Step up to suit Tamarinbleu
Fresh from A New Story's triumph in the cross-country race at Cheltenham, Michael Hourigan sends another of his veteran chasers to Sandown Park in search of glory this afternoon.
Church Island, an 11-year-old that has twice won over fences across the water, is the Patrickswell handler's representative in the Bet365 Gold Cup.
A gallant fourth in the race last year having made most of the running, Adrian Heskin's mount is not without a chance off a very reasonable mark. In 2009 he ran off 136, before finishing second in the Kerry National off 140, and then taking fourth off 144 in the Munster National.
Hourigan may well have been campaigning him since then with another tilt at today's race in mind, and a new mark of 142 compares favourably with Church Island's current Irish rating of 143. When you then factor in Heskin's 7lb claim, last year's Irish Grand National runner-up looks massive each-way value at up to 25/1.
Fancied for the win, however, is another available at the same price. Tamarinbleu, which had Church Island well behind when beaten a head by Deep Purple on his seasonal debut in the Charlie Hall Chase in October, looks the part for David Pipe.
Following that fine effort, Tamarinbleu made little impact in three starts over less than three miles, but he recaptured his form when stepped back up in trip last time. At Doncaster in February, the David Pipe-trained gelding ran subsequent Cheltenham winner Chief Dan George to a length when conceding 6lbs.
Crucially, with a win, three seconds and a third to his name in five of his last six outings over three miles, this first attempt at today's extended trip is expected to suit.
While Tamarinbleu has a 3lb penalty for his Doncaster run, in light of the highs he reached when beating Twist Magic in a Grade One two years ago, the 10-year-old is still racing off a particularly favourable 148.
Pipe also saddles The Package, which ran Chief Dan George so close at Cheltenham before unseating in the Grand National. As a progressive seven-year-old, The Package holds obvious place appeal, but his stable-mate looks better treated on a line through Chief Dan George.
In the earlier Bet365.com Hurdle, Pipe can get off to a good start with Ashkazar. Theoretically, Timmy Murphy's mount is 18lbs wrong with the likely favourite Petit Robin.
If both horses run to their ratings, the Nicky Henderson charge is the one to beat. That said, Ashkazar's current mark is 11lbs below his career-high of last year, and the six-year-old is already a dual course and distance winner.
Having come back to form with a game success under top weight at Cheltenham last week, he comes here in good fettle. In a small field with no other obvious front-runner, Murphy may be able to boss the race.
Sangfroid and Mous Of Men, the last two winners of the Bet365 Handicap Hurdle, both contest this year's renewal again. Off reasonable weights they have their chances, but Wade Farm Billy, on the back of a few solid outings in novice events, is just preferred.
On today's Punchestown programme, it may be worth speculating that Barizan can reverse the form with his Aintree conqueror Orsippus in the Airshow 100 Champion Four-year-old Hurdle. That was the second successive time that Jason Maguire's mount came out with immense credit in defeat, and the drying ground might give him an edge here.
In the ITBA Fillies' Scheme EBF Hurdle, Aura About You sets the standard, while last week's Tramore winner Golden Kite gets the nod in the Tulfarris Hotel & Golf Resort Chase. Nina Carberry's mount remains unexposed off just 10st 1lb.
Best bet: Aura About You