his brilliant best making all aboard Deise Aba (17-2) in the Virgin Bet Masters Handicap Chase – securing a double for trainer Hobbs.
Deise Aba, who had been pulled up on his last two starts before Christmas, proved a hugely game winner in conditions that were far from ideal.
With hat-trick-seeking Ask Me Early never travelling and pulled up before six out, the eight-year-old made all to win the race for the second year in succession, fending off the persistent challenge of Coo Star Silvola to score by four and a quarter lengths.
Johnson said: “It is always lovely to get a hat-trick. To be fair, Philip’s horses we not quite firing before Christmas. We won this race last year and we put the cheekpieces on today. He’s a bit one-paced, but he’s a good, strong stayer and it suited him well. The horses are hitting that bit of form again.”
He added: “It is very frustrating not to be up there fighting for the championship, but again, when you have nice horses to ride and work for good people, and are having a lovely time…it beats working for a living!”
Exuberant jumper Moonlighter (13-2) can be a bit hit and miss, as his supporters found to their cost last time when he fell at Newbury.
But he found the ground ideal in bouncing back to land the extended Virgin Bet Handicap Chase, thus booking his ticket for the Grand Annual Chase at Cheltenham next month.
Having survived an early mistake, David Bass gave the Nick Williams-trained eight-year-old his head early on and he revelled in the mud, setting a sensible pace, despite over-jumping at a couple of fences.
Dolos, seeking to win the race for a third year in succession, made good headway and was almost upsides at the Pond fence, but a slight blunder two out meant the momentum was lost and Harry Cobden’s mount struggled to wrest it back up the hill, going down by a length.
Williams was one of the few who felt the conditions would suit his charge and admitted: “He is a pretty scary ride and, if you look at his record, there have been quite a few unseats and issues over the jumps.
“David (Bass) said he was much happier when he got to the front. He settled in front. He just doesn’t like being behind. I was confident of a big run, because the shape of the handicap was very much in our favour.
“At Newbury, when he fell, the ground was so quick, he was going so fast and he just over-jumped. This ground was going to suit him better. Going left-handed would suit him better, so it was always the plan to come here and go to the Grand Annual at the Festival – provided the ground isn’t too fast.”
Jumping is the name of the game and the aptly-named High Up In The Air (11-8 favourite) jumped his rivals into submission in the Virgin Bet Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase in the hands of Joshua Moore, for his father, Gary.
While out of luck with Shan Blue, the Skelton yard is in tremendous form and got on the scoresheet when Alnadam (3-1 favourite) made it three wins in his last five runs with a facile success in the Virgin Bet Warriors Handicap.