A top-class day of action is in prospect at Sandown Park tomorrow, headlined by the Grade One Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase. A field of seven go to post for the race due off at 1.50pm, with the Dan Skelton-trained Shan Blue heading the market with sponsors Virgin Bet at 9/4.
Skelton believes there are no negatives for Shan Blue as he puts his unbeaten record over fences on the line, having followed up back-to-back wins at Wetherby with a career first Grade One success in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase over three miles at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
Shan Blue, who holds an entry in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, will be dropping back to 2m 4f but the Alcester handler expects the Colm Donlon-owned gelding to continue his progression.
Skelton said: “I’m really happy with Shan Blue and he has come out of the Kauto Star at Kempton over Christmas really well. We’ve given him a good bit of time until this. I actually think the trip is perfect for him and we know he is effective right-handed as we saw last time out.
“Sandown should be a fine track for him and he has raced on soft so I’m not worried about the ground at all. I’m really looking forward to him and I don’t think there are any negatives.”
Alan King hopes Messire Des Obeaux, who claimed Grade One glory in the 2016 Challow Hurdle at Newbury, can add a second top level triumph to his CV by making it a perfect three from three over fences.
King said: “Everything has been fine since his last run at Wincanton and we are pleased with him. He has always been a very good horse and he has done well to come back at the level he has. This is another step up but he is not going to Cheltenham so this is probably his big day.
“To get him back on track last season was a huge achievement by a lot of people as he was virtually written off. We didn’t know how good he was going to be but he has come back very good and that is down to a lot of hard work from a lot of people.”
Paul Nicholls expects the step up in trip to bring about further improvement from Hitman, who had his colours lowered over fences for the first time at the Esher track in December back over two miles when filling the runner-up spot in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase.
The Ditcheat handler, who is seeking a fifth win in the race, said: “He worked great on Thursday morning. It is a really hot race but I’m looking forward to running him. I think the step up in trip is exactly what he wants.
“He is not slow and you wouldn’t be afraid to go back in trip again but two miles four should be well within his capabilities. I’m very happy with him. He won’t mind the ground as he has only ever run on heavy ground in France and at Ffos Las. It will be really attritional.
“Dan’s horse is very smart and stays three miles on that ground and he is probably the one to beat again.”
Philip Hobbs sent out the JP McManus-owned Defi Du Seuil to glory in the 2019 renewal and the Minehead trainer is confident Sporting John, who runs in the same silks, can build on his debut third over the larger obstacles behind Fiddlerontheroof at Exeter.
Hobbs said: “At Exeter he jumped extremely well but he just ran below form. He seems in very good form now and everything seems to have gone well. Hopefully he will put up another good run on Saturday.
“We would have looked for a smaller race but connections have decided this is the way they want to campaign the horse for the moment. We will see if handles the ground at the weekend but he certainly copes fine with soft ground so hopefully he can act on this ground.”
Last season’s Coral Cup winner Dame De Compagnie, who like Sporting John is owned by McManus, will bid to follow up her first time out victory over fences in a match race at Ayr and give trainer Nicky Henderson a record extending seventh victory in the race.
The field is completed by the Fergal O’Brien-trained Paint The Dream and Up The Straight from the yard of Richard Rowe.
Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase – Virgin Bet odds: 9/4 Shan Blue, 5/2 Hitman, 10/3 Messire des Obeaux, 7/2 Dame de Compagnie, 10/1 Sporting John, 12/1 Paint The Dream, 40/1 Up The Straight
Grade Two Cotswold Chase
Sandown Park also plays host to the re-staged Grade Two Costwold Chase following the abandonment of last weekend’s Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham. Gold Cup runner-up Santini will face five rivals and will be partnered for the first time by Aidan Coleman.
The nine year old’s regular partner, Nico de Boinville, rides Champ next weekend and Henderson wants to cover all bases should both horses line up in the Cheltenham showpiece on Friday 19th March.
Coleman said: “I schooled him last week as I was supposed to ride him in the original race, and he’s going well. He won last year’s Cotswold and was second in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, but he’s won around Sandown as well and it’s a good race. I’m really looking forward to it.
“He seemed in good form and schooled well. He was ready to go to Cheltenham last week before the weather prevented it, so hopefully he’ll go well.
“He’s won at Sandown before, so it should suit. He’s been second in a Gold Cup as well, so I’m really looking forward to getting on him.”
Joe Tizzard fancies 2018 Gold Cup hero Native River to build on a pleasing return at Aintree in December at course which should play to his strengths.
He said: “Native River ran a blinder at Aintree considering the fences that were omitted. This race has been the plan ever since Aintree and it’s brilliant that they have rearranged it. He could have probably gone to the Denman (Chase) if they hadn’t done this as the ground looks like it would be soft enough at Newbury.
“He seems in great form. He has never been to Sandown but I think it should suit him as he is not a horse that has a particular favourite course. He is a fantastic jumper and those seven fences down the back will be ideal for him.
“He has had his first race of the season and he has come on for it. We had wound him back up for last weekend but it just rolls on into this weekend and hopefully this will roll in to the Gold Cup. I think Sandown will suit him and we are looking forward to running him.
“He needs a bit of cut in the ground now at his age as he has just lost a gear as he has got a bit older.”
A lively outsider in the race could be Yala Enki, who is set for his third outing in just four weeks. Having built up an excellent rapport with Bryony Frost, the pair teamed up for a game victory at Taunton last month, and the jockey has reported her charge to be in fine form.
She said: “He’s come out (of Taunton) bouncing and squealing. I’ve ridden him for the last two days, and he’s keen to the point that I’m struggling to hold him!
“We had a heart in the mouth moment at the ditch at Taunton, but that’s very unlike him and the sun probably had a little bit to do with that. Luckily we survived, and to be able to battle like that and win very easily in the end just shows you how much stamina he really does have.
“Paul (Nicholls) knows him very well now. He’s sussed him out and we’ll only take him to the races when we know he’s got a proper chance. We’ve been rescheduled for Sandown, which is an even stiffer track than Cheltenham. The more attritional it can be, the better.
“When you’re riding for Paul you’ve always got a chance, and that’s what you’ve got to believe when you go out there.”