Racing: Inca Trail stands in way of Pipe's numbers game

Death and taxes, Martin Pipe and Tony McCoy: the four certainties in life, but even Benjamin Franklin might now be hedging, for this season, only one of the racing bankers is guaranteed to oblige. McCoy will be crowned champion jump jockey this afternoon for the 10th time but the trainer's title, with Pipe going for his 15th and Paul Nicholls trying to avoid the runner-up spot for the seventh consecutive year, is still in the balance.

Death and taxes, Martin Pipe and Tony McCoy: the four certainties in life, but even Benjamin Franklin might now be hedging, for this season, only one of the racing bankers is guaranteed to oblige. McCoy will be crowned champion jump jockey this afternoon for the 10th time but the trainer's title, with Pipe going for his 15th and Paul Nicholls trying to avoid the runner-up spot for the seventh consecutive year, is still in the balance.

The scales are tipped towards Pipe, who takes a narrow lead into today's finale to the season and is, as usual, playing the numbers game in what has been a compelling battle between two fiercely competitive protagonists. He fields 22 horses at Sandown, where there is £270,000 prize-money on offer in the three obstacle contests that open the card, to Nicholls' eight.

The Betfred Gold Cup, with £87,000 to the winner, offers the most valuable prize, but the key contest could be the preceding Celebration Chase, a £100,000 Grade 2 two-miler that will present the extraordinary spectacle of a nine-runner field split between just the two stables. The two best chasers in the country, Azertyuiop for Nicholls and Well Chief for Pipe, ridden by the yards' respective first-choice jockeys, Ruby Walsh and Timmy Murphy, lead the way.

But the deployment of the back-up teams could be crucial; the first prize is £58,000 with the rest running down to sixth place. Star novices Contraband and Locksmith, plus Seebald and Golden Alpha turn out for Pipe, with Le Roi Miguel, Le Duc and Armaturk backing up for Nicholls. The score between Azertyuiop (2.35) and Well Chief is 2-1 in the former's favour and he is taken to extend the sequence.

Pipe saddles seven of the 19 competitors in the marathon feature, all of them - Therealbandit, Murphy's pick Comply Or Die, Stormez, Iris Bleu, Jurancon, Maximize and Zeta's River - carrying the colours of Pond House's mainstay, the champion owner David Johnson. Nicholls relies on a trio, Walsh's choice Inca Trail, Royal Auclair and Whitenzo. On paper this is not entirely a two-yard scrap; also in the mix are a pair, Kelami and Juveigneur, going for the £250,000 bonus offered to any horse who can prevail after winning at Cheltenham, Irish National runner-up Jack High and the progressive Joly Bey, but in practice it may prove to be just that.

One of the delights of the jump season has been watching Ruby Walsh, whose masterclasses have included his victories on Thisthatandtother at Cheltenham, Hedgehunter at Aintree and Inca Trail (3.15) at today's venue seven weeks ago. The Irishman's tact and timing brought the nine-year-old home in front then and today's bigger field and stronger pace should make Plan A, to sit off the pace and finish with a flourish, easier to execute. The course specialist Whitenzo and the Pipe pair, Zeta's River and Iris Bleu, can also be considered.

The head-to-head to the wire between Pipe and Nicholls has diverted some attention from the early skirmishes of the Flat season but the first Classic is now just a week away and top-class older horses are beginning to emerge. One not yet proven in élite company is Stream Of Gold (3.45), but the four-year-old won the Lincoln like a Group horse in a handicap and can confirm his status in the Sandown Mile. He can instigate a double for the Sir Michael Stoute yard; the infinitely exciting prospect Quiff (4.20), heroine of last year's Yorkshire Oaks and runner-up in the St Leger, can cope with her penalty and the drop in trip.

Richard Edmondson

Nap: Norse Dancer (Sandown Park 3.45)

NB: Kelami (Sandown Park 3.15)

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