Nicholls ready to pull rank in Tolworth
Who would have bet that one year Paul Nicholls' main threat in the British trainers' championship would be Willie Mullins and Joe Tizzard in the following one?
Mullins, of course, has enough to worry about in Gordon Elliott's form in the home country this term. Tizzard, the farmer-turned-trainer in Dorset, has happened upon three of the best chasers in training, pretty much all at once.
With around £200,000 between them, Nicholls must have the firepower to prevail - yet if Tizzard shuffles the pack astutely at Cheltenham, when Nicholls has precious few well-fancied horses in Grade Ones, the trainer of Thistlecrack will have a chance. Remember, the Timico Gold Cup alone has a £575,000 purse.
Nicholls will be scrapping around the handicap circuit come mid-March, whereas Tizzard could certainly win the Ryanair if Cue Card goes there, with Native River worthy too of his chance at the top level: he has satisfied all initiation protocol by winning two of the toughest handicaps in the land.
And so there is a left-field allure to today's Grade One Tolworth Hurdle on ITV4, with Capitaine (Nicholls) and Finian's Oscar (the pretender) disputing favouritism.
Sandown punters' primary point of debate is the trip. Capitaine is fine at about two miles, whereas the Tizzard steed will probably get three. As such, if Sam Twiston-Davies is apt to dictate on his mount, Capitaine can prevail.
A couple of jumpers which once called Ireland home, Savello and Bright New Dawn, tackle the 32Red Casino Handicap Chase, in which the undoubted class act is Garde Le Victoire. However, he is prone to jumping left and his jockeys are prone to jumping off: he has already fallen twice in two chase outings, including in the JLT.
The seven-participant make-up is irritating but a chance is taken on Ulck Du Lin, which ran better on latest and is back to a mark off which he has a chance. Jack Sherwood's 3lb may be pivotal.
The each-way make-up is more favourable in the 32Red Veterans' Handicap Chase, which has quite a pot considering its ageist restrictions. Dynaste tackling this event, having just turned 11, is a bit like a washed-up one-time top pro heading off to Qatar to become the big fish - and a well-paid one at that.
Rocky Creek, a game winner having been headed at the track in December, may follow up for Nicholls and Sherwood. This horse was twice a scorer at Grade Two level at his best.
British racing's new terrestrial ally holds out until the finale, the handicap hurdle, which is potentially all about Krugermac. Gary Moore once called him the most expensive horse he ever had, "a gorgeous specimen".
Out of a half-sister to Thetotherone, Thisthatandtother and Carlingford Lough, he can make up for lost time on this first run back. Risk is attached but surely he is a better horse than what would be the equivalent of a rating of around 112 in Ireland? On his final Irish start, he was a three-length second to Nambour, which is rated 140 hurdling!
ITV4 takes in three Wincanton offerings. In the Bathwick Tyres Handicap Chase, it may pay to chance Some Buckle once more, despite the Milan gelding's track form not exactly matching his home-work this campaign.
The aforementioned Moore may not know too much about its naming but he trains Bagging Turf, a leading contender in the Yeovil Chase. This mare overcame traffic frustration to score on her handicap debut but preference is for the Tizzard-trained Third Act.
The anomalous handicap hurdle is so because the majority of the riders are conditionals - unusual on a card such as this. One of the pros, Richie McLernon, probably has a good ally in the Mahler-bred Above Board, which gets a tentative nod.