In brief: Ranger to end season on high
It will be remembered as the year when Ireland's horses ran riot at the Cheltenham Festival. They posted victories in 13 of the 27 races -- and the feast on English soil may not be over.
Michael Hourigan dispatches Church Island to Sandown in search of a repeat victory in the bet365 Gold Cup Chase (3.10), which brings down the curtain on the English jumps season.
Hourigan has kept Church Island fresh for this valuable prize and the gelding completed his preparation with a spin on the Flat at Tipperary nine days ago. He should be perfectly primed, but whether the veteran can give weight to all 17 opponents is another question entirely.
It's worth recalling that Church Island carried a featherweight 10st 5lbs into the winner's circle last year. Opposed by a host of similarly free-running types, his task is mighty, even though he has twice excelled over Sandown's demanding fences. For starters, he must concede 10lbs to progressive novice Balthazar King, which looks sure to make a bold bid on his handicap debut.
It has become de rigueur for novices to demand attention in the build-up to valuable handicaps. There's no way of assessing how they are treated, and while Balthazar King appears on a fair mark, he makes little appeal at 5/1 within the helter-skelter of a competitive chase such as this.
Baby Run, which disputes favouritism with Balthazar King, is another aggressive runner. Although he will almost certainly win the battle for the early lead, he ventures into unknown territory here. However, he finished legless when winning the 2010 Foxhunters' at Cheltenham and must cover an extra three furlongs today. As for Aimigayle, the only other runner quoted at single-figure odds, the fact she ran a shocker on her only previous visit to Sandown makes her hard to entertain with any confidence.
Of greater interest is Gentle Ranger, a lightly raced horse which is finding its form at just the right time. He came into his own in spring last year, when he made amends for a fall at the Cheltenham Festival by winning over today's trip back at Cheltenham in April. After two below-par efforts he showed enough when finishing fourth in the Midlands National most recently to warrant the vote ahead of Meanus Dandy.
The one caveat is Gentle Ranger's style of running. Like Baby Run and Church Island, he enjoys being to the fore. Yet trainer David Pipe, who is among the most astute readers of a race, will surely instruct Johnny Farrelly to exercise some patience aboard the nine-year-old. Conversely, the danger for horses ridden from behind is that a small, select group may break away from the field. If that happens, Gentle Ranger should be among them. The race could easily unfold to his advantage.
king can rule roost for rubY
Ruby Walsh, who partners Meanus Dandy in the big one, is the pivot on which the first three races at Sandown hinges. In each case Walsh (pictured) is aboard likely favourites trained by Paul Nicholls, who has retained his title in the face of Nicky Henderson's strong challenge.
In the bet365 Handicap Hurdle (2.05), it's appropriate that King Of The Night is ridden by the silver fox himself. King Of The Night looks ready to make amends for a fall at the Cheltenham Festival with conditions here to his liking.
In the bet365 Hurdle (1.30), which features four runners, Walsh may struggle to find sufficient cover for Sanctuaire to unleash his potent finishing kick. He is opposed with Clerk's Choice, a noble sixth in the Champion Hurdle and previously winner of a Flat handicap at this venue.
Decent ground is a must for Tataniano, Walsh's mount in the Celebration Chase (2.35) over two miles. Yet while those conditions are virtually assured, Tataniano may struggle to give 4lbs to Oiseau De Nuit, which endorsed his Cheltenham Festival victory with another game effort at Aintree two weeks ago.
moore sights on double ambush
Sandown culminates with the Flat v Jump Jockeys Handicap (5.20), in which the likes of Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson square up to Ryan Moore and Kieren Fallon. However, with the quality of runners failing miserably to match their riders, the race lacks punting appeal.
Moore has two good chances in the preceding races. First up is Music Show, which can ambush some more talented opponents in the bet365 Mile (3.45).
Although Dick Turpin and Cityscape have both posted a higher level of form, the value rests with Music Show. She has won first time up in each of the last two campaigns and Mick Channon has his string in good heart.
On the face of it, Moore's prospects aboard Nouriya are more obscure. The four-year-old brings one of the lowest ratings into the Gordon Richard Stakes (4.20), but that she remains in training sends out a strong message.
Nouriya enhanced her paddocks value with two wins in Listed company last term. And because she won't find many better opportunities, trainer Michael Stoute can be expected to have ripened her at home.