The weather is the only element that can remove the grins from National Hunt enthusiasts’ faces this weekend. With action over the Grand National fences at Aintree and two mighty face-off’s between Sprinter Sacre and Sanctuaire in the Tingle Creek and Sir Des Champs against Flemenstar in the John Durkan Memorial Chase the racing is piping hot.
Captain Conan can get the ball rolling in the Henry VIII Novices Chase at Sandown (1.55). The giant Kingsalsa gelding is a genuine Arkle contender and can solidify his ante-post position near the head of the market by soaring over the Railway fences at Sandown to victory. Having proven himself a high-class novice hurdler last season, his thrashing of subsequent winner Sire De Grury on his fencing bow was mightily impressive. Captain Conan will be sharper for that pipe-opener although we shall in all probability, see the best of him on better ground. Overturn remains in opposition as I write but it’s hard to see this hugely admirable horse running on testing ground.
The clash between Sprinter Sacre and Sanctuaire is mouth-watering as two fantastic two-milers put their 100% records over fences on the line at the Esher venue.
Sprinter Sacre is possibly the most exciting horse in National Hunt racing and he steps out of novice company for the first time in the Tingle Creek. After destroying the Champion Hurdle runner-up Peddlers Cross last season in the Grade 2 Wayward Lad Novice Chase, worldly-wise jockey Barry Geraghty was moved to comment “My heart was racing, genuinely, because that was frighteningly good. They don’t come any better than that”. Sprinter Sacre subsequently bolted up in the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival, hammering impressive Haldon Gold Cup victor Cue Card and duly earning a rating of 169. All five runs over fences have seen the horse nicknamed “Mourinho” win without coming off the bridle.
Sanctuaire’s switch to chasing in the second half of last season proved a revelation, winning all three of his starts by wide margins, including a 17-length demolition of Victor Chandler winner Somersby in the Celebration Chase on the last day of the season. The six-year old ended his campaign rated only 3lb behind Sprinter Sacre on 116, the highest rated novice chaser ever to grace the Nicholls ranks.
The race promises to be an intriguing tactical affair with Sanctuaire and Ruby Walsh likely to lead the way, stalked all the while by Geragthy aboard Sprinter Sacre. Both runners are expected to jump soundly with the Sandown track putting a premimum on jumping at speed which will play ideally to Sprinter Sacres’ strengths. The key question is, on testing ground, can Sanctuaire get Sprinter Sacre off the bridle? If he does, what shall Sprinter Sacre find under pressure for the first time over fences?
In conclusion, I feel the race will be ideally run for Henderson’s charge and he shall have too much in hand at the business end for his free running rival . Sprinter Sacre to land this en-route to winning the Victor Chandler Chase and the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March.
On Sunday at Punchestowns the second heavy-weight clash takes place in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at 2.05 between Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar. These two were the best Irish Novice Chasers of 2011/12 with the width of a cigarette paper separating them on form yet Sir Des Champs is three points shorter for the 2013 Gold Cup at 6-1. That discrepancy can be explained by Sir Des Champs love for Prestbury Park, illustrated by his consecutive festival wins there. Flemenstar has yet to run outside of Ireland and has shown a dislike for travelling. The likelihood is ground that will also be firmer than ideal for Flemenstar come March. Asked about whether Flemenstar would travel to the Festival in March the ever-enigmatic trainer of Flemenstar – Peter Casey replied “He’ll go to Cheltenham next year even if I have to carry him on my back myself”.
Sir Des Champs is on a long unbeaten run, but will have to concede race fitness having been off the track since shredding the field in the Grade 1 Novice Chase at the County Kildare course in April. Despite holding strong claims of emulating his owner’s War Of Attrition by winning the Gold Cup, Flemenstar may hold the aces come Sunday.
Peters Casey’s seven-year old looked better than ever when hammering Big Zeb over 2m in the Fortria Chase at Navan on his course reappearance last month. Officially rated 163 jockey Andrew Lynch has described Flemenstar as a “real machine” and he ought to handle testing ground on Sunday given he has won five times on going that was soft or worse.