Walkon's curve can keep rising
There will hardly be a better handicap hurdle run all year than this afternoon's Totesport Trophy at Newbury.
A field of 23 is set to go to post for the valuable two-miler, which looks an impossibly difficult contest to decipher. Willie Mullins saddles the only two Irish-trained contenders, Final Approach and Sweet My Lord.
Both horses appear hugely progressive. On just his fourth start over flights, Final Approach coasted home in the MCR Hurdle at Leopardstown last month, and it's hard to see him not being involved in the shake-up.
Sweet My Lord has had one more hurdling start, winning two of three completed outings, including when beating Wilde Wit Pleasure, the MCR fifth, at Limerick in December. The mount of Katie Walsh here, this is Sweet My Lord's handicap debut and it's of note that the English handicapper has, by his standards, been lenient.
Final Approach, which went up 10lbs for his Leopardstown win, gets an additional four pounds, while Sweet My Lord's mark of 132 is just a point higher than he would compete off at home. Given their unexposed profiles and light weights, both are solid place options, but the lack of real soft ground may ultimately count against them.
Preferred for the win is Walkon. One of the best juvenile hurdlers around two seasons ago when he won two Grade Ones, a Grade Two and was second to Zaynar in the Triumph Hurdle, Alan King's charge returned from 21 months off with an absolutely barnstorming run to be second at Ascot last time. On that occasion, he travelled keenly and responded well for pressure to get his head in front after the last, only to be foiled in the dying strides by a late challenge from Tiger O'Toole.
That one reopposes today under a five-pound penalty, but Walkon is surely the horse with the most improvement to come.
Granted, Robert Thornton's partner will need to defy the bounce factor if he is to score, but he is the best horse in the race if he can do so. At up to 8/1, he looks the pick.
The Game Spirit Chase precedes the feature and may represent an opportunity for Sports Line to get off the mark in England. Formerly trained by Willie Mullins, he is another that functions best on testing ground, but he could still have the class for this.
While Sports Line's five rivals all operate at a similar level, he is the one with the most scope for improvement. In four starts last term, he won one, finished second in the Arkle at Leopardstown, before leaving behind a disappointing effort at Cheltenham to finish third to Captain Cee Bee on good ground at Punchestown.
Today's Grade Two is going to be a tight affair, but the small field should suit Sports Line. A free-running type, he will be all the better for his seasonal debut, when fourth at Exeter in the middle of December.
The other graded race on the card is the Aon Chase over three miles. What A Friend is particularly interesting here, having disappointed on his only previous outing this term behind Imperial Commander in November.
Given Paul Nicholls' talents, you can be sure that the 2009 Lexus Chase hero won't be brushed aside so easily today, but Riverside Theatre may still have his measure. Twice a winner around Newbury already, Barry Geraghty's partner should win if he reproduces the form that saw him split Long Run and Kauto Star in the King George.
At home, Joncol remains the horse to beat as he bids for a second successive Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown. With Pandorama, Pride Of Dulcote and Cooldine all missing out for various reasons, the reigning champion's task is less daunting than it might have been.
Best bet: Riverside Theatre