Surprise Package set himself up for a potential Cheltenham bid with victory in the Paddy Power Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle at Sandown.
The six-year-old is in Friday’s County Hurdle and could take up that entry, for which he was halved in price to 10-1 by Paddy Power, after the nine-length success from Lively Citizen. Hacker Des Places and Onemorefortheroad completed the placings.
Sent off at 20-1, James Bowen’s mount travelled well throughout. He was on the bridle approaching the last, and turned the competitive handicap into something of a procession.
Though winless since last April, Surprise Package could make it a quick double should he line up in the County Hurdle, with the forecast set fair next week.
County Kildare trainer Peter Fahey admitted: “I think he would like quicker ground, too. He won a good race at Punchestown last year – the Red Mills Final – and he put in a huge performance that day, and he has just kept on improving.
“It is great for Paul Leech (owner), who has only two horses in the yard with me. Freedom To Dream, who was fourth at Leopardstown in a Grade One, is his other one. He goes for the Martin Pipe, although he needs five or six to come out, but to have two horses running at Cheltenham he is a lucky owner.
“You’d definitely have a bit of confidence from that. I think this lad has physically improved from his last run. I know he was five or six pounds higher today and if he goes to the County Hurdle he will have another five pounds on his back, but he is actually a horse who takes his races very well.
“He will travel to Cheltenham tomorrow morning and we will freshen him up. I’m going home tonight and will come back over on Monday and see where we are from there.
“When the entries came out for Cheltenham, we were thinking about the County hurdle, but we might not get in, so we had a horse tuned up to run there and Paul picked this race and said why sit on the fence, because if you think you are going to run a big race in the County Hurdle, why not come here first.
“I suppose the pity the (£50,000) bonus (for winning the Imperial Cup and a race at Cheltenham) isn’t there this year, but if the horse is right, there’s a chance he will run again.”
He added: “The one think I said to James was don’t rush him across the chase track, because there was some tacky ground and I didn’t want him to force him over that furlong and a half.
“In fairness, he did travel well and when he got on the nicer ground, he picked up and stayed on going away to the line. It was a huge performance.
“He is used to running in those big handicaps and that experience has helped him.”
Victory was particularly sweet for Bowen, who has rarely had much previous luck at Sandown and was celebrating his 21st birthday.
He said: “He travelled well, I was a bit further back than I wanted to be but I just got a smooth run round, which helped me a lot.
“He was ready for today and had that experience in big Irish handicaps, which a lot of them didn’t. It makes a hell of a lot of difference, especially around here.
“It is probably a portent of things to come next week – but I’ll be at Hexham and Sedgefield if you want to watch me there!
“I was a bit surprised how well he travelled, but I was always confident he was going to jump, even if he hadn’t seen the hurdle. He is a hardened handicapper.
“It is my birthday, so it is a good winner. It was a nice way to celebrate. I was still not a fan of Sandown before today, but I am starting to like it a bit more now!”
Source : Sky Sports