Ranger can strike Gold at Sandown
For the second year in a row, Church Island is the sole Irish-trained runner in this afternoon's Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown, a race in which Michael Hourigan's veteran ran out a surprise six-length winner 12 months ago.
In 2009, the 12-year-old put in a solid performance to be fourth in the Grade Three handicap, so he cannot be discounted again off just an 8lb higher mark than he scored off under Adrian Heskin a year ago.
While Church Island is burdened with top weight this time, as Hourigan pointed out during the week, that merely serves to indicate that this isn't the strongest of renewals.
The Limerick handler has trained Church Island specifically for the 3m 5f contest, and it would be no surprise to see Heskin's mount make the frame at up to 20/1 on his favoured good ground. That said, something with a bit less weight to carry is likely to be at an advantage up the trying Sandown hill.
Gentle Ranger, one of two that represent David Pipe, is the horse to take on side. Having run 13 times over fences, Gentle Ranger could hardly be described as unexposed, but this is a race that typically throws up a winner with plenty of experience.
Significantly, everything else appears to be in the selection's favour today also. A son of Presenting, Gentle Ranger has always shown a marked preference for good ground.
On his last two efforts on going officially described as good, he was still in front when tipping up at the fourth-last in the four-miler at Cheltenham last year, before returning there to beat Minella Four Star in April.
When he returned to action this term, Gentle Ranger pulled up twice in soft ground back at Prestbury Park in the autumn, but his only subsequent effort really caught the eye. On that occasion at Uttoxeter, with the ground riding on the slow side of good, he kept going well to be fourth behind Minella Four Star in the Midlands National.
It was a run that promised much, yet the handicapper dropped him 4lb to a 1lb lower mark than he won off a year ago, leaving him on 10st 4lb here. With first-time blinkers applied, Gentle Ranger looks a steal at 12/1 under Johnny Farrelly.
In the preceding Celebration Chase, Tataniano returns for the first time since taking third behind Gauvain and Forpadydeplasterer at Cheltenham in November.
He will likely be a short order under Ruby Walsh on this ground, but French Opera may offer a value alternative at around 11/4.
An impressive winner of the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February, the emphasis on speed at both Cheltenham and Aintree rendered Nicky Henderson's charge vulnerable behind Sizing Europe and Masterminded. With just five rivals, a small field around this slower track might just suit French Opera better.
Walsh, who rides hotpot Sanctuaire in the opener, has another decent spin in the 2m 3f handicap hurdle. King Of The Night, a dual bumper winner, has been progressive over hurdles, scoring easily on his debut at Cheltenham in October.
He subsequently fell short against Cue Card, before bouncing back to form with a novice win at Doncaster in January. On his most recent start, he was running well in the conditional jockeys' race at Cheltenham when he came to grief four out.
Extreme Conviction, the biggest threat, carries 12lb less than King Of The Night, but that includes an 11lb hike for his last win in September. King Of The Night, which was making his handicap debut at Cheltenham, remains unchanged off 138.
Viscount Nelson, Aidan O'Brien's only runner on the mixed programme, is also fancied in the Group Three over 10 furlongs. Third behind Twice Over in the Eclipse over course and distance in July, this represents a drop in class.
Best bet: King Of The Night