Sanctuaire to show Sacre the way home
Sandown's Tingle Creek Chase rarely fails to excite, and today's renewal will be no exception.
A field of seven is due to tackle the two-mile Grade One. In truth, though, this is a match in all but name, as Sprinter Sacre and Sanctuaire stake their claim on the speed-chasing division.
We've been privy to some exceptional two-milers of late, but it is a real treat to have two such flamboyant performers come out of the novice division together.
Sprinter Sacre grabbed the headlines with an explosive victory at Cheltenham in March and he sets a tall standard.
Lest we forget, Cue Card, Menorah and Al Ferof were his victims in the Arkle Trophy, each of which went on to frank the form with aplomb. He followed up stylishly at Aintree, so is a justifiable market leader for the all-conquering Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty pairing.
Like Sprinter Sacre, Sanctuaire is a French-bred six-year-old, but he was slightly less precocious over hurdles, despite winning a Fred Winter at Cheltenham and a Scottish Champion at Ayr. He often looked less than resolute before Paul Nicholls treated him for a breathing problem, and was sensational in three starts over fences last term.
His latter two wins came at Sandown, Nicholls opting to skip Cheltenham. He felt that Prestbury Park might not suit his front-running, bold-jumping style and, with Ruby Walsh due to ride Al Ferof, a decision was made to swerve Sprinter Sacre for the time being.
Sanctuaire's eye-popping rout over today's course and distance in April was testament to the validity of that decision. He beat a field of far more seasoned rivals at will, fencing spectacularly from start to finish in as complete a performance as you could wish to see.
Having earmarked this afternoon's feature as the first of what will be a light campaign for a horse with obvious quirks back in March, Nicholls now pits his flighty charge against the horse he so carefully avoided last season.
While Sanctuaire's preference for blitzing could yet render him a sitting duck, it might also prove his most potent weapon, as there is nothing so hard to catch as a front-running course specialist at a jumping track like Sandown.
Moreover, he still has scope to improve and handles soft ground well. With the assistance of the exquisite Walsh, odds of 9/4 about Sanctuaire delivering Nicholls a remarkable ninth win in this prestigious contest are more than fair given that it is essentially a two-horse affair.
At Aintree, West End Rocker has been popular all week to land back-to-back editions of the Becher Chase for Alan King and Robert Thornton. However, he offers no value at as low as 9/2 in such a competitive handicap over the Grand National fences.
Nicholls' Join Together is another leading contender under Daryl Jacob, but preference is for Aintree regular Big Fella Thanks at around 8/1.
Formerly trained by Nicholls, the 10-year-old has run the tank dry in three Nationals, patently not staying the four-and-a-half-mile trip, despite being bang in contention at the second-last fence each time. Nonetheless, that ability to safely navigate the course is a vital attribute, and today's three-and-a-quarter-mile journey should be within his compass.
On his debut for Tom George at the Liverpool track, Big Fella Thanks unseated Paddy Brennan on the Mildmay course, but he was running nicely at the time and it was just one of those things.
He can make amends now to gain a deserved success around the big course.
Of the four Irish runners on Merseyside, Quito De La Roque appeals as the most likely winner. Colm Murphy's dual Grade One scorer made a satisfactory reappearance when third in the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal last month.
He returns to England now for just the second time in his career, having landed an excellent victory over course and distance at last year's National meeting. In a poorly contested four-runner Listed event, Niall Madden's mount is going to take plenty of stopping.
Best Bet: Quito De La Roque