The yard to follow in Sandown's Heroes Handicap Hurdle in recent years has been Philip Hobbs, responsible for two of the last four winners in Kilcrea Kim (2011) and Saddlers Encore (2016) - the race was abandoned between 2012 and 2014 due to adverse conditions - and it isn't a big surprise to see the sole Hobbs entrant for this year's race Westend Story heading the ante-post betting at this stage.
Westend Story was having just his fifth start over hurdles and only his second in handicaps when justifying strong support at Wetherby in mid-January, having things in the bag a long way from home, and with the third Slanelough boosting the form by winning at Doncaster on the weekend, his chances are obviously strong, though he will be running off 12 lb higher and in a much more competitive race here.
Like many big Saturday handicaps, Paul Nicholls has a good record in this race, taking it in 2007, 2008, and 2010, and he has Connetable entered along with Topofthegame. The former has been perked up by blinkers recently and arrives in form, but the latter is far less exposed and is the more interesting, currently sat behind Westend Story at the head of the betting. Topofthegame will make a cracking chaser in time but a fall on his debut over fences in November has prompted a switch back to hurdles for now, and he looks well capable of making his mark in this sort of race, lacking a bit of pace and know-how when finishing a good fourth in the Lanzarote on his handicap debut last time. His second at Ascot last season where he split Sefton second Beyond Conceit and De Dollar Man (Acting Lass in fourth) is strong form and he remains with potential, the step up in trip likely to bring about further improvement.
Behind the front pair there is no shortage of in-form sorts, the thriving Golan Fortune bidding for a fourth win from his last five starts following a 14 lb rise in the weights for his latest win at Kempton, while Flemcara is going for his fourth win in four, up 9 lb having brought the hat-trick up at Chepstow last time. The unexposed pair of Dashing Perk and Melrose Boy both landed the odds in novice company last time and are also hard to discount, while Buywise and Vyta du Roc both won over fences in recent weeks.
The likes of Prime Venture and Bastien don't arrive on the back of wins but do have recent winning form and both showed promise in defeat last time, the former finishing with running left in a Pertemps Qualifier under an inexperienced rider last time, and the latter racing around the inside at Wincanton in a race where the principals all came from wider positions on the track.
The extra cash injection has certainly helped the competitiveness of this handicap, and if even half of the current entrants show up it will be a good spectacle. A number of these arrive following big rises in the weights, including the favourite Westend Story, but one who shaped particularly well in defeat last time is Topofthegame. It's easy to see him improving for the step up in trip on what would be just his second start in a handicap, and he looks worth a bet in a race his yard have a good record in.