Exmoor Ranger to cut down field
Last week's Doncaster abandonment might just prove a blessing in disguise for Exmoor Ranger and his connections.
The northern track hopes to race again today and isn't expected to have any difficulty doing so, but Victor Dartnell now sends his eight-year-old, an intended runner in the Sky Bet Chase a week ago, to Sandown.
The Totesport Masters Handicap Chase looks a far less competitive race than the Sky Bet Chase would have been. Of Exmoor Ranger's 12 opponents, a high percentage are well exposed and at the veteran stage of their careers. Apart from the selection, only one other horse, Massasoit, won last time, and that wasn't exactly a resounding triumph.
Granted, Massosoit's profile is promising. He is a novice from the all-powerful Paul Nicholls yard with proven ability, but the fact remains that he was unconvincing to the eye when landing a Fakenham beginners' event. Having struggled with his jumping then, substandard fencing could stall his progression in a handicap now.
Exmoor Ranger, which would have been Davy Russell's only mount at Doncaster, has plenty going for him. Twice a winner as a novice last season, he was still in with a chance when falling three-out in the Jewson Chase at Cheltenham in March.
He subsequently disappointed at Uttoxeter and never threatened on his seasonal reappearance at Wincanton, but justified good support to win at Newbury at the end of November. That Russell was booked for the ride last week would suggest that Dartnall fancied his charge once again, and it's also worth noting that the horse that finished third at Newbury has since won twice.
Having gone up just seven pounds, Exmoor Ranger doesn't look to have been unduly punished, certainly not when you consider the penalty alongside today's ageing opposition. At 5/1 with at least two firms, he represents solid value.
The Totescoop6 Heroes Handicap Hurdle is another interesting handicap on the Esher track's card. Nicky Henderson's in-form stable looks set to have the favourite here in the shape of Erzen, a former John Oxx-trained Flat horse. Having gone up nine pounds for being beaten last time, Richard Killoran's mount one doesn't appeal at cramped odds, despite the fact that he gets on off the minimum weight.
Preference is for Nicky Richards' Merrydown. Generally speaking, northern-based horses are to be avoided in competitive southern handicaps, as the racing is far less competitive in the north, something the handicapper doesn't take into account.
A concession is made in this case, though. After winning at Newcastle last March, Merrydown was beaten eight lengths in a Grade One at Aintree, finishing right on the heels of Karabak and Weapon's Amnesty.
On his last run of the season, he could manage only a well-beaten fifth at Punchestown, arguably not helped by the extremely testing ground. As it is today, the Oscar gelding gets in off 10st, and the suspicion is that, if Karabak or Weapon's Amnesty lined out off his mark, they would be unbeatable. Put in early at around 10/1, the seven-year-old is a fair each-way offer.
Merrydown's partner Timmy Murphy could secure a double in the concluding handicap chase. Having won off 118 early in December, Russian Flag has twice run well to be second off 125, most recently going down by less than two lengths at Doncaster last Friday. He has gone up three pounds for that, but gets in off just 10st 9lb, and Murphy's presence in the saddle is always a plus.
At Naas, Captain Cee Bee will be the main attraction in the BBA Ireland Ltd Novice Chase. There is no doubt that Eddie Harty's horse will be hard to beat, but you couldn't take long odds-on about him in such heavy ground on the back of a fall.
Fosters Cross, who paid for a bad mistake at Leopardstown most recently, may be an alternative for a small stake.
Best bet: Exmoor Ranger