With the Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins withdrawing all of his original entries, just four have been declared for the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown today and, in a winter when small fields have been of particular concern, nobody will pretend that this is anything but disappointing.
One of the four, however, is L’Ami Serge, rated the best novice hurdler in Britain, while Jolly’s Cracked It, unbeaten over hurdles is another who may be bound for the top – both are being aimed at the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
The tough front-runner Shelford will ensure a proper test, which should, on paper, make it fairly straightforward for L’Ami Serge, who has much the best form, but there is probably a lot more to come from Jolly’s Cracked It (2.25 Sandown), who is worth chancing at the likely prices (9-2 as opposed to 1-2 on the early shows).
Harry Fry, unsurprisingly for a trainer in such form, is upbeat about Jolly’s Cracked It: “This has been the plan since his last win at Ascot,” he said yesterday. “And he’ll love the rain that’s forecast.”
On this card in 2013, William’s Wishes made it five wins from five starts over fences and it seemed the sky was the limit, but this is a fragile horse and he was able to run just once more over the best part of the next two years.
But an entry alongside Sprinter Sacre in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in a fortnight, suggests his trainer, Evan Williams, has not given up on the big-time yet and certainly more than just a spark has been detected in two recent outings, especially last time when William’s Wishes finished a creditable sixth behind Dodging Bullets in the Grade One Tingle Creek Chase over this afternoon’s course and distance.
The talented but often infuriating Mr Mole is on a bit of a roll, as is Dance Floor King at the bottom of the handicap, but William’s Wishes (1.50 Sandown) will outclass them all if back to his best.
The only horse being seriously backed to beat Annie Power in the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival is John Quinn’s Aurore D’Estruval (12.40 Sandown), but she will need to raise her game further still today to establish her credentials.
It is difficult to evaluate the French form of Bouvreuil (3.00 Sandown) on his English debut, but Paul Nicholls’ juvenile, running in the same colours as Silviniaco Conti, looks another likely winner for the champion trainer and the 17-year-old riding find of the season, Sean Bowen.
Hardly a winter Saturday goes by without Venetia Williams mining a valuable handicap; she was at it again last Saturday when Emperor’s Choice snatched the Welsh Grand National.
Relax, another of her tough, mud-loving staying chasers, will be a popular choice to continue the trend in Sandown’s feature handicap, but this could be another big day for Jamie Bargary after his heroics aboard Splash Of Ginge at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Bargary again deputises for the injured Ryan Hatch, this time on the recent Lingfield winner Count Guido Deiro (3.35 Sandown), less exposed than most of his rivals and the type his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, excels with.
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