Present Man defied testing conditions to land the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton on Saturday.
Paul Nicholls has an outstanding record in the race, and had three fancied contenders. He finished with the first and fourth home, though his young novice Mr Mix disappointed. Concerns had been raised over the winner’s ability to cope with soft ground, but any worries were dispelled as the seven-year-old ‘tanked’ along under talented conditional jockey Bryony Frost.
Prominent throughout, Frost sent the winner on from the fifth-last, with only the David Dennis-trained Final Nudge for company. The pair fought out the finish, with Present Man’s bold jumping key to his success. He battled on bravely to hold-off the runner-up by a rapidly diminishing head.
Her father Jimmy had won the race 21 years earlier, and it was clear to everyone that Bryony was thrilled to mirror Dad’s achievement. Speaking to ITV Racing immediately after the win, she said: “He jumped, he travelled. He answers every question. He was pulling my arms out all the way round.”
Nicholls was winning his eighth Badger Ales, and said of the winner: “I was worried about the ground, but I must say I've never seen him look better. I knew he'd go in the ground, but it was whether he stayed in the ground. He's a great example of Rome not being built in a day. He’s took three years to get where he is today. It was a peach of a ride and it's great for the owners.”
Mark Woodhouse owns the winner, and happens to sponsor the race. Clearly emotional, he said of the victory: “We were always in it to win it. It went a bit soft for him, and he’d have had a better chance on good ground. I haven’t got much voice left. I used it up during the home straight.”
The Grand National at Aintree has now been named as a likely target for the winner. The way he jumps a fence will certainly be an asset, though he still has to prove that he can see-out a marathon trip.
The victory completed a valuable double on the card for trainer Paul Nicholls, having earlier seen his exciting young chaser Modus take the Rising Stars in dominant fashion. Just three arrived at the start, though the race looked competitive enough. Ridden confidently by Sam Twiston-Davies, the favourite took up the running two fences from home. He quickened impressively, hitting the line with nine lengths to spare. Bigger tests lie ahead, but this was a decent performance.
Just 24 hours later, Paul Nicholls’ nemesis, Nicky Henderson, unleashed his potential star staying chaser Might Bite. Last year’s RSA winner made his seasonal debut at Sandown, and romped to an impressive victory in the Future Stars Intermediate Chase. In all honesty, this was a race that he had to win convincingly. At times like a showjumper over the fences, he was virtually foot-perfect throughout. Urged to pull clear by Nico de Boinville, he comfortably put 10 lengths between himself and the field, before being eased approaching the line.
“Job done. I'm happy with that,” said the jockey, speaking to Racing UK after the win. “He was very fresh and well going down to the first. I felt I had to take it (the running) up when I did, just because he was enjoying himself so much. He'll come on bundles for that. The big fences played to his strengths. He's got so much scope for improvement that I think he'll be even better than he was last year.”
Nicky Henderson looked chuffed and relieved, saying: “It was straightforward. His jumping was great. He just needed a run and I think he was running a bit fresh. He settled well, and he jumped beautifully. Our objective is the King George and most agreed the sensible thing was to come here (rather than the Betfair Chase at Haydock). He won't run again until then and he'll be miles straighter than he was today. That's part one done.”
The champion trainer added: “Our job is now to get him there on Boxing Day quite a lot fitter than he was today. I wouldn't say a racecourse gallop would go amiss. We'll try and win the King George and then make a second-half-of-the-season plan.”
Winning the King George is a mile away from landing an intermediate chase at Sandown. But there’s no doubting Henderson’s chaser is talented. He’s fluid in movement and beautifully athletic over his fences. He also looks to have plenty of untapped potential, though how he copes when challenged for the lead remains an unknown. Kempton’s Christmas showpiece is stacking up to be an absolute cracker.