Conan can open up Festival options


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The Independent Online

Captain Conan, likely to be long odds-on following two impressive wins over fences, might appear to have little to fear or prove when lining up for the Betfred Mobile Lotto Challengers Novices' Chase (2.25) against just three rivals at Sandown this afternoon.

But this is still D-day for Nicky Henderson's talented young chaser. In a normal year, Captain Conan's Cheltenham Festival target would probably have been the two-mile Arkle Trophy, but that race is earmarked for the stable's brilliant grey Simonsig, so today's event is effectively a trial for an alternative target, the Jewson Chase.

So Captain Conan is trying two and a half miles for the first time and he is trying it in ground so testing that the card has all week been in danger of being called off completely; instead, Sandown is staging an all-chase card, with the hurdles track unfit to race.

Henderson has never entertained serious doubts that Captain Conan can be at least as effective over this longer distance, while his jockey, Barry Geraghty, was yesterday upbeat about this examination, saying: "I honestly don't see the trip being a problem. I actually think two and a half miles will turn out to be his best trip."

But however confident they appear, connections will be relieved when he has passed this test and if there is a hole in his stamina, his three opponents are all good enough to gallop through it.

This is one of those Saturdays when Geraghty would like to be in two places at once, for just 20 minutes earlier Oscara Dara (2.05) will attempt to overcome top weight in the Welsh Champion Limited Handicap Hurdle at Ffos Las.

Geraghty enjoyed an armchair ride on the late-maturing eight-year-old in a competitive handicap at Kempton last time until almost coming a cropper at the last. Oscara Dara has been raised a stone for that, but is sufficiently highly regarded by Henderson to have earned an entry in the World Hurdle at the Festival and should still be too good for today's opposition, promising though some of them are.

Oscara Dara has to settle for Tony McCoy's services this time and the champion should also be on the mark with Rebecca Curtis's The Bear Trap (3.45), a ridiculously easy winner over this course and distance recently.

The William Hill West Wales National Handicap Chase will be a real old battle in the mud and such as Junior and Cannington Brook are properly equipped for the test. But Donald McCain and his family have always known what it takes to win these slogs and the lightly raced Red Rocco (2.40) can be expected to improve for this step up to three and a half miles.

A few young Cheltenham Festival hopefuls take each other on in the Towton Novices' Chase at Wetherby. Goulanes (3.20), who looked a most progressive hurdler when winning at Cheltenham last time, is the only one in the field without experience over fences, but it is significant that his trainer, David Pipe, has switched him so quickly to the bigger obstacles rather than exploit his improvement over hurdles.

Back at Sandown and two others to bear in mind: Thomas Tate's Kudu Country (1.50) has been knocking on the door of late and is fancied to give Geraghty the perfect start to his important day in the opener, while Nick Gifford's On Trend (3.35), a strong finishing runner-up at Kempton last time, is the one to be on in the three-miler.

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Goulanes (3.20 Wetherby)

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Kudu Country (1.50 Sandown)