McGregor provides best value

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For the 41st time since Whitbread came up with the ingenious and revolutionary notion of paying to advertise via a sporting event, the biggest and most raucous crowd of the season will gather at Sandown this afternoon for the National Hunt season's last roll of the dice. Or then again, maybe they will study the field in the morning papers and decide to head off to the garden centre instead, since the latest renewal of the Whitbread Gold Cup may well be the weakest in its long, and generally glorious, history.

It will be one of the smallest too, with just nine runners going to post, and while a similarly reduced field once chased the beer money back in the 60s, there was at least a horse called Arkle to give the racegoers value for money. This year they will have to make do with Barton Bank, who has admittedly finished second in the Gold Cup and won the Martell Cup at Aintree on his last two starts, but remains an ageing and, when it comes to jumping, wholly unreliable character. Beneath him are five runners in the handicap proper, two with an extra 8lb to carry above their long handicap weight, and Tom's Gemini Star, whose very existence was surely something many punters were unaware of until today. He is no less than 43lb wrong at the weights.

A relatively uninspiring contest, then, and yet still one which is mightily difficult to solve. The problem for backers is that a convincing argument can be raised against every horse in the field, from the standard of their jumping (Barton Bank) or lack of stamina (Bishops Hall) to a disappointing recent level of form (Bishops Hall again, Feathered Gal, Yorkshire Gale). Avro Anson, meanwhile, has yet to win a handicap chase of any description and received a kick in the head during the Grand National at Aintree 19 days ago, the memory of which might yet prove to be haunting him this afternoon.

Clearly, this is not a race in which punters looking for value will want to take a short price about anything. An each-way alternative at decent odds is a much better option, and in the circumstances, McGregor The Third (3.30) is the only realistic choice. Gordon Richards's runner is 8lb out of the handicap, and Richard Dunwoody may well put up another pound or so overweight, but he does at least have some good recent form and is a sound jumper who acts on a fast surface and should get the trip.

The card's second chase should fall to Kenmore-Speed (2.50), but it is the two Group Three Flat contests which will do most to bolster the feature event. The Thresher Classic Trial has not been won by a subsequent Derby winner for 11 seasons, but has still featured some useful animals in recent years, most notably Pentire, the winner in 1995, and Glory Of Dancer, second last year and then fourth at Epsom. On paper at least, this year's field could be a very good one, with Benny The Dip, the Royal Lodge winner, one of six very promising animals. John Gosden's colt, who also finished third in the Racing Post Trophy, is the form horse, but his trainer is going through a quiet spell and he may be vulnerable to Silver Patriarch (next best 4.10), one of two runners from John Dunlop's yard.

The Gordon Richards Stakes will also see a firm favourite in Ali-Royal, whose recent win at Newmarket was franked when Wixim, runner-up there, won the Sandown Mile yesterday. Again, though, the value lies elsewhere, and NEEDLE GUN (4.45), whose recent battling second to Tamayez in Dubai was one of the finest performances of his long career, can spring a surprise.

The best race of the weekend, though, is the Prix Ganay at Longchamp tomorrow. Helissio, last year's Arc winner, has spent much of the time since preparing for a crack at the Dubai World Cup which was eventually abandoned at the last moment. The possible lingering effects of that strange preparation offer the best hope of an upset to his rivals, which include Pilsudski, Michael Stoute's Breeders' Cup Turf winner, Strategic Choice (Paul Cole) and Last Second (Sir Mark Prescott).

n For security reasons the car park at Sandown today will not be open to the public.