Latest horseracing news from the UK

Fillies set to dominate major events

Another exciting weekend of racing sees major action from both sides of the Irish Sea.

We head north to Haydock for a pair of Group 2s. The Sandy Lane Stakes over six-furlongs has the look of a hors d’oeuvre to the main course, the prestigious five-furlong sprint, the Temple Stakes.

The latter has been won by sprinting greats over the years, including a number of top-class fillies and mares. Look Busy was the last to land the prize in 2009, but a year earlier the wonderful Fleeting Spirit was victorious.

Trained by Jeremy Noseda, she was a sensational sprinter, romping to victory by two lengths, and breaking the track record in the process. Often a sluggish starter, she was possibly a little unfortunate not to add the King’s Stand a few weeks later. She went on to finish runner-up in three Group 1s, whilst landing the Darley July Cup over six-furlongs at Newmarket.

Airwave was another fabulous filly, who won the event as a three-year-old when the race was held at Sandown. She then came within half a length of capturing the Golden Jubilee at Royal Ascot, before a third place finish in the Darley July Cup.

Arguably the best of the lot was Lochsong, the winner of the Temple Stakes back in 1994. That victory came during an incredible period of dominance, which saw the filly win the Nunthorpe, the Abbaye and the King’s Stand Stakes amongst others.

Hoping to add her name to the stunning roll of honour is another classy filly, Quiet Reflection. The winner of seven of her 10 starts, including a pair of Group 1s, she is running over the shorter trip for the first time since her juvenile campaign. She’s no slouch, though would have preferred a little rain prior to the stalls opening.

She took the Sandy Lane at the corresponding meeting last year, and was finishing powerfully on that occasion. Her trainer, Karl Burke, sounded concerned over drying conditions when speaking to At The Races earlier in the week: “Unfortunately there’s such a dry forecast we’ll have to keep an eye on the ground. If she doesn’t go to Haydock because the ground is too quick, we’ve got an option in France the following weekend. She’s done nothing but bloom these last few weeks.”

We could get lucky on Saturday, and witness a clash of two outstanding fillies, with the possibility of Aidan O’Brien sending Acapulco over to Haydock. She was a stunning winner of the Queen Mary at Royal Ascot as a two-year-old, when trained by Wes Ward. She returned to action at the Curragh in May, when winning a listed event over five furlongs. That run should have blown away the cobwebs, and should she land on these shores, she’s sure to go close.

Over in Ireland, O’Brien will be hoping to capture an Irish Guineas double, to match the Newmarket set achieved in May. Churchill is odds-on to win the 2000, with Michael Halford’s Irishcorrespondent the likely danger. It would come as a shock should the favourite not prevail, and O’Brien has a terrific record in the race, having won six of the last nine. Churchill has a look of Gleneagles about him, and is set to follow the same path. A victory here, and then a trip to Royal Ascot to capture the St James’s Palace appears the plan.

Winter looks to make it a 1000 Guineas double, and is odds-on to do so. She was impressive at Newmarket, and doesn’t have Rhododendron to beat this time. Michael Halford again looks to supply the main danger, in Aga Khan’s Rehana. She was impressive at Naas last time, and ought to go close. Nevertheless, the favourite is clearly the one to beat.

And on a weekend when fillies may well make the headlines, it’s fitting that I conclude this piece with a comment or two on Ballydoyle’s Minding. She goes in the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup, and looks nigh-on a certainty. The bookies see it that way, with her currently trading at around 1/3. She was sensational last season, when winning five of seven, including a QEII verdict over Ribchester. Ballydoyle have such a wealth of talent at their disposal, and this lady is one of the best.

Let’s hope the main players take to the field. If they do, it should prove a cracking weekend.

A Brighton Double – Pat’ll Do Nicely

Few jockeys are riding as well as Pat Cosgrave just now. A double at Brighton yesterday, could so easily have been four or five, and he now has an impressive 23% strike-rate.

With nine victories from his last 39 rides, Cosgrave is in scintillating form. And he’s not simply guiding home well-fancied contenders. The double yesterday came on a 16/1 shot and one priced at 10s. Of his seven mounts, he was no worse than third, finishing runner-up four times.

An apprentice with Aidan O’Brien back in the day, he arrived in the UK in 2004. Based in Newmarket, he set about developing contacts, and quickly established a good relationship with Mark Wallace and Jim Boyle in Epsom. It was Boyle that supplied the ammunition for a successful Brighton trip yesterday. Things didn’t go particularly well initially, and Cosgrave headed north in search of success.

He managed 120 winners in just two campaigns, and forged a relationship with Yorkshire trainer Robin Bastiman. In 2008 he landed the ride on Borderlescott, when the horse was aimed at the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes at York. The meeting was abandoned and the race switched to the July Course at Newmarket. He tracked the leaders on the 12/1 shot, and managed to overhaul the South African mare, National Colour, inside the final furlong to win by less than a length, with Kingsgate Native back in third. He continued to ride for Bastiman throughout the season before a return to Newmarket.

Cosgrave became something of a sprint specialist, when in 2010 he rode Markab to a Group 1 victory in the Betfred Sprint Cup at Haydock, having gone close in the King’s Stand at Royal Ascot a few months earlier. He’d also ridden Society Rock to a runners-up spot at Ascot in the Golden Jubilee. The following year he went one better in partnership with Fanshawe’s sprinter when landing the Group 1 six-furlong sprint. A month later the pair chased home Moonlight Cloud in the Maurice De Gheest at Deauville.

Now aged 34, Cosgrave will be hoping for further high-profile victories during this successful campaign. The man from County Down in Northern Ireland has developed a strong relationship with William Haggas in recent seasons, and the combo is often worth a second look. The pair teamed-up a couple of days back, when talented three-year-old filly Tirania, romped to success at Windsor in a maiden over a mile.

The duo hope to strike again on Saturday at Haydock, when Mubtasim heads for the Group 2 Sandy Lane. Could he be yet another big sprint success for Cosgrave?

It’s fair to say that things haven’t always been rosy for the talented jock. He landed a six-month ban by the Emirates Racing Authority stewards back in 2014, following a lengthy inquiry into a race at Meydan, when it appeared that he had allowed a stablemate to gain an advantage during a Group 1 event.

He was aboard the Mike de Kock trained Anaerobio, when appearing to move off the rail, allowing Christophe Soumillion the opportunity to sweep to the front aboard Vercingetorix. Found guilty, he was slapped with a ban, though the British Horseracing Authority later quashed the ban on appeal.

During the winter, Cosgrave resumed riding in Dubai, having paid an outstanding fine to the Emirates Racing Authority. The jockey had originally refused to pay £35,000, but winters in Dubai can be lucrative, and a jockey of his ability is always in demand. Cosgrave partnered up with the likes of de Kock and Saeed Bin Suroor. He also had the opportunity to ride for William Haggas.

Back in the UK, Cosgrave is clearly reinvigorated after a winter in Meydan. Rides this week at Kempton and Goodwood, will be followed by a couple of days in the north aboard some nice sorts at Haydock. He’s likely to get the leg-up on Learn By Heart on Friday. Owned by the Queen, this son of Frankel out of the speedy mare Memory, looks an exciting addition to the William Haggas yard. It’s shaping into an exciting campaign for the Irishman, and there’s little sign of that impressive strike-rate slipping just yet.

A Ribchester Romp for Fahey’s Finest

Ribchester romped to a stunning Lockinge success on Saturday, endorsing his status as Britain and Ireland’s leading miler.

Despite pace-making stablemate Toscanini missing the break, the winner rarely looked threatened. And making all his own running, William Buick asserted from the two-furlong pole, powering clear to win by just shy of four lengths. Lightning Spear got closest to the winner, again putting in a solid performance in Group 1 company. Breton Rock revelled in conditions, and finished well for third.

Galileo Gold had kept tabs for the first five furlongs, but soon came under pressure and could only finish fifth. It was a hugely disappointing performance from Hugo Palmer’s Guineas winner, not least because I had tipped him to win in my Friday Preview piece.

Palmer was left scratching his head after such a lacklustre display. “He's pulled up in good shape. Like his team, he's a little bit deflated, but he's sound and he ate up and we look forward to another day,” he said.

Palmer went on: “Royal Ascot is obviously an option. I know he won the 2000 Guineas last year, but conceivably the best run of his two-year-old career was at Goodwood. The St James's Palace he won last year was over the old (round) mile and the Queen Anne is over the new mile (on the straight course). This all needs to be discussed. There's a lot of water to flow under the bridge. There's just a chance the horse might be better with a bend. He ran very well in the Sussex last year.”

There’s just a chance the horse isn’t quite as good as he first appeared. There’s no doubting that Ribchester has progressed past him, and it’s hard to imagine Galileo Gold ever winning at a mile when the Godolphin star is in opposition.

Harry Herbert, racing manager for owners Al Shaqab Racing, confirmed that all options were now open, and that the team had plenty to ponder: “It's a shame because he's physically done very well and Frankie (Dettori) said he could not operate on that ground. It was very sticky and I wouldn't rule him out just because of that run.”

“We've got to get him back on decent ground and take a view about whether we go to Royal Ascot or whether we take another route. It was a shame as he was in such good form. We will regroup and have another shot. Maybe he'd be better on a turning track, we'll see.”

Richard Fahey was rather more pleased with the victor, saying: “I was quite nervous as it was a big day and we wanted him to perform. He (Toscanini) missed the kick but I always felt Ribchester could do something like that. He is mentally mature and he's physically getting better. We've always liked him. He's gone a bit lazy on me at home, but we are happy where he is now.”

Of future targets, the trainer added: “It looks like we will go there (Queen Anne) but I won't say definitely, as we've got to speak to John (Ferguson, Godolphin racing manager) and Sheikh Mohammed. We'll see how he comes out of this, but the Queen Anne looks likely. I've got to say he's the best horse I've ever trained.”

Yesterday, talk turned to a possible shot at the Juddmonte International at York later in the campaign. He certainly wasn’t stopping on Saturday, and has always given the impression of looking at his strongest at the end of a mile. He lacked a run when third at Meydan in March over a mile and one furlong. It’s likely he’ll strengthen further as the year progresses, and a trip to the Knavesmire is certainly on the cards.

“The Juddmonte International at York was on my mind over the winter. As you saw at Newbury, he appreciates a long straight and he stays well. You could see in the Lockinge how well he saw out his race. So maybe York could suit but that's a long way off,” said Fahey.

For now, it seems likely that Ribchester will look to cement his position as ‘King of the Milers’. Should he prove dominant over the summer, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t take his chance, and head North in an attempt to emulate Frankel by taking the prestigious and valuable Juddmonte International.

Dettori to steal Lockinge Gold from Godolphin

The Group 1 Lockinge Stakes is Newbury’s showpiece on Saturday. First run in 1958, the race has been won by some of the all-time great milers.

Brigadier Gerard and Frankel were two of the greatest. The former was only defeated once in 18 career starts. His victories included the 2000 Guineas, the St James’s Palace Stakes, the QEII on two occasions, the Champion Stakes twice, the Eclipse, the King George VI & the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and of course the Lockinge. He was a truly astounding racehorse, all power, pace and grace. Truly a sight to behold.

Frankel was similarly astounding on the racecourse. A mighty beast of a horse, capable of galloping the opposition into the turf. His ability to travel effortlessly at high speed was thrilling to witness. It’s tough to choose one standout performance, but if pushed, his victory in the Juddmonte International was probably the most astonishing. He cruised past four-time Group 1 winner St Nicholas Abbey, before streaking clear. His Lockinge success was similarly exhilarating, with Excelebration the unfortunate horse to be brushed aside.

Both Brigadier Gerard and Frankel captured the Newbury showpiece at the age of four, and it’s this age group that have proved dominant in the Lockinge, capturing eight of the last ten renewals. Godolphin have been victorious in four of those, and have three wins from the last four, including last year, when the Roger Varian trained Belardo took the prize. It’s interesting to point out that Aidan O’Brien has only one victory in the Lockinge, and that was back in 2003, when four-year-old Hawk Wing destroyed a quality field.

Both Godolphin and Ballydoyle are represented in tomorrow’s renewal. The Richard Fahey trained Ribchester currently heads the market. Progressive throughout his three-year-old campaign, he concluded last year with a second-place finish to O’Brien’s super-filly Minding, in the QEII on Champions Day. Prior to that, he’d won a Group 1 at Deauville, and had been a fast-finishing third in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood. He had a pipe-opener at Meydan in March, and looks a worthy favourite. He’s a powerful galloper, though perhaps lacks that ‘instant’ change of gear.

It’s interesting to see that Fahey has another Godolphin owned runner in the field, and one would guess that this is to ensure a strong end-to-end gallop. Toscanini is no mug, and has strong form over shorter trips. He’s likely to be employed at the head of affairs, ensuring Frankie Dettori does not get a free hand to dictate matters aboard Galileo Gold.

More of him later, but first a look at Ballydoyle’s sole entrant, the filly Somehow. She’s undoubtedly a classy sort, and was recently an impressive winner of the Group 2 Dahlia Stakes at Newmarket. It’s fair to say that she defeated a mediocre field of fillies and mares on that occasion, though did it in style. This is a huge step-up in class, and she’d have to be just shy of Minding quality to go close. I expect a solid performance from her, but I’ll be shocked if she’s quite good enough to trouble a couple of these colts.

Back then to last year’s 2000 Guineas winner, Galileo Gold. Owned by the race sponsors Al Shaqab, and trained by Hugo Palmer, this son of Paco Boy (himself a winner of the Lockinge in 2010) was sensational during the early part of last season. He won the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot under a canny ride from Dettori, and then came close to landing the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood. His form tailed off towards the end of the campaign, when twice finishing behind Ribchester.

The question for punters, is whether Ribchester improved past Galileo Gold, or whether the latter simply ran out of gas after a challenging campaign at the highest level? I’m inclined to believe the form of the Sussex at Goodwood, when the pair could only be separated by a short-head in finishing a whisker behind O’Brien’s colt, The Gurkha. If that form proves to be true, the race tomorrow should be an absolute thriller.

Of the remainder of the nine-strong field, you’d have to fancy Lightning Spear’s chance of claiming a place, having run a career best third behind Minding and Ribchester in the QEII. Now a six-year-old, he goes well fresh, as he proved when finishing third to Tepin in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot last June. He’s yet to win a Group 1, and I fancy he’ll come-off second or third best once again.

The markets look to have this spot-on, with Ribchester and Galileo Gold the stand-out candidates. They take some separating on last year’s form, with Palmer’s Guineas winner capable of a mighty seasonal debut. I fancy this track will suit him, and should Dettori make his move at the right moment, his fella has the gears to steal a length or two. Expect Ribchester to be flying late-on, but I’ll side with Galileo Gold to hold him off in a thriller.

Stick with Dettori – The Dante Man

York’s Dante Meeting begins today, with the prospect of three thrilling days of racing on the Knavesmire.

The Group 2 Duke Of York Stakes is the highlight on day one. This year’s renewal looks particularly strong, with the first three from October’s Qipco Champions Day Sprint renewing rivalry. The Tin Man is burdened with a penalty for that victory, and the markets suggest that third home Brando may well reverse placings this time round. Trained by Kevin Ryan, he has already opened his account for this campaign, winning a Group 3 at Newmarket in April. With match fitness on his side, he looks sure to run another huge race.

Last year’s winner Magical Memory returns. He edged out Suedois 12 months ago, in a thrilling finish. Both return for another crack, with the former partnered by Frankie Dettori. Frankie’s record at the Dante meeting is outstanding. His association with John Gosden is a major route to success, and he steered five horses to victory at last year’s meeting, including a treble on day one.

With only three rides that day, he started with victory in the Duke Of York, before winning the Group 3 Musidora on Gosden’s classy filly So Mi Dar. The treble was completed onboard Castle Harbour, another from the Gosden camp. On the second day of the 2016 meeting, Dettori and Gosden paired up to take the feature Dante Strakes, when Wings Of Desire got the better of Ballydoyle’s Deauville under a wonderfully timed challenge from the Italian jock.

On the final day Dettori had a steering job on short-priced favourite Nemoralia, who comfortably took the Michael Seely Memorial. He kept things simple, moving on the outer to take up the running inside the two-furlong pole.

It’s decision making that often separates Dettori form the rest. He rarely makes a bad move during a race, giving a horse the best possible opportunity of victory. This often involves challenging wide to ensure avoiding traffic, though when the pack moved to the centre of the track in last year’s Musidora, he was quick to switch inside when making a successful challenge on So Mi Dar.

It’s no surprise that Dettori and Gosden once again hold a strong hand going into the three-day meeting. Shutter Speed is expected to be one of the stars of the opening day, assuming rain doesn’t scupper plans. She was mightily impressive last time at Newbury, but is thought to be a better filly on a sounder surface. She did win on debut on soft ground, but should we get heavy rain at York prior to the off, it would come as no surprise should Gosden decide to wait for another day.

As a fan, I hope Shutter Speed turns up and duly thrills the Yorkshire public. Day two could also prove productive for Gosden and Dettori, with outstanding chances in both the Group 2s. So Mi Dar looks to have a great chance of following up last year’s Musidora win with success in the Middleton Stakes. Sir Michael Stoute’s Queen’s Trust looks the main danger, though she’s another that would prefer the rain to stay away.

Dettori then gets the leg-up on Cracksman, carrying the familiar silks of 2015 Dante winner Golden Horn. By Frankel out of a Pivotal mare, this fella should have no problems with conditions, and arrives here after winning a little cosily at Epsom. Again, Sir Michael Stoute looks to have the main challenger, with Crystal Ocean now vying for favouritism. It looks a terrific renewal, with currently 11 runners declared, including four for Godolphin.

With fingers firmly crossed, hoping that the British weather doesn’t cause too many disruptions, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t another hugely successful week for Signor Dettori. He’s sure to land other plum rides, but it’s his association with John Gosden that is sure to prove the most productive, at a racecourse where the jockey excels.

O’Brien and Gosden set for Classic Clash

A week of Derby and Oaks trials has left me just as puzzled with Epsom less than three weeks away.

One thing that is becoming clear, and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, is the power at the disposal of both Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden. Ballydoyle have been the dominant force for more than a decade, but there’s little doubt that Gosden, assisted by the outstanding Frankie Dettori, is launching a mighty challenge in an attempt to disrupt the status quo.

O’Brien has captured three of the last five Epsom Derby’s, and has an identical recent record in the Oaks. I’ve spoke of the Galileo production line in recent articles, and the Stallion’s hoof-print is again prominent in June’s Classic contenders.

Cliffs Of Moher took the Dee Stakes at Chester for Team Ballydoyle, battling on strongly to defeat the Charlie Appleby trained Bay Of Poets. He took some time to hit top gear, but was well on top at the post, and should be suited by the step-up in trip at Epsom. He’s currently second-favourite for the Derby, though O’Brien has a battalion to choose from.

Venice Beach was another impressive winner, when landing the Chester Vase from stable companion Wings Of Eagles. Ryan Moore appeared impressed with the Colt, though his price of 20/1 for the Epsom feature, suggests he may be down the stable pecking order. Nevertheless, he proved he stays the trip and coped well with Chester’s tight turning track, giving hope that he’ll adapt well to Epsom.

The yard also has the 2000 Guineas winner heading the market for The Derby. We remain in the dark as to whether Churchill will take his chance, and a team meeting in the next week to 10 days is likely to provide further clues.

The Dante Stakes at York later this week, will give connections further food for thought, with more names thrown into the Epsom melting pot. It’s likely that O’Brien will send plenty to contest a race that he’s surprisingly not won since 2010.

O’Brien’s loss has proved to be John Gosden’s gain in recent times. Golden Horn won the Dante in 2015 prior to his Derby success. Last year it was Wings Of Desire that got the better of O’Brien’s Deauville in a thrilling finish.
The Newmarket trainer has a leading contender for Thursday’s renewal, with the Epsom Derby third- favourite Cracksman. The son of Frankel took the Epsom Derby Trial in April, getting the better of Permian and Bay Of Poets.

That form appears to put him on a par with Cliffs Of Moher, but this fella only has two career starts to his name, and ought to improve plenty for his last outing. Owner Anthony Oppenheimer will be hoping the three-year-old can emulate Golden Horn, in winning this before heading to The Downs in June.

Thursday’s race will also see the third career start for Sir Michael Stoute’s Crystal Ocean. Punters have been clambering to get on this son of Sea The Stars, and his Derby price has plummeted. In April he won a maiden at Nottingham, and the runner-up has since franked the form. This is a huge step-up in class, though he looked mightily impressive last time, and is certainly being guided by the right man.

A Gosden/O’Brien duel may also be on the cards in the Oaks. Rhododendron heads the market for Ballydoyle, but Enable proved an impressive winner of the Cheshire Oaks last week, and Gosden sees her as his most likely Epsom Classic challenger. She’s by Nathaniel out of a Sadler’s Wells mare, and looks a class act.

He also has the potentially high-class filly Shutter Speed, again owned by Khalid Abdullah, but with a pedigree that suggests the Epsom trip could take some getting. She’s due to run in the Musidora on Wednesday, with connections then having to decide on who heads to Epsom.

Much has yet to be determined, and hopefully things will become a little clearer following the Dante Meeting at York. The one certainty is the strength in depth at both O’Brien’s yard and that of John Gosden. Moore versus Dettori is a cracking sub-plot as the next Classics draw ever closer.

Expect Hannon and Bell to duel for the Cup

I’m taking a trip to Ascot for this weekend’s preview, and focusing on the Victoria Cup.

With 27 runners currently declared, this seven-furlong handicap looks pretty competitive, and the winner, as ever, will take some finding. I’m heartened by the fact that I got lucky last year, though I admit to having had two shots at the target. Godolphin’s four-year-old Flash Fire, was the 20/1 winner in question, holding on bravely after looking likely to romp clear a furlong from home. He’d spent a winter at Meydan prior to the Spring campaign. Interestingly, the runner-up Mutawathea had spent the winter running on the all-weather.

Four-year-olds have a strong record in recent times, having won five of the past 10 renewals. Indeed, four and five-year-olds account for all-bar two of the victories in the past dozen years. Young and progressive types are therefore favoured over older more experienced sorts.

As in many large handicaps, weight carrying proves to be an important trend. Only two of the last 10 winners have carried more than 9st to victory, though last year’s renewal saw three of the first four breaking that trend. Nevertheless, the history of the race points to less exposed well handicapped sorts prevailing.

Another stat worth noting, is the poor record of favourites. Zaahid was the last to prevail in 2008, otherwise, market leaders have rarely made much of an impact. Four of the first five home last year were priced at 20/1 or above, with the top pair in the market trailing in midfield.

Fastnet Tempest looks sure to go off favourite tomorrow. He’s certainly an unexposed type with just eight career starts, though this is only his second start over the trip. His seasonal debut at Newbury was promising, when chinned late-on in a 21-runner affair. He looked the winner that day, but wandered about in front. He’s clearly talented but has his quirks, and will have to be delivered at precisely the right moment if he is to win.

George William was a place behind him that day, having finished like a train. Trained by Richard Hannon, this four-year-old by Paco Boy is a three-time winner at the trip, and the way he finished at Newbury, suggests he’ll be suited by the stiffer Ascot track. He runs off 8-11, and I give him a great chance.

Jamie Spencer gave a stellar performance to take this race on Speculative Bid in 2015. He rides Taurean Star for Michael Bell tomorrow, with the horse and jockey looking well suited. Proven over the trip, and with two wins from four visits to the track, expect this one to be delivered as late as possible, in typical Spencer style. He’s another that looks to have the ideal profile.

The Warrior was eighth in this last year, but is 7lb lower in the handicap this time round. Still only a five-year-old, he’s been kept incredibly busy, with six runs since the end of February. He rarely wins, and has never won at the trip, and that, combined with his busy recent schedule worries me. However, I can see him going well off this handicap mark, and expect to see him flashing home late-on.

Despite the number of runners, I’m struggling to give many much of a chance. The older brigade look thoroughly exposed, with Heaven’s Guest possibly the most attractive off his current mark.

I’m left with a surprisingly short list of possible winners, and am siding with George William and Taurean Star. Both tick the appropriate trend boxes, and in a renewal, that perhaps lacks a little in quality, I strongly fancy both. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Varian – Life After Postponed

The injury and subsequent retirement of Postponed was a huge blow for Roger Varian and his team, but he remains a trainer to follow with an eye-catching strike rate.

Postponed was the yard’s flag-bearer and a multiple Group 1 winner. Transferred by Sheikh Mohammed Obaid from the care of Luca Cumani prior to the 2016 season, the horse became one of Europe’s finest over middle-distance trips. He took the Coronation Cup at Epsom and then won the Juddmonte International at York. His injury at the start of this season would not, in normal circumstances, be career-ending, but as a six-year-old the decision was made to call it a day.

Such blows are common-place in racing, and Varian’s yard has responded with a storming run of success. This Summer’s campaign has been launched from a new home at Carlburg Stables on Newmarket’s Bury Road. Formerly Clive Brittain’s yard, the move from Kremlin House Stables took place in January, and the transition has proved a smooth one.

Varian had enjoyed many happy and successful years at Kremlin House, formerly as assistant to Michael Jarvis. His own introduction to racing began as a 13-year-old, when riding out point-to-pointers for Alan and Lawney Hill, who lived nearby. He hoped to become a National Hunt jockey, and indeed moved to Josh Gifford’s stable as a conditional. A fall and injury to a wrist ended hopes of a career in the saddle and set him on the road as a trainer.

Varian will be hopeful that the stunning facilities at the new yard, which include; 140 boxes, numerous horse-walkers, an equine swimming pool and a newly-refurbished outdoor trotting ring, will aid the team’s expansion and further top-level success. The trainer will be keen to add to those 12 Group 1 victories and the Classic success of Kingston Hill in the St Leger of 2014.

The backing of owner Sheikh Mohammed Obaid is sure to play a huge part in the continued success. He owns the stables Ajman Princess, and the four-year-old daughter of Teofilo was an impressive winner at Goodwood recently. She’s finished runner-up in the Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot last Summer, and will now be aimed at winning a Group race, starting with the Pinnacle Stakes at Haydock in a few weeks’ time.

Connections also have a nice prospect in the three-year-old Colt Fujaira Bridge. Runner-up to Barney Roy as a juvenile, the son of Sea The Stars is expected to run in the Dee Stakes at Chester tomorrow, and could prove an interesting outsider in the field. He’s a light-framed nice moving sort, who may well be suited by Chester, and could run far better than his odds suggest.

Madeline was an expensive purchase, and is a juvenile filly likely to make her debut at Ascot tomorrow. By Kodiac, out of a Marchand De Sable mare, she could be one for Royal Ascot next month, and looks to have the pedigree to make an impact.

Flavius Titus is another juvenile likely to start out at Ascot this weekend. He’s by outstanding sprinter Lethal Force, out of a Pivotal mare. Another with the pedigree to impress, we’ll soon see if he has the talent to back-up the breeding.

Sheikh Ahmed is another significant owner who has numerous talented thoroughbreds at the yard. Nezwaah has the class to win at Pattern level, as she showed last Summer when winning a listed event at Newcastle, before chasing home the talented So Mi Dar at Yarmouth. The daughter of Dubawi is set to run in a Group 2 at York next week.

Connections also have several juveniles with Varian, that look to have huge potential. To Wafij is a powerful looking Colt by Kodiac out of an Indian Ridge mare. He won a strong looking maiden on debut at Yarmouth last time. Clearly bred to sprint, his entries suggest he’ll be campaigned quietly initially, though he’s clearly talented.

Ennaadd is another listed winner with sights set on Pattern success. The four-year-old son of King’s Best, was unlucky in the All-Weather final last month, and more recently was runner-up at Ascot in a listed event. Fast ground suits this fella, and a flatter track over seven-furlongs or a mile may prove ideal.

With a new stable giving fresh impetus, Roger Varian must shrug off the disappointment of losing Postponed. And a 30% strike-rate suggests he’s doing exactly that.

Sprint Queens set for Sizzling Summer

The Palace House Stakes has gone to plenty of high class sprinters over the years, and Marsha has the potential to be as good as any.

Trained by Sir Mark Prescott, the four-year-old defied a Group 1 penalty to defeat a strong looking field in Newmarket’s Group 3 on Saturday. Ballydoyle’s Washington DC is a classy sort, and ran consistently throughout last summer in the most prestigious sprints. He had a fitness advantage following runs at Meydan and Navan, yet was unable to handle the raw speed of this talented filly.

This was her first outing since winning the Prix de l’Abbaye at Chantilly in October, and it showed, as she drifted markedly under pressure in the final furlong. Despite that, she was well on top at the finish. Luke Morris did the steering, and he was impressed: “Fair play to the team at home. They got her spot on for today. She has really filled out and when I pushed the button on her, I got there too soon to be honest, she got a bit tired up the hill. All her best form is over five, so races like the King's Stand and the Abbaye will be right up her street.”

It was no surprise to see Goldream run so well on fast ground that he loves, though he never looked likely to land a blow, finishing a well held third. He’d won this race in 2015, and went on to win the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot. Robert Cowell’s classy sprinter finished that campaign with victory in the Abbaye.

Profitable was last year’s Palace House winner. That was the start of a trio of victories, taking in the Temple Stakes at Haydock, and then like Goldream a year earlier, winning the King’s Stand at Ascot.
Sole Power won back to back Palace House Stakes in 2013 and 2014. Ed Lynam’s fabulous sprinter also followed those victories with success in the King’s Stand, and added the Nunthorpe Stakes in 2014.

In 2011, Tangerine Trees failed to follow his Palace House victory with success at Ascot. Though, he bounced back to form at Longchamp when capturing the Abbaye. Equaino was an exceptional sprinter, and took the Newmarket event at the start of his 2010 campaign. He became yet another to follow-up in the King’s Stand at Royal Ascot a month later.

There’s been plenty of others that followed wins in the Palace House with further major success. Avonbridge did the Palace/Abbaye double in 2005. Kyllachy was an unlucky third in the King’s Stand, yet won a fabulous trio of Palace/Temple/Nunthorpe Stakes in 2002.

Lochsong was one of the all-time greats, and was the last filly to win the Palace House under penalty in 1994, a year when she captured virtually every major sprint in the calendar. The King’s Stand, Temple Stakes and Prix de l’Abbaye all went her way, during a stunning campaign.

Marsha is now second favourite for the King’s Stand at the Royal Meeting, and her trainer suggested that she would bypass the Temple Stakes and head straight to Ascot. If she’s in similar form in June, she must have an outstanding chance in the showpiece sprint.

She’s likely to face Wes Ward’s flying filly, Lady Aurelia. She provided one of the highlights of last year’s meeting, when romping to success as a juvenile in the Queen Mary. She proved her wellbeing at Keeneland last month, and is currently favourite for the King’s Stand.

Aidan O’Brien’s Washington DC will find it tough to land the spoils at the highest level, but the Ballydoyle master has a new inmate that could challenge for top honours. Easton Angel was an expensive purchase for Coolmore in February, and she is being trained for an early season campaign by Aidan O’Brien. The length of her season is likely to depend on how she performs on the track, before attention turns to breeding. She was runner-up in the Queen Mary as a juvenile in 2015, and closely matched with Marsha as a three-year-old last year. Currently 20/1 for the King’s Stand, she could prove a leading challenger in June.

I’m a huge fan of the season’s sprints, and I’ll be keeping a close watch on Marsha during the Summer. The trend of successful campaigns for Palace House winners looks likely to continue.

Glorious Churchill Launches A Ballydoyle Blitz

Churchill proved himself the ‘real deal’, as he powered to victory in Saturday’s 2000 Guineas.

Ridden prominently by Ryan Moore, he got the perfect tow into the race from stable companion Lancaster Bomber. Moore grabbed the rail inside the three-furlong mark, and that proved the place to be, as runner-up Barney Roy along with third-place finisher Al Wukair suffered a far-less smooth run to the line. The winner was impressive, though the second and third may well get closer in the future.

Ryan Moore was positively gushing with praise for the winner: “He's such a lovely horse. He has a magnificent mind. I think he has everything you want in a racehorse - he travels, has speed and loads of class. He was always racing comfortably. He always feels like there's more when you ask him.”

For Aidan O’Brien, this was a record breaking eighth 2000 Guineas success. As ever, the Ballydoyle chief was quick to praise the efforts of the team in preparing this latest Classic winner: “Everyone at home was very happy with the horse, which is why we took the chance to come first time, so I'm delighted. We always thought he was a horse with a lot of speed. Ryan was very happy to be handy. The pace was sensible and Ryan knew Donnacha's horse (Lancaster Bomber) would take him there. The lads (owners) will decide about the Derby themselves. They make all the decisions about all the horses.”

O’Brien gave hope of an Epsom challenge when adding: “He is very relaxed and will probably get as far as you want him to get. He is by Galileo and horses by that sire very rarely lack stamina.”

On only his third career start, Barney Roy appeared to find the notorious ‘Newmarket Dip’ a little tricky, before staying-on strongly to the delight of trainer Richard Hannon. “He’s finished second in the Guineas and it’s marvellous,” said the handler.

He went on: “It would have been better if he’d won but he’s a good horse and that’s what we came here to prove and he’s proved that. I am very proud of him. He ran a good race, but he stumbled coming into the Dip, mainly through a little inexperience, but he has run a super race. The St James’s Palace Stakes is likely to be on the cards for him now.”

Jockey James Doyle, clearly felt his horse a little unfortunate in defeat: “He has run a cracking race. We were hoping for a better pace and they didn’t go very quick at all. He’s a big baby and was a little awkward early. He got the hang of it at halfway, but Ryan grabbed the rail, whilst we were caught in a tangle. He didn’t handle the Dip at all, but once he met the rising ground he finished off really well. A flatter track will definitely suit him better.”

The French challenger, Al Wukair, had to come widest of all to make his challenge. He looked likely to sweep past the leaders coming out of the Dip, but was unable to reel in the winner, or indeed overhaul the runner-up. He certainly has gears, and the stiff finish did him no favours.

Andre Fabre appeared less than impressed with proceedings, merely saying: “It’s over.” Harry Herbert, advisor at Al Shaqab Racing, had more to say of the French colt: “He ran a hell of a race, but the pace was so slow. He would be much better off a stronger-run race. As a result, he [jockey Gregory Benoist] had to come wide and there was nothing to follow. He has done very well, all things considered. It is very likely that he will come back to the St James’s Palace Stakes. We will talk to Andre and let the dust settle.”

With a hint of understatement, Herbert added: “Andre is very disappointed.”

Another to take from the race, looked to be Godolphin’s second-string, Dream Castle. He had absolutely no luck in running, and had to be switched on a couple of occasions before running on strongly at the finish. He’ll ‘win big’ before the season is over, and may be one for the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot.

Ballydoyle completed a Classic double on Sunday, when Winter caused something of an upset by beating stable companion, and short-priced favourite, Rhododendron into second-place. The winner had a dream passage, and had things sewn-up inside the final furlong. For Ryan Moore, things couldn’t have gone much worse. The favourite was caught in traffic, and when finally finding a gap, had no chance of reeling in the winner. It would come as no surprise should placings be reversed the next time the pair meet.

It proved another sensational weekend for Coolmore’s super stallion Galileo. And could prove to be a long and arduous summer for O’Brien’s opponents.

Churchill and Bomber in a Ballydoyle Blitz

Ballydoyle, Godolphin and Al Shaqab Racing, carved up the mile division last season, thanks to outstanding three-year-olds Galileo Gold, Ribchester and The Gurkha.

The trio famously clashed in a thrilling Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, with French Guineas winner, The Gurkha, getting the better of English Guineas winner Galileo Gold, with QEII runner-up Ribchester, a fast finishing third. The same three powerhouses provide the leading contenders for tomorrow’s opening Classic, with Aidan O’Brien’s Churchill set to be sent off a short-priced favourite.

Last year’s leading juvenile has five victories from six starts, and was an impressive winner of the Dewhurst in October, when defeating stable-companion Lancaster Bomber and Godolphin’s Blue Point. Rivet was comfortably beaten in fifth, and that form was franked in the Craven recently. Churchill was doing his best work at the end of the Dewhurst, which suggests that this step-up to a mile should suit, despite the dam being a speedster. He looks a worthy favourite, though we are about to find out if he has trained-on from two to three.

That element of doubt is not there with Godolphin’s Barney Roy. He’s already shown his ability at three, with a fine win in the Greenham Stakes at Newbury. He looked a little outpaced by stable-mate Dream Castle, before galloping powerfully past his rival inside the final furlong. He’s a long-striding imposing sort, and there’s a slight concern as to how he’ll cope with the dip at Newmarket. He’s very inexperienced, with just two career starts, and I worry that this will prove an issue. He looks a colt with huge potential, but is he ready for this?

Al Shaqab’s challenger Al Wukair, arrives having beaten the Grand Criterium winner, National Defense, at Maisons Laffitte in April. That looks strong French form, and trainer Andre Fabre has twice been successful in the 2000 Guineas, though his last victory came in 1995. He came close in 2015, when Territories chased home Gleneagles, and I’d be surprised if this fella didn’t go close.

There’s understandably been plenty of interest in Frankel progeny, and Eminent will be flying the flag tomorrow. Another with just two runs under his belt, he needed every yard of the mile trip to impress in the Craven Stakes a few weeks back. He defeated Rivet, which is undoubtedly solid form, and trainer Martyn Meade is adamant that his powerfully built colt will improve plenty for the run. He'll be finishing the race to great effect, and looks to have a great chance.

Godolphin have their own Frankel in the field, with Greenham runner-up Dream Castle not to be overlooked. Beaten, though far from disgraced by Barney Roy, he travelled like the best horse for much of the race, and under a more patient ride may prove an interesting contender.

The each-way play in the race may prove to be O’Brien’s second-string, Lancaster Bomber. The likely fast ground at Newmarket is sure to suit the son of War Front, and I was impressed by how he battled on in last autumn’s Dewhurst. He looked a huge two-year-old, and it’s possible that others will have caught up physically during the winter. Nevertheless, his odds of 33/1 are tempting, and he showed his well-being with a decent performance in Dubai in March.

Hype often surrounds a Ballydoyle player as the season begins, but his pedigree suggests that Churchill could prove the ‘real deal’, and go on to become an outstanding miler. He’s a predictable selection, but I think he’s the likely winner. Barney Roy could prove the main danger, but I’ll be having a few quid on O’Brien’s Lancaster Bomber to sneak into a place for each-way punters. Best of luck to those having a punt.

The Usual Suspects have eye on the Classics

With Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown behind us, the time has come to focus solely on the new Flat campaign, and specifically this weekend’s Guineas Meeting from Newmarket.

Yes, the first Classics are almost upon us, and the usual suspects look set to dominate in both the 1000 and 2000 Guineas. Once again, it’s Ballydoyle that head the markets for both, with last year’s top juvenile Churchill, short-odds to beat the colts on Saturday. This could be the first of many Coolmore/Godolphin clashes throughout the season, with the ‘boys in blue’ represented by second-favourite Barney Roy, trained by 2014 winner Richard Hannon.

Aidan O’Brien has won five of the last dozen renewals, though had the disappointing favourite for last year’s race, Air Force Blue. He was by American stallion War Front, who has proved a rather unpredictable sire, despite strong and persistent backing from the guys at Coolmore. He appears to produce precocious juveniles, though the undoubted talent isn’t always carried forward to a three-year-old campaign.

There may therefore, be more confidence behind Churchill, as he is by the outstanding stallion Galileo. He’s out of a Storm Cat mare, making him similar in profile to 2015 winner Gleneagles.

Galileo has proved the common thread running through numerous recent winners. And his name appears in the pedigree for Hannon’s challenger Barney Roy. By top-class miler Excelebration out of a Galileo mare, he was an impressive winner of the Greenham Stakes at Newbury on his seasonal reappearance. He thundered home on that occasion, and Hannon is clearly looking forward to Saturday’s race: “Barney Roy is a horse we have been very excited about for a long time and he confirmed our views in impressive style when taking the Greenham. He still ran a bit green that day and I believe the step up in trip and the extra experience will stand him in good stead. I am very pleased for Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin that I can take a horse of his quality to the race.”

Another fancied contender is the Martyn Meade trained Eminent. Winner of the Craven Stakes, this powerfully built colt is by Galileo’s most famous son, the mighty Frankel. He defeated Rivet last time out, needing every yard of the mile trip when pulling clear in the latter stages. Haafhd was the last horse, in 2004, to win both the Craven and the Guineas.

It’s Aidan O’Brien that also sends out the market leader for the 1000 Guineas on Sunday. Rhododendron completed her juvenile campaign with a stunning success at Newmarket in the Dubai Fillies’ Mile. Another from the Galileo production line, this filly is out of the Sun Chariot winning mare, Halfway To Heaven. It’s a cracking pedigree, as Team Coolmore look for their fourth win in six years. Outstanding fillies, Minding and Legatissimo have won the last two renewals.

Despite an incredible career, that has gleaned victories worldwide, John Gosden is yet to win the 2000 Guineas, and has only captured the fillies’ classic once. That’s not to say that he hasn’t come close to winning many more, and he has certainly produced outstanding milers, with the likes of Kingman, Raven’s Pass, Nannina and Elusive Kate springing instantly to mind.

Daban is his hope for Sunday’s renewal, following her win in the Nell Gwyn a couple of weeks back. The stable has started this campaign in dazzling form, and this filly looked exciting last time, showing a stunning turn-of-foot late on. Following her win, Gosden said: “She can only improve. I was expecting a good show from her. She’s a sweet, lovely filly and is very relaxed at home. She does have that cruising speed and ability to quicken which is what a good thoroughbred has.”

Fair Eva is another well-fancied filly carrying famous silks. Trained by Roger Charlton, she is the daughter of Frankel and runs in the instantly recognisable colours of Prince Khalid Abdullah. Placed in the Lowther and the Rockfel last autumn, her trainer is happy with her progress and confident of a huge run: “I'm very pleased with her and I'm satisfied she will stay a mile well,” Charlton told At The Races. “I think she has an excellent chance of finishing in the first four as she's already a Group Three winner and Group Two-placed - she justifies her place.”

Just how well these three-year-olds have trained-on is about to be tested. There-in lies the difficulty of assessing the chances of contenders for these early-season classics. A high-class pedigree, powerful connections and coming from one of the leading yards, is often the best starting point, when trying to pick the ‘Classic winner’ from the classy also-rans.

Jumps Over and Feeling Flat

Nicky Henderson captured the Trainers’ Championship for the second time in five years, with a dominant display at Sandown on Saturday.

Paul Nicholls had hoped for a successful final day of the campaign, but it was Henderson who landed a treble on the day, and came close to making it four, when Vyta Du Roc was denied by a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup.

Altior proved the star-turn with a stunning display in the Grade 1 Celebration Chase. He swept past the Champion Chase winner Special Tiara, as they headed for the last fence, and though he got in close, he quickly regained momentum, sprinting to an eight-length victory. His jumping was arguably as good as we’ve seen from him throughout the winter, and he travelled effortlessly throughout. It was a truly devastating display, and many Jumps fans will already be licking their lips at the prospect of Altior versus Douvan in the autumn.

Juvenile hurdler Call Me Lord had been a comfortable winner for Seven Barrows in the first, and L’Ami Serge finally put in a performance worthy of his talent, in winning the Grade 2 Select Hurdle. That double for owners Munir and Soude arguably should have been a treble on the day, when Vyta Du Roc appeared to be given plenty to do, before charging through traffic late-on to fail by just a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup. Peter Bowen’s Henllan Harri was given a peach of a ride by son Sean, and managed to hold-off Henderson’s horse. Though not the biggest, the runner-up will surely be aimed at nationals next season.

Of his success in the title race, Henderson said: “We’ve got some Grade One horses and to be fair to Paul, he has done incredibly well and won a huge amount of prize money whereas we’ve got horses like Altior, Buveur d’Air and Might Bite.” Of Altior he added: “He's top class. I think we've always known that. He’s got a bit of everything - he's got class, he's got the gears. I think we've always known that he is very special ever since a young horse as a hurdler. You know that Special Tiara is going to set serious fractions but this fellow can always have it covered as he has the pace to do it.”

A special Sandown mention goes to the wonderful Menorah, who won the Oaksey Chase for a fourth time, before being retired by connections. The 12-year-old has been campaigned at the highest level throughout his career, and has brought great success to owners Diana and Grahame Whateley. It was terrific to see him go-out with such a stunning display.

So, whilst Henderson successfully kept Nicholls at arms-length, the same could not be said in Ireland, with Gordon Elliott finally overwhelmed by a tsunami of Willie Mullins winners. A lead of around €400,000 going into the Punchestown Festival put Elliott in pole position, but despite several unlucky defeats during the week, the Master of Closutton still managed to retain his crown by a staggering €199,455.

Great Field was mightily impressive in winning the Ryanair Novice Chase earlier in the week, and on Friday, Wicklow Brave in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Bacardys in the Champion Novice Hurdle put Mullins in front. A double on the final day of the meeting, which included a victory in the juvenile hurdle for Bapaume, proved to be the title clincher.

Of the dramatic turnaround, Mullins said: “I didn't think it was possible for us to win, particularly when a few of the early photo-finishes went against us this week. It's fantastic to win and a big thank you to all the team at home and all my owners. It's been a funny season. It hasn't been that enjoyable and I'm glad it's over. Gordon is a great competitor. He's fantastic and has been a gentleman the whole way through.”

Elliott had led from the off, and was understandably gutted to come off second best: “It's a bit heart-breaking. We've led from day one of the season, but to be in the same sentence as Willie Mullins is brilliant. Hopefully we'll do it one year. I'm still only 39 and hopefully I'll be around for another few years. We've equalled Willie's record of 193 winners in a season. I said coming here that if I could equal that, it would be something. I'll keep my head up and enjoy it.”

Saturday’s action brought the curtain down on a dramatic National Hunt season. Mullins’ ‘against all odds’ title victory will have left him needing a summer break more than ever before. The loss of Vautour was a huge blow, and then Mr O’Leary took his horses elsewhere. Faugheen, Annie Power and Min were all struck-down by injury, yet the Master of Closutton found a way to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.

A tough winter also for Paul Nicholls. His title challenge masks an underlying decline in the quality of horses at his disposal. He desperately needs to uncover a star or two if he is to challenge a resurgent Nicky Henderson. Sprinter Sacre was retired, but Altior has moved seamlessly into the role of Seven Barrows Superstar. He also has a new hurdling hero in Buveur D’Air.

And both will be looking over their shoulders, as Colin Tizzard continues to build on a stunning campaign. Fox Norton, Thistlecrack and Native River have all captured major prizes, and promise much of the same for some time to come.

Now, if we can just get this Flat season out of the way.

Hard-Hitting Henderson Can Roc At Sandown

It truly is a week for the big-hitters, going at it toe-to-toe, in a battle for supremacy.

It may be a rather less bloody affair than Klitschko versus Joshua, but over in Ireland, Willie Mullins is throwing everything at Gordon Elliott as he tries to retain his trainers’title. Several agonizing near-misses, including Nichols Canyon and Djakadam, have served to thwart the Closutton King, and his crown has all-but fallen.

Whilst over in the UK on Saturday, another heavyweight battle takes place at Sandown, as they host the final meeting of the National Hunt season, with Nicky Henderson on the verge of landing the knockout-blow to be crowned the new champ.

There’s enough money in the Sandown pot for Paul Nicholls to turn things around, though Team Ditcheat look to have a mountain to climb. Whilst Nicholls has jabbed away intelligently throughout the campaign, maintaining a high-tempo, landing telling blows again and again, it is Henderson that has possessed the firepower, with the likes of Buveur D’Air and Altior bludgeoning the opposition to win major prizes. The latter may well end the fight by winning the Grade 1 Celebration Chase tomorrow.

Nicholls rests his hopes on the much-improved San Benedeto, though this looks a step too far for the gutsy Aintree winner. Special Tiara is likely to prove a greater threat to Henderson’s new star, though the Seven Barrows chief is taking no chances, and will hope to land the old ‘one-two’ with Vaniteux thrown into the mix. I’m a huge fan of the horse, and he’s more than capable of chasing home his celebrated stable companion.

With the referee likely to have stepped-in to end the fight, both Henderson and Nicholls should feel a little more relaxed as they prepare their challengers for the most valuable event on the card, the Bet365 Gold Cup. And both have the opportunity of ending the season with a bang, though Neil Mulholland holds a powerful hand going into the prestigious staying chase.

The Wiltshire handler saddles his usual suspects, The Druids Nephew and The Young Master, the latter the winner of this 12 months ago. The former was behind in fifth, but his handicap mark is now 10lbs lower, and both look to have a great chance. Their tough to split, and the bookies have them tied at 7/1. Yet Mulholland has arguably a stronger contender, in race favourite, and much improved, Doing Fine.

A victory and three runners-up finishes, from his four outings since arriving at the yard, the nine-year-old by Presenting is in tip-top shape, and will love both the ground and the trip. He ran a belter when second to Rocky Creek at the track in December, and this race looks tailor-made. He’s a solid jumper, a thorough stayer, and runs without penalty having won easily at Cheltenham just over a week ago. He looks sure to go close.

The champion-elect has a pair of runners, and it’s Vyta Du Roc that I fancy will go best for the Master of Seven Barrows. The eight-year-old’s winter had mirrored, in levels of disappointment, that of Vicente, until that horse stormed back to form in winning the Scottish National last week. They were very similar types as novice chasers, rated around the mid-140s. But both had struggled to make an impact during this campaign, and their handicap marks fell accordingly. Vyta Du Roc is now off 137, and though his form is hardly inspiring, I find myself drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He was sixth in the Hennessy at the start of the season, and defeated Minella Rocco at Ascot, little more than 12 months ago.

Like Mulholland, Paul Nicholls sends a trio into battle, with two of his hopes having gone close in last year’s renewal. Just A Par won the race in 2015, and came within a short-head of repeating the feat last year. He remains on a competitive handicap mark, and looks sure to run well.

Southfield Theatre is burdened with top-weight, though Nicholls has stated that the horse is better prepared this time around. The enormity of the task is best illustrated by saying that Tidal Bay, Desert Orchid, Diamond Edge, Mill House and Arkle, are some of just a handful to overcome such a burden in the past.

Philip Hobbs took this race in 2006 and 2008, and has a serious contender in Rock The Kasbah. The seven-year-old has performed admirably in novice events throughout the winter, though has perhaps not hit the heights connections would have hoped for. I’m convinced that better ground suits him, though this trip is something of an unknown. He’s by Shirocco, the same sire as Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco. Hobbs will be hoping that this step-up in trip proves key to an improved performance. I fancy he could go very close.

It looks a terrific renewal, with cases to be made for plenty. I’m taking Vyta Du Roc to land the spoils for Henderson, and though both Mulholland and Nicholls arrive mob-handed, I’ll take Hobbs’ Rock The Kasbah to make a place for each-way punters. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Punchestown – The Brits Are Back For More

Several Brits came and conquered a year ago at the Punchestown Festival. And those same trainers are queueing-up today in hope of repeating that success.

Team Tizzard struck gold on the opening day, when the fast-improving Fox Norton landed the Champion Chase. He needed to be rousted along by Robbie Power to stay in touch with Un De Sceaux, but once on terms approaching the last, his superior stamina proved the crucial factor. The horse may well head for the King George at Kempton, and looks tailor-made for the Ryanair next March.

A year ago, Harry Fry was thrilled to saddle Fletchers Flyer to victory, and today has a leading contender in the Stayers Hurdle with Unowhatimeanharry. By no means disgraced, when third at Cheltenham behind Nichols Canyon and Lil Rockerfeller, the nine-year-old appeared outpaced late-on. Noel Fehily takes the ride, and may need to force the issue a little earlier in the piece, if he is to take the sting out of several swifter opponents.

Warren Greatrex trained the surprise winner One Track Mind a year ago, and he’s back for more. The trainer has given up on a chasing career for the talented seven-year-old, after a pair of disappointing attempts over the larger obstacles. This year’s renewal looks a strong affair, but Greatrex will be hopeful that a return to hurdles will spark a return to form.

Nicky Henderson loves a trip to Punchestown, and will be hooking-up with his great friend Jess Harrington. Who could forget the wonderful Sprinter Sacre, strutting his stuff for the Irish racing public a few years back. The stable won last year, when Cup Final took a three-mile handicap hurdle, and today Henderson has a talented mare Kayf Grace, entered in the two-mile Mares Novice Hurdle. Good enough to defeat Augusta Kate at Aintree last year, she’s been off the track since December due to a minor leg injury, but will hopefully be able to do herself justice here.

Philip Hobbs should also be represented today by a returning Punchestown Festival winner. No Comment may lack star-quality, but he’s no mug, and won under a power-packed ride by Jamie Codd 12 months ago. He beat Monalee on that occasion, and looked to have a bright future, but has arguably been slightly disappointing thus far. Nevertheless, he ran well to finish second at Aintree last time, and could be off a decent mark for a prominent finish in the valuable three-mile handicap hurdle. Owned by JP McManus, it would come as no surprise should this fella go close to repeating last year’s success at the course.

Rebecca Curtis is another of the British raiding party, hoping to add further Punchestown glory. Irish Cavalier has proved a hero at the meeting, and during the week the Welsh trainer has several other entrants capable of going close. Geordie Des Champs has a touch of class about him, and may well be taking on No Comment in today’s staying handicap hurdle. Another of the McManus battalion, he also ran a cracker at Aintree, when third over possibly an inadequate trip of 2m4f. He’s also entered on Saturday over the shorter trip, though I’d hope he goes for this. He’s capable of running well in either event, and looks a horse that needs decent ground to shine.

These successful British raiders are ably supported by other familiar names, hoping for a taste of Punchestown glory. Neil Mulholland will have been disappointed with Peter The Mayo Man on Tuesday, but has half-a-dozen or so more entered throughout the week, including his classy young chaser Shantou Village. Kim Bailey, Anthony Honeyball and Gary Moore also have a handful entered during the festival.

Colin Tizzard may be leading the British assault, but expect one or two other victories as the Brits take in Ireland’s most prestigious Jumps festival.