Above: Champion chaser Altior heads a star-studded cast at Sandown on the final day of the 2017/18 jumps season
Sandown Park on Saturday is the venue for the final day of the jumps season in Britain and Nicky Henderson is set to be crowned champion trainer for the fifth time after a stellar campaign that has seen the veteran handler land a sizeable share of top races.
The 67-year-old will saddle the high-class Altior in the Grade 1 bet365 Celebration Chase (3.00), and the recently crowned champion chaser (see video below) will surely prove very hard to beat in the hands of Nico de Boinville, as reflected in his odds of a best priced 2/9 with the race sponsors, bet365. He really is a star turn and it’s hard to imagine him being beaten.
Baron to Rule in Sandown Finale
Probably of more interest to punters looking to sign off the term with a decent priced winner is the ultra-competitive bet365 Gold Cup Handicap Chase (3.35), a race still fondly remembered by older racing fans as the Whitbread Gold Cup. Over the years this three-mile-five-furlong marathon has produced some truly memorable finishes, but none more so than in 1984 when the Queen Mother’s Special Cargo conjured up one of the most amazing finishes seen in a jumps race, grabbing the coveted prize in the very last stride in a blanket finish (see video below).
At this very late stage of the season many horses are past their peak, a fact that may only become obvious once the race gets underway, but one horse who appears to have been trained with this very race in mind is Henderson’s SUGAR BARON, currently a top priced 12/1 with Sun Bets.
The champion trainer-elect has won this race twice before- with Brown Windsor in 1989, and with Hadrian’s Approach in 2014 – and this correspondent strongly suspects that after seeing Sugar Baron fail by just a neck to score over course and distance in December’s London National Handicap Chase, Henderson set his mind to going one better on slightly better ground with the lightly raced Anthony Speelman-owned eight-year-old.
He gave the gelded son of Presenting a three-month break following that effort where he only narrowly failed to peg back the tough veteran Benbens, and on ground far softer than ideal Sugar Baron was always going to struggle at last month’s Cheltenham Festival where he came home 14th behind Missed Approach (re-opposes on Saturday) in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase.
8lb better off with Missed Approach, and with underfoot conditions expected to be substantially more in the favour of Sugar Baron, I fancy Nico de Boinville’s mount to well and truly turn the tables – assuming there isn’t any significant rain to noticeably ease the ground from the current forecast of good. At 12/1 Sugar Baron represents a solid each-way interest in a race where four places apply.
There are a host of dangers to reckon with, of course. Missed Approach and Blaklion who unseated rider at the first in the Grand National two weeks ago are certainly among them, while the likes of the well weighted 2016 winner The Young Master, Carole’s Destrier, and the unexposed Amore Alto are others who are very much respected in what should be a great race.
Ispolini Can Progress Again in Classic Trial
While the 2017/18 jumps season draws to a close on Saturday at Sandown, at the same Esher venue this afternoon there are some fine Flat races scheduled, including the Group 3 bet365 Classic Trial for which nine runners are set to go to post.
Since the likes of Fantastic Light (1999) and Sakhee (2000) won this event there has been no truly outstanding colt come out of this contest, and the likelihood is that it will be more of the same this time round. That’s not to say that Martyn Meade’s Chilean, sixth to Saxon Warrior in last term’s Group 1 Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster and recent winner of the Group 3 Prix la Force at Paris Longchamp (see video below), isn’t a useful performer. He is, but he’s probably at his best on softer ground, so unless there is plenty of rain he looks worth opposing.
With Dante Stakes and Investec Derby entries Sevenna Star (trained by John Gosden) and Charlie Appleby’s Ispolini among his rivals, along with Hunting Horn from the all-powerful Aidan O’Brien yard, and Ed Walker’s interesting Stephenson’s Rocket, this is a tricky contest.
Sevenna Star bolted up by a massive 14 lengths in a recent heavy ground Windsor maiden. He could be anything, and Gosden reportedly feels this is a very progressive colt, but with Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin horses going really well of late, ISPOLINI, a well bred son of Dubawi, might be the one they have to beat.
Charlie Appleby’s 1.2 million guineas purchase is understood to be held in high regard by ‘The Boys in Blue’, and after running very green on debut at Nottingham in November last year he stayed on well close home to finish fourth over the extended mile, hinting at much better things to come. Connections didn’t have to wait along for him to break his maiden tag as he landed a 10 furlong Kempton maiden in good fashion just four weeks later, learning on the job in the hands of William Buick before striding out to beat subsequent winner Glencadam Master with something in hand. Ispolini looks decent value at the 4/1 offered by Coral.
Aidan O’Brien’s team didn’t have the best of times at last week’s Craven Meeting at Newmarket so it will be interesting to see how his Hunting Horn fairs having won a Naas maiden with more in hand than the bare neck margin suggests, while Stephenson’s Rocket is potentially a bigger danger, having lost out by only a length to Gosden’s Crossed Baton – winner of the Derby Trial at Epsom on Wednesday – in a Sandown maiden last September before easily landing the odds at Redcar a month later. He is apparently highly regarded by his capable trainer, Ed Walker.
Written by Paul Alster
Paul Alster has been part of the British and international racing media for more than three decades working as a race commentator, TV/radio presenter, journalist, betting correspondent, SP returner, and form analyst. He’s always sought out overpriced runners in handicap races, a quest that excites him as much now as it did at the start of his career.