Tony McFadden tackles the Bet365 Gold Cup, set to be run at Sandown on Saturday...
Making his return from a four-month absence, Deal Done shaped better than the bare result in the Kim Muir at the Festival, going well for a long way before fitness seemed to tell, eventually weakening into eighth place...
A pale imitation of its former self, the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown brings the curtain down on the 2012/13 jumps season on Saturday. The staying handicap chase once known as the Whitbread - a race that could attract national hunt stars such as Arkle, Mill House and Desert Orchid - is now little more than an afterthought to the spring's feature marathon contests, the Grand National and its Scottish equivalent. In fact, the fairly recent extension of the Punchestown Festival has created direct competition for the already-ailing Sandown race, not only dividing punters' interest but actually diverting some of the likely competitors, the three-mile-one-furlong handicap chase on the same day offering a viable alternative for Irish trainers.
A guaranteed prize fund of £150,000 should ensure that we will get a full field - and a competitive one at that - but the declining level of quality is a marked and worrying trend. Michel le Bon, a smart handicap chaser in his own right, currently tops the weights, but he is coming here off the back of a win in a veterans' chase, not looking particularly well treated. He is by no means the only horse that fits the description 'doesn't look well treated' and it is the abundance of these exposed and ageing performers that detracts from the race's appeal.
One factor that hasn't drastically changed, however, is the fact that the race is staged towards the end of the season and, in all probability, on better ground than the majority of runners have faced throughout the year. These circumstances make the Bet365 Gold Cup ripe for a shock result, and we have seen some big-priced winners of late, Church Island and Monkerhostin just a couple to mention. So, from an ante-post perspective, it is probably worth having a small bet on one at a decent price, hoping that the vastly different conditions can lead to an improved performance.
The one that first catches the eye is the Dessie Hughes-trained Deal Done. Usually wearing headgear and aggressively ridden, Deal Done has often shaped well at Cheltenham on his forays to Britain but it could just be that Sandown's chase course will provide a more suitable venue for him to utilise his forcing tactics; you often see bold-jumping, front-running chasers proving difficult to peg back if getting into a good rhythm down the famous back straight at Sandown.
Deal Done didn't have to be right at his best to land a gamble at Clonmel in November, his sound jumping helping him to prevail over a trip shorter than ideal, and while he has only had the two starts since, both coming in competitive handicaps at Cheltenham, he has done enough to suggest that he remains in good form. Making his return from a four-month absence, Deal Done shaped better than the bare result in the Kim Muir at the Festival, going well for a long way before fitness seemed to tell, eventually weakening into eighth place. Any improvement from that encouraging performance ought to see Deal Done go close as, on Timeform Ratings, he is one of only a handful of horses that appeal as fairly treated.
Currently trading at 44.043/1, Deal Done would appear to be well overpriced, though it is worth noting he is also entered at Punchestown on the same day. The main issue, though, is the fact he needs plenty to come out in order to get a run. Should he be declared but fail to make the cut your money would be returned, but there are no guarantees connections will declare him.
Unsurprisingly for a valuable event, Willie Mullins could have a say in matters, both of his entries, On His Own and Away We Go, looking like they could be open to improvement. The former was a bit of a disappointment in the Grand National, falling at Valentine's having lost his place after a bad mistake at the eighteenth fence followed by a slow jump at the next. He is, however, lightly raced for his age and hasn't had too many starts for Mullins, offering hope that there is more to come.
Away We Go is another fairly-recent recruit to the Mullins yard and, having finished second on his first start over fences for his new yard in the Irish Grand National, obviously remains open to further progress in this sphere.
The problem with Mullins' contenders, though, is that it is hard to be confident which of his runners, if any, will turn up. They both would hold obvious claims but, given the uncertainty, it is worth holding fire until the day and making a firm assessment at that point.
A winner of his four completed starts over fences, it is easy to see why Well Refreshed has been installed as favourite. He still retains the Timeform 'p' indicating that he may be open to further improvement, and the way in which he romped clear of his toiling rivals in the Grand National Trial on his latest start, registering a ten-length success, certainly marks him down as an interesting contender. However, as a note of caution, it is worth remembering that his victories have come on a testing surface far removed from what he is likely to face on Saturday and his jumping, which has never been the most convincing, is likely to be placed under plenty of pressure.
Nicky Henderson's novice chaser Hadrian's Approach hails from a decent jumping family and has created a good impression in his first season over fences, finishing a respectable third in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. Not for the first time, however, his jumping rather let him down and he will need to improve upon that aspect of his performance, though it is entirely conceivable he will having made just the five starts over fences.
Another horse worthy of mention is Jonjo O'Neill's Galaxy Rock. Inconsistent and a poor jumper, Galaxy Rock hasn't got the profile of an obvious winner of a marathon staying chase, but he does possess a fair amount of ability and would appear suited by a sound surface. He threatens to stay this far and could be one to suddenly bounce back to form.
If you are in a forgiving mood, Wyck Hill must surely rank pretty high on your shortlist. Sent off as a 3/1 favourite for the competitive Racing Plus Chase, an event significantly stronger than this, Wyck Hill was never travelling under A P McCoy, jumping sketchily from an early stage in a manner far removed from his usual fluent self. Prior to that race, Wyck Hill had looked most progressive, beating Katenko at Ascot in determined fashion, and he has proven that he is effective on a variety of surfaces. It could simply be that he didn't 'gel' with McCoy and, if that is the case, he looks a big price based on his form and profile prior to the Kempton aberration.
The Bet365 Gold Cup is a tricky race to tackle from an ante-post perspective and doesn't look like a race to get heavily involved in at this stage. The play could be to risk a small wager on Deal Done who looks well overpriced at 44.0, but there are obvious fears about his participation. Should he turn up, however, he would hold strong claims and could be well suited by Sandown.
Back Deal Done at 44.043/1 to win the Bet365 Gold Cup