Qaspal to lord it in Imperial Cup
Two horses jump off the page at Sandown this afternoon. In terms of competitiveness, this card rarely fails to live up to its billing as a suitable appetiser to next week's feast at Cheltenham, but Ranjobaie and Qaspal are potentially a cut above their handicap rivals in the two feature events.
Ranjobaie lines out in the opening EBF Paddy Power NH Novices' Handicap Hurdle, a race that sees 18 bid for glory in what is traditionally the most informative race of its type each season. Among others, Jonjo O'Neill, Alan King and Nick Williams are well represented, while Paul Nicholls' Red Harbour looks primed for a place at worst on recent form that ties him in favourably with the smart Menorah.
Another that represents an each-way option is Fabulous Fred. Tremendously consistent, Noel Chance's Beneficial gelding belatedly got off the mark at Fakenham last time, and is an improver that will keep going until the end.
Ranjobaie, however, may prove a class apart. Since finishing second to Menorah on his hurdling debut in November (having won three bumpers in France), Nicky Henderson's five-year-old has had a mixed time. He would have won handily but for falling at the last next time, before then running into Notus De La Tour at Plumpton.
That one now holds favouritism for next week's Fred Winter Hurdle, at least partially on the strength of Ranjobaie's subsequent effort. Turning out at Market Rasen early last month, the Henderson charge began to fulfil its promise by accounting for Bygones Of Brid and Ballybriggan, albeit when in receipt of weight.
The latter went on to win a novice at Doncaster, while Bygones Of Brid progressed to land a Grade Two event at Kelso last Saturday. Today, Ranjobaie has no easy task off 129 on his handicap debut, but he will be aided by a decent seven-pound claimer and is the clear pick on form and promise. At 9/2, he appeals for the win market.
Qaspal is an equally strong fancy in the Paddy Power Imperial Cup. Admittedly, this is an even more competitive handicap, but JP McManus' horse remains massively unexposed.
Second in a Gowran Park bumper in October 2008, Qaspal was off the track until failing to make an impact in three novice hurdles up to the middle of January. In not untypical fashion for one of his owner's representatives, the six-year-old then made light work of the opposition on his handicap debut at Kempton last month.
A week later, unpenalised by the assessor, Qaspal again won in devastating fashion under Tony McCoy at Sandown. He has now been put up a stone, but the suspicion is that the handicapper will have to do a bit more to stop him yet. With just 10st 3lb on his back, Qaspal could turn this into a procession, and punters would be well advised to also seek odds on him doubling up at Cheltenham next week.
The Paddypower.com Handicap Chase sits in between the two showpiece contests, and McManus is likewise fancied to take the spoils here with Fresh Air And Fun. Ostensibly disappointing since taking the same race a year ago, Fresh Air And Fun could be available to back at double figures.
A close inspection of his profile suggests that he is far from a forlorn hope. On his only subsequent outing last season, he ran reasonably when fourth off a seven-pound higher mark. He then struggled in heavy ground on his reappearance in November, before failing to take to the big fences when fifth in the Grand Sefton at Aintree.
Last time, again on soft ground at Ludlow, fencing errors proved his undoing, and he returns here having dropped six pounds to 116, just one more than he won off 12 months ago. Fresh Air And Fun will encounter good ground for the very first time since then, and Richie McLernon's three-pound claim is an added bonus.
Also fancied on the drying ground is Joe Jo Star in the two-mile novice chase. Last season's Swinton Hurdle hero, Timmy Murphy's mount finished second to Long Run at Warwick, and is the clear pick at the weights on hurdle ratings.
Best bet: Qaspal