Hold Fast to expose rivals' weaknesses
Fresh from a high-profile coup with Champion Court at Cheltenham last weekend, the burgeoning Martin Keighley-Alain Cawley axis is again to the fore at Sandown today.
The partnership is represented by a hat-trick-seeking All For Free in the Esher card's most competitive betting heat, the 32Red Handicap Chase. Successful in its first two handicaps, All For Free is as low as 4/1 market leader for the two-mile contest.
At those kind of odds, he offers little value. Up seven pounds for his most recent win, he has now risen a stone in the handicap in less than a month, yet still gets in here off just 10st 1lb, which highlights how much of a step up in class this is going to be.
Tanks For That, Dave's Dream and Rileyev all come here having contested the same race at Cheltenham a month ago. Rileyev, Venetia Williams' seven-year-old, was only chinned on the line that day but, with 19 chasing runs under his belt already, doesn't come across as the sort to excel off a five-pound higher mark now.
Nicky Henderson's duo Tanks For That and Dave's Dream both exited when still in contention four-out at Cheltenham. Of the two, Tanks For That has more appeal, but this won't be easy off top-weight, so the Ruby Walsh-ridden Hold Fast gets the nod.
A lightly raced Graham Wylie-owned eight-year-old, Hold Fast is by some way the most unexposed runner in the nine-strong field. In three outings as a novice last term he showed distinct promise, beating Henderson's subsequent Punchestown scorer Bellvano at Southwell on his second start this time 12 months ago.
On his final run as a novice at Aintree in April, he exited too early to say how he might have fared, but caught the eye with a cracking handicap debut to be fourth to Rileyev on his first turn for Nicholls at Newbury in November.
Surprisingly, Hold Fast has since been dropped a pound for that, leaving him no less than 12 pounds better off with Rileyev here. Off a fair racing weight of 11st, and on just his ninth career outing, he looks overpriced at up to 11/2.
In the Tolworth Hurdle, Nicholls and Walsh team up with the Ladbroke Hurdle fourth Prospect Wells. Having run Jessica Harrington's Steps To Freedom close at Cheltenham previously, this fellow could well prove a class apart in the Grade One.
Nonetheless, he hardly strikes as invincible, and Philip Hobbs' Colour Squadron might just have his measure. A 14-length bumper winner on his racecourse bow at Chepstow in October, the Old Vic gelding went on to find only Jonjo O'Neill's It's A Gimme too strong in a decent maiden hurdle at Newbury next time.
When he returned to the Berkshire venue last month, Colour Squadron and Montbazon drew clear of the rest, with Hobbs' six-year-old finding plenty to prevail.
On a line through Steps To Freedom, which Montbazon was second to at Aintree in April, the improving Colour Squadron ought to give the favourite a tough time.
In the three-mile handicap chase that follows, Master Of The Hall bids to supplement what was an excellent reappearance triumph at Aintree in December.
Nicky Henderson's eight-year-old came home with 16 lengths to spare over Tamarinbleu on that occasion, form that reads well following the latter's recent Haydock success.
However, Wymott is preferred. Pulled up in bad ground at Haydock, Don McCain's charge will go very close if he reproduces the form of his Hennessy Gold Cup sixth.
At Wincanton, Philip Hobbs' Rougham is fancied in the handicap chase. Placed on its last three completed starts, Richard Johnson's mount runs well at the Somerset track.
Best Bet: Hold Fast