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A week into the new year and already jumps racing fans have their notebooks out and pencils sharpened, poised to scribble down the names of horses they hope will make them rich during the defining four days of the season, at Cheltenham in March. For those on the lookout for Festival clues, the place to be on Saturday is Sandown Park.
Marcel and Wild Passion, the two horses at the top of the betting for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, do battle in the ladbrokes.com Tolworth Hurdle. The winner will be a hot Cheltenham favourite, and with previous winners of this contest including French Holly and Monsignor, announce himself as a class horse.
Noel Meade's Irish challenger Wild Passion is the one to back. He was a Group Three winner on the Flat in Germany and may have too many gears for Marcel. The form of his Grade One win last time out looks solid enough, with the second and third-placed horses since winning in Grade Two and Three company respectively.
The Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle on the same card is a far more complex race to solve. Monte Cinto is a worthy favourite. He won the William Hill Hurdle over course and distance last month impressively. Winsley, who re-opposes, was only a length away but Monte Cinto looked like he had plenty left in the tank. Paul Nicholls's horse has gone up 11lbs for his win but could still be ahead of the handicapper.
However, at cramped odds in a wide-open race it may pay to look for some value. There has been a huge gamble on 2001 winner Rob Leach, backed from 25/1 to 7/1, but that looks a tad speculative for a horse that has run once in two years. Venetia Williams won this contest last year, and her entry Idole First has the right profile. There are some good bits of form from his novice season last year and he looked impressive on his reappearance at Huntingdon.
2:35 Sandown - Wild Passion (win)
3:10 Sandown - Idole First (each-way)