Merlin can produce wizard Sandown performance

Steve Hughes has his best bets for Saturday’s racing

There is generally a disappointing turnout for Sandown’s first card of 2019, though the final of the Veterans series has produced it’s usual competitive large field. I have two selections against the field there, but probably the best bet of all is in the finale. I also have two bets for Wincanton’s card. Only selection Muthabir was a 6/1 (advised) winner for us on Thursday.

Wincanton 2.40: Dark Episode

It looks wise to concentrate on the unexposed novices in this big field, and of those Dark Episode appeals most.

This will only be the 5yo’s fourth run, and third over hurdles. However I liked the way he got stuck in at Leicester last time over this trip, to record his first victory and he seemed to enjoy the quicker ground on that occasion. Prior to that he seemed to be bogged down in the mud in a Newton Abbot bumper, but ran a face full of promise on hurdling debut at Chepstow.

An opening mark of 119 looks more than fair and he has the services of champion jockey Richard Johnson on board. He looks a better option in the short term than likely favourite Tedham who might be better in time, or Tight Call who faces a much more competitive race than he has encountered of late.

Sandown 3.00: Exitas & Rock Gone

Two horses who will have the pace to cope with a fast run 3m around Sandown’s chase track are favoured, in a contest featuring plenty of veterans who can only be described as slow plodders these days.

The first is Exitas despite a massively busy programme since May. This will be Exitas’ 16th run since then, but he has shown no signs of deterioration of late. He was in the process of running another good race at Kempton last week before getting rid of his rider. Prior to that he held every chance here on much slower ground in the London National before finding the 3m5f trip slightly too far. The way he won the Aintree qualifier in October by 11l though was impressive and this horse used to be a decent 2m handicapper over hurdles, so that latent speed will be important in retaining a competitive position in this big field.

Rock Gone will no doubt have been targeted at this race for some time. He has clearly had his problems over the years as he remains lightly raced for an 11yo. He made his comeback in the qualifier here after twelve months off and is perhaps lucky not to have been put up for a fine second place that day. His two previous runs saw him finish second in a massively valuable Ascot handicap and a creditable seventh to Road to Respect at the Cheltenham Festival. This will only be Rock Gone’s seventh chase so he remains unexposed and is the choice of Sam Twiston-Davies of the stable’s duo..

Wincanton 3.15: Calipto

Having run a much better race at Chepstow last week, Calipto looks well placed to gain quick compensation for his last fence unseat in a race where holes can be picked in the opposition.

It was not the horse’s fault that the jockey was ejected at the last, and until that point we saw a lot of the old verve from Calipto. Whilst he would not have beaten Doitforthevillage, he would have been a clear second and a 3lb rise is fair enough.

Top 7lb claimer Hugh Nugent reclaims the saddle today, so in effect the horse is 4lbs better off today. Nugent was on board the last time the horse won – at Carlisle in March, where he was a decisive 8l winner. That was Nugent’s only previous time on the 9yo and he won’t mind the drying ground.

Sandown 3.35: Our Merlin

A massively progressive hurdler last winter, Our Merlin regained the winning thread at Wincanton last time and I think has more to offer.

His main fault is his over-enthusiasm that has seen him waste energy too early, but he finally seems to be settling better now and came home strongly to make all at Wincanton last time. His one previous run here came last winter when he ran a cracker to be second to the course specialist Call Me Lord and faces nothing of that calibre today.

Trainer Robert Walford often starts the season slowly, as did this gelding, but the yard are in peak form now and I think Our Merlin will be suited by this track where it is often hard to make up ground over hurdles. Going comes alike to him and an 8lb rise seems fair enough for Wincanton – it only puts him back to the rating he was on when a fine third at Cheltenham this time last year.

Recommended bets:

1pt each-way – Dark Episode – 2.40 Wincanton – 13/2 general (1/5 odds first 4)

0.5pts each-way – Exitas – 3.00 Sandown – 20/1 Skybet (1/5 odds first 6)

0.75pts each-way – Rock Gone – 3.00 Sandown – 6/1 general

1pt win – Calipto – 3.15 Wincanton – 9/2 Betfred, Totesport

1pt each-way – Our Merlin – 3.35 Sandown – 5/1 Betfred, Totesport (1/5 odds first 3)

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