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In a strange sort of way next week’s Cheltenham Festival begins on Saturday at Sandown. The racecourse executive learnt long ago that attracting punters and sponsorship so close to the main event at HQ would require marketing chutzpah, so for more than 20 years Saturday’s feature race, the Sunderlands Imperial Cup, has offered a meaty bonus to any hurdler who wins here and scores at the Festival.

£75,000 isn’t to be sniffed at, so the field is admirably competitive, its ranks swelled by bonus hunters. The champion trainer Martin Pipe has collected the bonus twice in his illustrious career, with Olympian in 1993 and Blowing Wind five years later. However, while his runners must be respected his hand seems a tad lightweight this year. Nous Volia makes the most appeal and is the least exposed of the maestro’s runners.

His West Country neighbour Philip Hobbs holds an interesting card with the useful Motorway, who claimed the scalp of multiple winner Desert Quest earlier in the term. Tarlac is another eye-catching entry from one of the other fashionable stables, that of Nicky Henderson.

On the other hand, Great Smeaton, North Yorkshire, is a million miles away from glitz and glamour. But Euro American, trained there by Edwin Tuer, is worth an each-way investment at around 16/1. The northern raider has a quietly progressive profile and will certainly handle the heavy going.

Later on Sandown’s card, Hoo La Baloo should score easily. It’s a shame we have to tear up the long odds ante-post ticket for the Arkle. He has not been disgraced in battles against two of the market leaders for that race, which makes Saturday’s challenge a penalty kick. Even at short odds it might be worth buying some money to do battle at Cheltenham.


Sandown 3:20 Euro American (each-way)

Sandown 4:25 Hoo La Baloo (win)

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