It’s a big Grade 1 weekend over the jumps in both England and Ireland. The latter hosts the John Durkan Memorial at Punchestown on Sunday, while Sandown stages both the Henry VIII Novices’ and the much-anticipated Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday afternoon.
We begin there before moving on to Aintree where the Grand National fences are given an airing and there could be some Gold Cup clues to found too in the Many Clouds Chase.
1.50 Sandown (Henry VIII Novices’ Chase – Grade 1) – MINELLA DRAMA
A fascinating renewal, one in which speed may well play a big part over two miles if the weather and the decent ground both hold up.
The short-priced favourite is Dan Skelton’s Third Time Lucki who is now a perfect two from two over fences following a simple win in the Grade 2 during the November meeting at Cheltenham.
On that form alone he is the rightful favourite and he could prove tough to beat. Before that he made a successful chasing debut when impressive back at Cheltenham in October, but Sandown presents a slightly different challenge for him.
Dan Skelton often has his horses ready to go and so while there should be some natural improvement to come, he may not take the giant leap forward many expect which just may leave the door open.
Sneaking through it could be Donald McCain’s Minella Drama. The excellent Brian Hughes has come south for a good book of rides but is of course primarily at Sandown to ride this one.
After finishing his hurdle career with a second to My Drogo, he took to chasing in brilliant style when winning easily at Uttoxeter at the end of October. I reckon his second run, when a close runner-up to the reopposing War Lord at Carlisle, just came a bit quick for him and he is much better than that.
His overall ability doesn’t look to be too far behind Third Time Lucki, if at all, and he may just have the speed to serve it up to the favourite and put him under pressure. He’s certainly very good value at 6/1 and bigger at the time of writing. Edwardstone has some good form and is also in the reckoning.
2.25 Sandown (Tingle Creek Chase – Grade 1) – NUBE NEGRA
This time the big dog in the market is Willie Mullins’ Chacun Pour Soi who could yet go off at odds-on in this belting two-mile contest.
The winner of this will be a strong fancy for March’s Champion Chase and it was in that race this year that Chacun Pour Soi was beaten at odds-on by Put The Kettle On and Nube Negra, with the last named perhaps well placed to beat him again.
Dan Skelton’s runner is absolutely top class and crucially there is little doubt that he has more improvement to come yet.
After beating Altior in the Desert Orchid last Christmas he was left off the track in preparation for the Champion Chase, the sort of routine now all too familiar with British jumps trainers. It may be then that he was a little undercooked for the big one at Cheltenham where he was only beaten a half-length, with his better form coming more recently.
On his seasonal return at the November Meeting, he beat Politologue and Put The Kettle On very easily and with three weeks between the races he should be 100% now.
He has the class and the speed for this race and can now put in a career best, one that should be good enough to see off his high-profile main rival.
Paul Nicholls runs two of his own here with Greaneteen probably the best of them, Bryony Frosts’s mount being the one we fancy to nick third.
2.05 Aintree (Many Clouds Chase – Grade 2) – IMPERIAL AURA
Most of the talk this week has been about Nicky Henderson electing yet again not to run his stars, in this case Champ while Shishkin was also ruled out of the Tingle Creek. We’ll choose to say nothing more about that.
Champ’s omission is a disappointment, but there is a good value bet to be had here anyway in the shape of Kim Bailey’s Imperial Aura. Many will worry seeing form figures of UP-F, but that doesn’t tell the full story.
He was going OK when falling behind A Plus Tard at Haydock with the race still a good pipe-opener for him, while he bled from the nose when pulling up at Cheltenham.
Before all that he was the epitome of improvement. Second to Pym and then to Simply The Betts in a race that produced two subsequent Festival handicap winners, him included, he went on to win a Listed race and a Grade 2 in good style this time last year and can reach the very top.
Protektorat is favourite for Dan Skelton, but he’s far from infallible and worth taking on at the odds. The aforementioned Simply The Betts is next on the list, it will be fascinating to see how Tiger Roll gets on while Native River is still class but doesn’t have time on his side.
2.40 Aintree (Becher Handicap Chase – Grade 3) – SNOW LEOPARDESS
We’re going over the Grand National fences for the Becher Chase and the event has attracted a competitive field of 22 runners.
There may be some scrimmaging for position early on in that case and in a race of this nature you’re always taking a chance, but even as one of the market leaders there is some value at 5/1 and over about the grey mare Snow Leopardess.
Charlie Longsdon’s runner was a close second in the Grade 3 Rowland Meyrick on Boxing Day last year before finishing fourth to Galvin at the Festival.
She began this season by taking care of Windsor Avenue in fine style at Bangor, jumping very well all the way which is an important factor here and winning in the style of a horse that shouldn’t be bothered by a 5lb increase in the weights.
Mac Tottie is another who could prove to be well handicapped, while track favourite and two-time Becher runner-up Kimberlite Candy was also considered.