Merlin can work his magic once more

Steve Hughes looks ahead to a busy Saturday’s racing

The first Saturday of 2018 is not always the strongest programme, but is heavily bolstered today by the rescheduled Welsh National meeting at Chepstow. I have two against the field for the big race, a couple of selections from Sandown, plus a best bet from Kempton’s floodlit card.

Chepstow 2.05: Final Nudge & Alfie Spinner

The make up of the Welsh National field is somewhat different from last week’s original card due to a handful of withdrawals, so we now have quite a weight differential between top and bottom. As a result I have a slightly different outlook on the race.

I fancied Final Nudge originally, and still do. This late developing 9yo is well worth another chance in a National having fallen at the fourth last when still well in contention in the Midlands version at Uttoxeter. He proved his worth on heavy going when winning at Hereford in the spring and looked as good as ever when just defeated in the Badger Beer at Wincanton on his reappearance. This stiffer track and softer going should see him in an even better light.

Alfie Spinner would go against the grain somewhat for a National winner being well into the veteran status. However he ran a cracker to be second to Wild West Wind in the trial here at the last meeting, over 3m. 12lbs better off with that rival today, he is three times the price. Heavy ground is no issue to him and he has run some of his best races around Chepstow.

Sandown 3.00: Houblon Des Obeaux

One of my strongest fancies of the jumps season so far was when Houblon des Obeaux made his debut in a veterans race over course and distance in November. He duly won that day, albeit he made quite hard work of it.

From just a 2lbs higher mark today, he has to make plenty of appeal today in this veterans final. I am hopeful that the bigger field and therefore almost guaranteed stronger pace will bring his limitless stamina more into play and I like the booking of Noel Fehily.

Houblon Des Obeaux has a terrific record in staying handicaps over the years, even as recently as last season. He was third in the Welsh National and fourth in the Midlands version, plus Classic Chase at Warwick. Whilst this is competitive he does not of course meet any unexposed youngsters and he is still rated 10lbs below his Welsh National mark from last winter, so is definitely well handicapped.

Sandown 3.35: Our Merlin

Potentially leading the way for most improved performer of the winter is Our Merlin who started this season placing last in a Worcester handicap off a mark of 88, but comes into this contest from a mark 35lbs higher following a recent hat-trick of successes.

Trainer Robert Walford has been enjoying a fine winter and says he has done little different with the 6yo this campaign, and that Our Merlin has simply strengthened up and grown into his frame. He has barely come off the bridle to land wins at Plumpton, Fontwell and Taunton and has shown an ability to handle deep ground.

It goes without saying that this represents a huge step up in class, but with top conditional Jonjo O’Neill employed to take off 7lbs, Our Merlin only has 9-13 to carry today which has to be a huge advantage in such testing conditions.

Kempton 7.15: Sheriff

One of the biggest eyecatchers of the winter season so far on the All Weather has been Sheriff who ran a race full of promise with handicaps in mind at Lingfield in November.

Dropped out in rear, he made nice late headway without ever getting to the pacesetters. Whilst it is true he was beaten 10l since at Chelmsford, that course was never going to suit his hold up style and if anything it has protected his handicap mark now he enters that sphere today.

I like the move to Kempton which will bring his potential strong finish into play and it looks significant that Adam Kirby has been booked for the ride.

Recommended bets:

0.75pts each-way – Final Nudge – 2.05 Chepstow – 12/1 Ladbrokes (1/5 odds first 5)

0.5pts each-way – Alfie Spinner – 2.05 Chepstow – 33/1 general

0.75pts each-way – Houblon Des Obeaux – 3.00 Sandown – 10/1 Skybet (1/5 odds first 5)

1pt win – Our Merlin – 3.35 Sandown – 9/2 general

1.5pts win – Sheriff – 7.15 Kempton – 13/8 general

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