Stepping up the gears for Sandown’s big race

Elixir De Nutz: Aiming for Sandown win.
Elixir De Nutz: Aiming for Sandown win.
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Nicky Henderson has described his Unibet Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle contender Rathhill as a horse with “gears” as he looks to add to his impressive record in the race.

The Seven Barrows handler has won the Sandown Grade One five times previously, enjoying a golden spell of four successes between 2011 and 2015.

Rathhill made his racecourse debut just over a fortnight ago –having finished second in an Irish point-to-point – and he was a stylish winner at Newbury.

Henderson had a handful of exciting prospects to choose from at the confirmation stage, so it may speak volumes he relies solely on the JP McManus-owned six-year-old.

“He is a very burly horse, has plenty of gears – and two miles will do him for now,” said Henderson.

“We decided to run him a week earlier at Newbury, because we wanted to give Rathhill extra time before the Tolworth.”

Colin Tizzard’s Elixir De Nutz has far more experience and will be having his sixth run over hurdles today.

He failed to cut much ice in two starts for Philip Hobbs last season, but the switch to Tizzard has seen him progress in leaps and bounds – finishing second on his debut for the Dorset handler at Cheltenham in October, before registering successive wins at Prestbury Park.

“Two miles is his trip, and you can go as fast as you want with him over that trip. We’ve made the running over two miles so far, and it is working quite well at the moment,” said Tizzard.

“This is a step up on what he has done, but he has done nothing wrong and he is a lovely horse.

“His form has also been franked, and he deserves a crack at a Grade One.”

Idee De Garde was second on his hurdling debut at Newcastle for Dan Skelton, having won a bumper for previous trainer Nicky Richards.

That form received a boost when the winner, Henderson’s Champagne Platinum, went in again at Newbury last week under a penalty.

“We don’t want to lose our maiden tag cheaply at this time of year, so we’ll put him in deep waters and run him in the Tolworth,” said jockey Harry Skelton. “If he wins then it’s not a problem. He’s a nice horse with a future.”

Paul Nicholls fires a twin assault, with jockey Harry Cobden seemingly preferring Southfield Stone to Grand Sancy, the mount of Sam Twiston-Davies.

Fergal O’Brien’s outsider Mercy Mercy Me completes the six-strong field.

Laurina is set to face just three rivals when she makes her eagerly anticipated return to action at Sandown.

The six-year-old made a huge impression in winning each of her four starts for Willie Mullins last season, including an 18-length demolition job at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Connections stated their intentions to go down the Champion Hurdle route this season. But she has missed a whole host of engagements – including the Coral Hurdle at Ascot, the International and Relkeel Hurdles at Cheltenham and the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown – on account of unsuitable ground.

With testing conditions forecast, she has travelled across the Irish Sea for what looks a gilt-edged opportunity to extend her winning sequence in the Unibet Mares’ Hurdle.

Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said: “We’ve had to be very patient with her, because we’ve been waiting on the ground.

“This looks an ideal starting point for her. She’s a second-season novice, so it’s nice not to have to pitch her straight into an open Grade One, and it looks as though the ground will be soft.

“She’s in good form, and we’re hoping she can produce the same sort of form she showed last year. If she’s going to be a Champion Hurdle mare, she’s going to have to be winning a race like this.”

A rare international challenge is about to descend on Plumpton, but home hope Knocknanuss can put up a stout and successful defence of his Sussex territory tomorrow.

The big-money bonus potentially on offer to the winner of the Follow At The Races On Twitter Novices’ Chase has attracted a high-profile contender from both France and Ireland.

Between them, Guillaume Macaire’s prolific five-year-old Master Dino and Gordon Elliott’s Cheltenham Festival runner-up Glenloe will have travelled around 1,000 miles for the privilege – from France’s Atlantic coast and County Meath, respectively.

By contrast, Knocknanuss will have clocked up just under 20 from Gary Moore’s yard at Lower Beeding.

It is a moot point whether the nine-year-old’s journey time of just half-an-hour gives him an edge on his rivals as they bid to give themselves a shot at the bonus payment should they win here and then do so again in any race at Cheltenham in March.