Racing: Flagship to be the leading light on a day of riches

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The Independent Online
The Festival arrives early at Sandown on a day which offers punters a serious alternative to numbers and fruit machines. Greg Wood studies the form.

Amid the backslapping at Coral headquarters as the bookmakers revealed profits of pounds 33m this week, there was a message for racing which offered less cause for celebration.

This pile of cash was not the result of punters jostling their way into Coral shops to bet on the horses, but rather a result of the low-cost, high-margin new arrivals in betting shops like 49s and slot machines. Since bookies pay a levy to racing only on racing turnover, this is not a trend they are likely to disturb. The turf's market share among off- course gamblers, so the bookmakers will tell you, will continue to decline, and since they are doing everything possible to shift punters to betting mediums with much fatter and guaranteed profits, it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On an afternoon like today, though, racing can still stand toe-to-toe against any other attraction. The Sandown card alone is arguably the most attractive weekend jumps fixture this side of Aintree, and what with the Grade Two Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow and two good all-weather races from Wolverhampton, there are nine televised races in the space of two and a half hours.

The Tingle Creek Chase brings together three of the first four home in last year's Queen Mother Champion Chase, and two chasers in Mulligan and Or Royal with the potential to line up for that race next time around. Klairon Davis is expected to set off a warm favourite, but the worry for his supporters must be that he does not find his best form until the spring. There is also a suspicion that, when the ground is not testing and the pace not strong, two miles is a bit sharp for him. Klairon Davis may be vulnerable today, and Viking Flagship (next best 2.30) is an obvious value bet.

Adrian Maguire, David Nicholson's stable jockey, chooses Mulligan, but then, he did that a few weeks ago and Viking Flagship beat him. Mulligan should have improved for that, but Viking Flagship, too, has every right to come on.

The Grade Two Henry VIII Novice Chase - won by Mulligan 12 months ago - is fiercely competitive, with Chief's Song (1.55) only a tentative choice, while the William Hill Handicap Hurdle also appears - at first sight anyway - to defy solution. This is more than just another handicap, with Celtic Shot and, last year, Make A Stand both winning this on the way to the Champion Hurdle.

Grimes, thought capable of making similar improvement, cruised home on his seasonal debut at Leopardstown in October, and is just 7lb higher today. His chance is obvious, but in such a big field, others make more appeal at the prices. NEW INN (nap 3.05) must be the bet at 33-1. He has returned in fine form this season and has the leading young rider Seamus Durack taking 5lb off his back.

Elsewhere, Bells Life (2.15) could be the value in the Rehearsal Chase, while Giventime (1.45) also stands every chance. Centre Stalls would be a certainty for the Wulfrun Stakes at Wolverhampton were it run on grass, but may be worth opposing with Farmost (3.20), proven on Fibresand.

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