Thursday 18 January 2018

Friend can prove too hot for rivals

What A Friend and Sam Thomas (left) finishing second to Denman at Newbury last season - the pair can go one better today
What A Friend and Sam Thomas (left) finishing second to Denman at Newbury last season - the pair can go one better today
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

Following Little Josh's gallant triumph at Cheltenham last week, Nigel Twiston-Davies goes in search of a second successive Saturday showpiece with Imperial Commander at Haydock this afternoon.

The 2010 Gold Cup hero is as short as 4/6 to make a winning reappearance in the Betfair Chase. Given that this is a horse that has won just three times in nine outings over a three-year period, that kind of offering does not appeal in the slightest.

Today's Grade One is far from one-sided, with three of the other half-a-dozen runners having already claimed six Grade Ones between them. What's more, Imperial Commander's record away from Cheltenham isn't remotely encouraging, with six of his seven career wins coming at Prestbury Park.

In his last six outings elsewhere, the nine-year-old has been beaten. The best of those efforts came when he went under in a memorable clash with Kauto Star here last year, but there are still too many doubts about him to warrant support at long odds-on.

Planet Of Sound, which denied War Of Attrition a glorious swansong in the Punchestown Gold Cup in April, is freely available at 8/1 and is tempting at that. He clearly goes well fresh, having won first time out in two of the last three seasons, he has scope to improve at this level and his trainer Philip Hobbs' team is in fine form.

Nonetheless, it's hard to get away from Paul Nicholls' What A Friend. The Alex Ferguson-owned gelding was lightly campaigned last term, running just three times.

On his reappearance he found only the unstoppable Denman too good in the Hennessy Gold Cup, before graduating to the top level with no-nonsense wins in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown and the totesport Bowl at Aintree. At just seven, he is the youngest in today's field, and there is every chance we have yet to see the best of him.

Most significantly of all may be that Nicholls has opted to come here with What A Friend instead of letting him have another crack off the ageing Denman at Newbury next week, when he would be 1lb better off with last year's winner. With that in mind, Sam Thomas' mount looks by far the most solid option at 100/30.

In the opening two races on the card at the Liverpool venue, Donald McCain and Jason Maguire may be the team to keep on side. Drill Sergeant, which won despite pulling itself up early on under Tony McCoy over course and distance last month, is their representative in the first.

Dunraven Storm, which chased home Cue Card last week, will be a short-priced favourite in this, but that one had a hard race in defeat at Cheltenham, and today's slower conditions may not be in his favour. While Drill Sergeant obviously has his quirks, the fact that he managed to win after what happened last time suggests that he could well be up to taking advantage today if the favourite is any way below par.

McCain and Maguire team up with Tara Royal in the following handicap chase, which looks a cracking contest on paper. Just 17lbs covers all eight runners in the two-miler, but few of them have quite as much potential as this five-year-old.

In three completed starts over fences, Tara Royal has won once and been second twice. When stepped up to a Grade Two at Wincanton last time, he overcame some iffy jumping to chase home a well-fancied favourite. That was a fair effort and, while he will need to fence better in handicap company, a rating of 133 doesn't look harsh.

Further south at Ascot, it is another big day for Nicholls and Noel Fehily, with Master Minded set to reappear in the Amlin Chase. Silviniaco Conti, a novice which tackles a number of senior, but unreliable opponents in the Coral Hurdle, may represent the partnership's best value option at 4/1. Unlike most of his seven rivals, the unbeaten four-year-old is race-fit and in-form.

Best bet: What A Friend

Irish Independent

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