Kevin Blake has been in superb tipping form with his Race to Cheltenham selections and he has a big-priced pair at Sandown to round out the five-week series...
"It wouldn’t at all surprise to see Patroclus improve enough to go very close."
The EBF Paddy Power 'National Hunt' Novices' Handicap Hurdle (13:50) has attracted a fiercely-competitive field of unexposed hurdlers that makes for a very difficult puzzle to solve, but we'll have a crack at it.
The Nicky Henderson-trained Patroclus is a fascinating contender. Purchased for £150,000 after finishing second in a point-to-point at Ballycahane a year ago, he has improved with each of his three starts over hurdles. He has won a maiden hurdle at Exeter and a novice hurdle at Doncaster in his last two starts, showing his inexperience in a big way. On both occasions he looked beaten in the closing stages only for him to get his act together late on and snatch the verdict close home.
In short, he looks a raw horse that is only going to get better with more racing experience as well as an increased emphasis on stamina.
While stepping into this highly-competitive handicap represents a big step up in class for him, the circumstances that this type of contest will present to him are likely to help tease out some more improvement from him. He hasn't looked particularly well suited by making the running in his last two starts and this more competitive environment is likely to allow him to get a lead which promises to suit. The likely greater emphasis on stamina also promises to suit. All told, it wouldn't at all surprise to see him improve enough to go very close.
Malaya's mark might be a winning one...
The Paddy Power Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle (14:25) may not be the deepest of recent renewals of the race, but it still represents a tricky puzzle to decipher and the one that makes the most appeal is the Paul Nicholls-trained Malaya.
The seven-year-old won this race with a bit to spare off a mark of 136 back in 2019 and while she hasn't won since, she has been edging down the ratings and arrives back to Sandown off a mark of 134. While her winless streak is unlikely to endear her to many, she has very much caught the eye shaping well on a couple of occasions this season, suggesting that a victory off her current mark is a distinct possibility.
Malaya was particularly eye-catching on her latest start in a handicap hurdle at Ascot in February where she raced more freely than ideal in the early stages over the longer trip and wasn't persevered with when her winning chance was gone.
The return to this shorter trip at the scene of her biggest success will very much suit.
One can be sure that Nicholls has had his eye on this race for her for quite a while and he can be trusted to have her spot on for it. She looks to have a very good chance.