Given they’ve trained eight of the last 12 winners of the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle between them it’s no surprise that Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson are represented by key players among the entries for the latest renewal of the Grade 1 at Sandown on Saturday. Nicholls’ Capitaine was beaten on his second hurdling start (by the mare Tahira) but he was a different proposition switched to front-running tactics and away from bad ground when winning the Grade 2 Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot last time. He had too much speed for his rivals after three out, with his jumping an asset as well, and he sets a good standard here as he bids to follow in the hoofprints of L’Ami Serge, who won the Kennel Gate and followed up in this race in 2014/15.
Female runners have been few and far between in the Tolworth, with only a handful this century. Kayf Grace has genuine claims of winning on Saturday, though, as she showed smart form in bumpers (including when beating Augusta Kate in a Grade 2 at Aintree) and, as a member of our Fifty To Follow for the season, made a smooth winning hurdling debut against the males at Bangor. She won by two and a half lengths from Report To Base, who improved when filling the same spot behind Coo Star Sivola in a listed novice at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, and looks open to significant improvement. Kayf Grace looks the pick of the Henderson pair as Gaitway has clearly had problems, missing 25 months before finishing only mid-field in a Cheltenham novice won by Pingshou (fourth in the Coo Star Sivola race next time) a month ago.
As exciting as any of the entries is Finian’s Oscar, representing the increasingly powerful connections of Colin Tizzard and owners Alan and Ann Potts. His name gives a clue to his (excellent) breeding—he’s by Oscar out of a half-sister to Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Finian's Rainbow—and he looks to have inherited a good chunk of his family’s ability. Finian’s Oscar was purchased by the Pottses for £250,000 after winning an Irish maiden point (by eight lengths from Mr Clarkson, who won an Exeter bumper on New Year’s Day for David Pipe) on his debut, and he looked a potential star when making a successful start under Rules in a Hereford novice hurdle a week before Christmas. Finian’s Oscar was value for more than the seven-length winning margin over Acting Lass (a gelding, strangely) that day, and the money that arrived for him for this race when the entries were made public suggests he’s an intended runner (Hereford came over almost two and three-quarter miles and he has an entry over nearly that far in a regulation novice at Wincanton on Saturday, but he clearly doesn’t lack speed).
Mohaayed was useful on the Flat in Ireland in 2015 but rather lost his way in 2016, eventually tried in a visor and blinkers. This meant his new connections (now with Dan Skelton) were able to pick him up for 34,000 guineas, and the gelding made a promising hurdling debut when one and three-quarter lengths second of seven to Elgin in a novice at Kempton on Boxing Day. Mohaayed is open to improvement over timber, however the fact he was a big price and failed to settle fully wearing a first-time tongue tie there doesn’t particularly bode well when viewed alongside his previous profile.
One that shouldn’t be underestimated is Chalonnial from the Harry Fry stable. He was a biggish price (7/1) for a Bangor novice just before Christmas, but he showed useful form as he beat his 17 rivals by two and three-quarter lengths (headed by another promising sort, Dan Skelton’s Santo de Lune) and more and is entitled to progress. He’s a half-brother to three winners, including the smart hurdler/winning chaser Activial, and is also a powerful physical specimen (a chasing type).
Trainer Harry Whittington and owners The Hennessy Six sadly not their Grade 1-winning chaser Arzal last spring, but they were quick to pick up another promising recruit from France in Charlemar. Having won a bumper at Le Lion-d’Angers in May just 10 days after his debut, Charlemar made his first start over hurdles a winning one at Chepstow in November. He then progressed as expected and defied a penalty in a novice at Aintree in early-December, showing a good attitude to assert on the run-in. He’s certainly worth a ty in a graded race, though that latest form hasn’t worked out.
Celestial Path is a fascinating contender as he finished fifth in the 2000 Guineas in 2015 and was Timeform-rated 113 on the Flat for Sir Mark Prescott. Prescott was apparently instrumental in big-spending owner Professor Caroline Tisdall choosing the Pipe yard when she was looking to place her first horses in training, and Tisdall has purchased Celestial Path since he was last seen finishing sixth in the Cambridgeshire at Newmarket (tried in a new combination of headgear) in September. He has the physique to make a jumper (tall, lengthy gelding) but this would be a big ask on his first start in his new career.
Global Stage is another horse with plenty of potential for jumping hurdles, but he’s only had one start (showed promise when second of 11 to Claimantakinforgan in a Haydock bumper in November) and may lack experience for this test, for all he had four starts in Irish points (won the last one). The 11 entries are completed by Ballyhill, who finished 12 lengths behind Mohaayed when third at Kempton and has work to do, even on 8 lb better terms, and the 100/1 rank outside Man From Mars.
Capitaine is the form pick and a deserved favourite. However, his tendency to stargaze (which didn’t cost him in the Kennel Gate, admittedly) is a slight concern, while many of his rivals here are open to just as much improvement. Finian’s Oscar and Kayf Grace both have Timeform Large ‘Ps’, in fact, and while each has an alternative engagement (Kayf Grace is also entered in a normal novice at Doncaster on Monday), it would appear they’re both set to run here. As she’s already won over the trip, and the rain forecast for Friday and Saturday will likely help her as much as it will any runner in the race, the balance is tipped in favour of Kayf Grace who can become Nicky Henderson’s sixth winner of this Grade 1.
Back Kayf Grace in the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday