A Chinese proverb may seem an odd place to start in our assessment of the traditional jumps season finale, but the phrase 'all good things come in pairs' could not be more apt as we approach Saturday's feature race at Sandown.
Although Dr Richard Newland has left the racing community in little doubt as to his ability as a trainer since taking out a license in 2007, the fact he continues to train part-time and only has 12 boxes at his Worcestershire base meant the manner of Pineau de Re's Grand National success still came as something of a surprise.
It is fair to say that in terms of both prize money and public recognition the Sandown Gold Cup isn't in the same league as the Grand National - although it is worth noting that the likes of Arkle, Mill House and Desert Orchid are all on the roll of honour - but with the unexposed novice Ardkilly Witness the good doctor looks to have an excellent chance of pulling off a historic double.
Like Aintree hero and stablemate Pineau de Re, Ardkilly Witness started his career across the Irish Sea. He won three Point-to-Points in Ireland from eight starts and chased home festival winner Tammy's Hill on his sole start in a hunter chase. He showed a useful level of form over hurdles too, winning on his debut at Towcester under A P McCoy and finishing runner-up in a Grade 2 at Haydock over three miles in 2013.
However, given his background it always seemed likely that the switch to fences would be the making of him and a highly creditable novice chasing campaign thus far has confirmed those suspicions. He has only been out of the frame once in six starts and has two victories to his name despite struggling with his jumping in the first half of the season. He's been mixing it in top company too, beaten by eventual RSA chase runner-up Smad Place at Exeter and plugging on gamely behind Just A Par and Third Intention in a Grade 2 at Newbury when not finding the track to his liking.
Since the turn of the year he's also put in some impressive performances against older, more-experienced handicappers. He was well-backed at Sandown in February when narrowly losing out to the Venetia Williams-trained Relax (she was in the midst of a red-hot streak and had a four-timer on the day), and more recently when a creditable fifth in the Betbright Chase at Kempton, in which he would certainly have gone closer had he not met trouble on the home bend. He was given a well-earned break after that and duly obliged when returned to novice company at Market Rasen a few weeks ago, despite clouting three out and idling a little when out in front. Those errors have become much less frequent as the season has progressed, and the run should have put him spot on for Saturday's race.
He lines up off a mark of 136 which clearly remains competitive and most crucially for our purposes he will get the 29-furlong trip; it may even bring about further improvement, while others are sure to falter. He certainly looked as if the extra four furlongs would suit on his last trip to the track in February, and although at odds of 13.012/1 he's not gone unnoticed by punters, he looks the most unexposed of the market leaders and the horse most likely to be suited by Saturday's conditions, and is thus one to firmly keep on side.
It is to those market leaders that we now turn our attention, and for the most part they do not look a particularly appealing bunch. Same Difference has been well supported for the Twiston-Davies team, but he certainly ran below form when fifth in the Kim Muir last time. Although he's now back to his last winning mark of 137, he's been consistently below par this season and he was hard to fancy before his price collapsed, let alone at odds of 11.521/2. Roalco de Farges was well backed from out of the handicap to follow up his Newbury success in the Scottish National last time only to be pulled up, but given his season only started in February he is more capable than most of brushing off those exertions. He was second in the race two seasons ago, albeit a distant one, but was off a 6 lb lower mark and although he looked as good as ever on his penultimate start there is a nagging feeling others might improve past him.
Bury Parade is clearly a horse of considerable ability and has not been seen since finishing a creditable second to Bally Legend at Kempton in February. Paul Nicholls will undoubtedly have him tuned up, but 29 furlongs at Sandown takes a lot more getting than three miles at Kempton, especially with the lump of weight he looks destined to carry off a mark of 156. That leaves Godsmejudge and Burton Port, the former lining up off the back of a creditable second in the Scottish National and the latter an early exit from its Aintree counterpart.
Godsmejudge remains relatively lightly-raced and certainly seems to hit peak form at this time of year, and with a mark of 145 looks likely to be involved in the finish if none the worse for the considerable exertions he showed at Ayr. He remains one for the shortlist, as does Burton Port who looked revitalised by the application of cheekpieces at Newbury on his penultimate start and should still be fresh after a short-lived trip to Aintree, with a tongue tie likely to give further assistance. If headgear provides the eureka moment as it has done for so many other enigmatic older horses, he certainly has the class to win a race of this calibre and shouldn't be discounted.
One final contender at slightly larger odds is There's No Panic, who won over this C&D in December and remains competitive off a mark of 134 (Harry Derham may well ride and take off 3 lb). He ran below par in the Kim Muir last time but this track has always brought out the best in him and if he's capable of bouncing back then he may make odds of 28.027/1 look rather foolish.
This year's renewal of the Sandown Gold Cup looks a particularly open one, and with such a large number at the head of the market it seems prudent to side with the horse with the most attractive profile. The fact that our selection is in the care of highly capable trainer whose proven himself as effective as any in big handicaps this season can only be a bonus, and there will be more than a few in need of doctor's orders on Sunday morning should Ardkilly Witness oblige.
Back Ardkilly Witness to win the Sandown Gold Cup