Unlike the very valuable Betfair Hurdle at Newbury on February 11th, for which he owns five of the current top eight in the betting, J. P. McManus appears to have made it very simple for us in the Heroes Handicap Hurdle at Sandown this Saturday: his sole entry is Behind Time.
Behind Time went very close to getting off the mark at the third time of asking at Exeter last February and returned to make a winning handicap debut from a big field at Cheltenham in November. That form proved strong thanks to such as the placed horses Solomn Grundy and Call To Order, and though Behind Time finished fourth to Solomn Grundy stepped up further in trip to three miles at Newbury next time, he probably failed to handle the relatively quick turnaround 12 days on.
The Newbury race has also worked out well, with the runner-up Shantou Bob winning a big-field handicap next time before finishing fifth in last Saturday's Cleeve Hurdle, and I feel that it wasn't the new trip that beat Behind Time (he was also given an average ride by a 3-lb claimer, admittedly who'd won on him the time before). Even his new mark of 128 (up 13 lb) shouldn't prevent Behind Time quickly getting back to winning ways.
It's clearly not a one-horse race, though. Rolling Dylan may have nine horses ahead of him on the Timeform weight-adjusted ratings as things stand, but he could easily have more to offer after just six hurdle starts and is a Horse In Focus following his latest effort. Rolling Dylan beat 17 rivals without much fuss in a maiden at Uttoxeter in November and narrowly failed to justify strong support when second in the aforementioned race won by Shantou Bob at Chepstow just after Christmas.
Like Behind Time, Rolling Dylan is lightly raced and unexposed as a stayer, and the Hobbs-Johnson combination have won this race with similar types in Kilcrea Kim (2011) and Saddlers Encore (2016), as well as finishing second with favourite Ballydub (2009).
Woodford Island is also of interest, and he's the only entry from Ireland (Gordon Elliott). He's different to Behind Time and Rolling Dylan in that he's been novice chasing, but he's returned to hurdles on his last two outings and finished in the frame in competitive three-mile handicaps at Leopardstown. A reproduction of either effort would be likely to see him on the premises here, but you're obviously taking a chance on whether he makes the trip over if backing him ante-post.
The top five in the ante-post betting are all six-year-olds, with those already mentioned joined by Mr Mix and KK Lexion. Both won handicaps over 21 furlongs on soft ground last time, but the latter has the stronger form claims and also appears more likely to be suited by this extra distance. That said, he's perhaps not quite as interesting as Behind Time and Rolling Dylan.
Next in the market is an even younger horse: El Terremoto from the Nigel Twiston-Davies stable. He won a Stratford maiden in October and a Haydock handicap in November, but I can't tell you much about his most recent run at the latter track as it was shrouded in fog.
As I wrote in a recent preview for the Holloway's Handicap Hurdle, when discussing last Saturday's Uttoxeter winner Le Rocher, "It's farcical that the race was allowed to take place given how poor visibility had become, and given the field were impossible to make out passing the post, the finishing positions have to be taken on trust" (El Terremoto apparently finished third to Clyne, a place behind Le Rocher). El Terremoto would need to prove he stays three miles here.
Another five-year-old is Desert Sensation who has progressed in increments for the Dr Richard Newland operation since July, winning three handicaps at around three miles on the way. He ran well when third to Shantou Bob at Chepstow last time, but was still five lengths behind Rolling Dylan and it's difficult to see a 4 lb pull being enough to allow him to reverse the form.
Clondaw Kaempfer ended a long losing run from a falling mark for the Donald McCain yard (in form at the time but have maybe gone quiet again) in a Musselburgh handicap at the start of January, proving himself at three miles in the process. However, it wasn't a thorough test and he needs to show he can back that performance up (from a 3 lb higher mark in a tougher race) given he's been hard to catch right in recent times.
Lightly-raced nine-year-old Lord of The Island is proving consistent, and he put a fall behind him when seven and three quarter lengths third to Modus in the listed Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton last time. He's worth another try over three miles.
The current market probably has it right with Rolling Dylan as favourite, but the one that makes most appeal at the prices is Behind Time whose Cheltenham win is very strong form and who wasn't seen to best effect at Newbury not long after. The break should have done him good.
Win back Behind Time in the Heroes Handicap Hurdle at Sandown