Paul Nicholls switched from despair to delight in the blink of an eye on Saturday.
His enigmatic hurdler Irving had once again threw in a desperate performance, this time at Wincanton in the Kingwell Hurdle. Back in November he’d thrashed Melodic Rendezvous in the Elite Hurdle at the same track. And just a few weeks later he got the better of Henderson’s gutsy young hurdler Top Notch at Haydock. A poor performance had followed in the Fighting Fifth, but a winter’s break looked sure to have left him refreshed and raring to go for Saturday’s Grade 2.
Unfortunately he lacked any sort of Zip and was trailing from three out. He finished a tailed off fourth of four and another season that promised plenty has fizzled out. Nicholls had been watching on television screens at Ascot and was visibly shaken by the lamentable display. Speaking to Channel 4 Racing the champion trainer said: “He ran absolutely dire. I thought he’s been in the best form we could get him in. He’s been going really well and has just run dire.”
That performance would have left Nicholls full of trepidation as the time approached for Silviniaco Conti to take to the track in the Betfair Ascot Chase. Yet just 15 minutes later a jubilant trainer was welcoming a returning hero after an exemplary display. With regular pilot Noel Fehily on board, the dual King George winner treated the Ascot crowd to a thoroughly dominant performance.
Royal Regatta set a strong pace at a track he has come to love, with Silviniaco on his tail throughout. The two stretched clear of the chasing pack turning for home and the race was over as a contest as Fehily sent his willing partner on at the second last. He finished 20 lengths clear of the eventual runner-up Dynaste.
Many had voiced concerns over the 2m5f trip, but it proved to be ideal. And though he’s won at both left and right hand tracks, his tendency to jump slightly out to the right ensured Ascot was a perfect fit. Ground conditions and the application of blinkers were further aids toward this stunning performance.
Nicholls said of the winner: “This is probably the first time we've had him pain-free this season. The blinkers were the right thing today, the ground was right and I'd say he was back to his best. After Irving had run so bad in the race before [at Wincanton] it was a pleasure to see one run as well as he did. To win seven Grade 1 races after Kauto and co have finished is great.”
Nicholls ruled out a return to Cheltenham but confirmed that Aintree is now the target, saying: “The Grand National is a definite possibility. It is highly likely he could run. He is going to be arguably well in now and Noel is keen on it.” Should a decision be made to dodge the National, he would likely go for the Betfred Bowl; a race he has won on his last two visits to Liverpool.
Hats off to Nicholls as he once again brings a faltering stable star back to his best. It’s been a turbulent winter for Ditcheat, with several high profile chasers failing to make an impact, whilst others spend time in their box due to niggling setbacks. Yet still the trainers’ championship is all but won, and his relentless pursuit of success, along with an overwhelming desire to be the best, shows no sign of diminishing.