Sandown: Afsoun knocks stuffing out of Straw Bear's Champion hopes

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The Independent Online

As far as their personal rivalry goes, the score between Afsoun, winner of the Contenders Hurdle here, and Straw Bear, the runner-up, is now 3-2 in favour of the former. But that is a tiny, almost irrelevant, thumbnail. In the bigger, Champion Hurdle, picture the title of yesterday's race could be viewed as a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. The result caused barely a ripple in the market for the Cheltenham showpiece, certainly not at the sharp end. Even Afsoun's trainer, Nicky Henderson, was ambivalent about his charge's chances in the face of powerful Irish opposition.

"He'll run next month, because there's nowhere else to go," he said of Trevor Hemmings' six-year-old, "but I'm not going to tell you he'll win. And I would not disagree with anyone who said that the Brits are playing for place-money only."

Afsoun has already collected some of that, having finished a creditable third last year, beaten fair and square by Sublimity but only a neck behind Brave Inca. And though attempts since to turn him into a staying hurdler were blown out of the water at Cheltenham last month, his abundant reserves of stamina did come into play yesterday on his return to the minimum trip and brought the reward of his first success for more than a year.

Straw Bear, who started 8-13 on the strength of his Grade One defeat of naughty Harchibald at Kempton in December, and Afsoun were in the air together at the last but the gap between them at the line had widened to three and a half lengths. "Absolutely no excuses," said the beaten favourite's trainer, Nick Gifford. "The better horse won on the day. He outstayed us up the hill."

In the Champion Hurdle market Afsoun and Straw Bear have met in the middle at 20-1, the former cut from 33-1, the latter pushed out from 14-1. The next domestic trial is the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton in 13 days' time, in which Osana, the most likely of the home side to mount a challenge to Sizing Europe, puts his credentials on the line.

Sandown produced the usual Saturday harvest for Paul Nicholls with a hat-trick from novices The Tother One (9-4) and Silverburn (10-11) and Grand National prospect Gungadu (5-2). With stable No 1, Ruby Walsh, deployed at Doncaster, the three provided an opportunity for supersub Sam Thomas.

Silverburn is likely to try to follow in the hoofprints of his celebrated older brother Denman at Cheltenham next month, with the Royal & SunAlliance Chase his target after finally getting off the mark over fences in the day's Grade One. The seven-year-old got a flyer from the gate and barely touched a twig.

Walsh's trip to Doncaster had mixed results. After riding Rippling Ring to an impressive debut win in the opening novices' hurdle, he suffered four consecutive defeats on favourites, including odds-on pair Celestial Halo – made to look slow by Henderson's Sentry Duty – for his own yard and Tidal Bay – touched off by Leslingtaylor in the novices' chase after a blunder at the last – for Howard Johnson.

The £61,970 first prize for the most valuable race staged over jumps at Doncaster, the Handicap Chase, went to Howle Hill, ably rousted by Choc Thornton to catch Lennon and beat him by a neck.