Predicting the winner of the Scottish National was never going to be easy. And so it proved, as Vicente repeated his success of 2016 by the narrowest of margins.
Punters were clearly more forgiving than I, with the Paul Nicholls trained eight-year-old sent-off an 9/1 joint favourite. Course form; the same handicap mark as a year ago, and of course, a pretty decent trainer, were all reason enough to fancy the horse. I’d backed him for the Grand National, but his first fence exit had stretched my patience to breaking point. This Vicente was clearly not the same racehorse as 12 months ago, or so I thought.
But clearly the Scottish air in April appeals to the hardy stayer. And despite fluffing his lines on numerous occasions throughout the winter, he was virtually hoof-perfect at Ayr. Ridden wide in midfield for much of the marathon event, Sam Twiston-Davies gave him a clear view of his fences, gradually moving into contention turning for home. Travelling strongly, he looked the likely winner, though it took an all-out drive from his jockey to overhaul Cogry nearing the post.
The runner-up’s performance was nothing short of incredible, having finished second in the West Wales National just six days earlier. No trainer is better than Twiston-Davies for getting the most from a staying chaser, and this fella must be as hard as nails, having also run well in the Midlands National in mid-March. This was his tenth run of the campaign, with all races run at three-miles plus. His jumping had been a disaster in the early part of the season, but Cogry has certainly warmed to the task, and there’s a marathon event to be won with this much-improved eight-year-old.
The Cotswold trainer also saddled the third home, with 12-year-old Benbens rolling back the years. He filled the same spot in 2015, when less than a length behind Wayward Prince, and is clearly another that enjoys the journey north. He finished a place ahead of another senior citizen, in Grand National specialist Alvarado. Ever present in these marathons, Fergal O’Brien’s stable hero was runner-up in the race 12 months earlier.
The success for Team Ditcheat keeps the battle for the trainers’ title alive, though Nicky Henderson remains a strong favourite to be crowned at Sandown next weekend. His advantage was reduced to around £170,000 on Sunday, and whilst the Seven Barrows handler heads to Punchestown this week, Nicholls will be throwing all he has at mainland courses, as he nibbles away at the deficit.
The season finale at Sandown is set to be another thriller, coming 12 months after the Mullins-Nicholls head to head, which saw an unsuccessful Irish attempt at the trainers’ crown. Vyta Du Roc looks likely to be Henderson’s main hope for the valuable bet365 Gold Cup. Paul Nicholls is set to go with last year’s runner-up Just A Par, and fourth place finisher Southfield Theatre. The latter is said to have had a far better preparation this time round.
Henderson’s Altior should prove the star of the show, though his attempt to capture the Celebration Chase is far from straightforward. He’s likely to face Henry De Bromhead’s Special Tiara, fresh from his thrilling Champion Chase success at Cheltenham. The classy two-miler won this race in 2015, and on a decent surface will be a tough nut to crack.
It’s hard to imagine Nicky Henderson being caught, but you can be sure that Mr Nicholls will be doing everything in his power to cling-on to his coveted crown.