The usual suspects from Ditcheat and Closutton were at it again over the weekend, firing warning shots at those that have the audacity to challenge their supremacy.
Nicholls and Mullins struck major blows, claiming prestigious prizes in the UK and Ireland, as they battle to retain their positions as champion trainers.
At Cheltenham, Nicholls repeated his feat of 2012, by winning the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup with a four-year-old. Frodon had blundered away his chance a month ago, when finishing down the field in the Betvictor. This time around, he was always travelling ominously well for Sam Twiston-Davies, and was delivered with his challenge between the last two fences. He was foot-perfect at the last, and ran on strongly to hold off the fast finishing Aso.
Top weights Village Vic and Kylemore Lough had duelled from the front, with the latter seemingly making a race-winning move turning for home. But Kerry Lee’s talented chaser got in close at the last, and lost crucial momentum. He faded to fifth at the finish, with Aso, Village Vic and Quite By Chance chasing home the winner.
The runner-up is a ‘big-race’ winner in waiting. Venetia Williams will have been thrilled with the run. His jumping wasn’t without fault, but he continues to learn, and is mightily progressive. Village Vic was once again heroic in defeat. He looked beaten when Kylemore Lough flew past him heading for two out. But he fought like a lion, and was only just pipped for second.
“He's a 100 per cent trier,” said a contented trainer, Philip Hobbs. “He ran on very well in the end. He's run fantastic again. The great thing about him is he gets into a rhythm and jumps well. Although his jumping was good, I don't think it was quite as good as last time. He was very brave and is good at organising himself.”
The Colin Tizzard trained, Quite By Chance, caught the eye in fourth. He finished powerfully, and is another on a workable handicap mark. Very much like Aso, he is a fast improving chaser, and wonderfully consistent. He’ll have his head in front before too long.
Of the winner, Nicholls was clearly thrilled, and speaking to Channel 4 said: “I enjoyed that, I thought he was awfully unlucky the last day. The rain suited him and I thought he'd go close today. Frodon's a good horse, he jumps well. They can all make the odd mistake, he's only a novice, but we put that right in the last month and he was a lot fresher today. It was great for Sam to have a winner on the big stage. It will have done his confidence the world of good.”
It proved a terrific Saturday for Team Ditcheat, with a treble at Doncaster raking in a further £50,000 in prize money.
A day later in Ireland, Willie Mullins proved the dominant force, winning a pile of euros in the process. The ‘big guns’ were out, and in Djakadam and Douvan they don’t come much bigger. The former took the valuable John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown for the second time. He was made to fight hard by a pair of Gigginstown owned runners. Gordon Elliott’s Outlander came closest to overhauling the favourite, but the Gold Cup runner-up was not to be denied.
Mullins said of the winner: “I'm happy that he's learned to find a leg at last, when he made a mistake at the one going down the hill. We'll probably try to do what we did last year. I'm delighted that he could win that first time out, and he's making progress. I just wanted to get today out of the way first, and we'll see where we go from here.”
Djakadam formed part of a four-timer for Mullins at Punchestown, and he added to this a double at Cork, with Douvan the star turn. His returning Arkle Trophy hero strolled to victory in the Grade 2 Kerry Group Hilly Way Chase. It was by no means a perfect performance, with the third last a particularly sticky moment. Nevertheless, he devours the ground, and appears at all times to be cruising along in second gear.
For owner Rich Ricci, it proved to be a terrific day. Of Douvan he said: “I think the Dial-A-Bet Chase at Christmas, I think we'll stick to two miles. He seems to handle that distance, I wouldn't be afraid of stepping up in trip, but there's no need to at the moment. In my own mind I'd probably stick to two miles this year and then see where we are next year.”
Willie Mullins remains the man to beat in Ireland, and though Gordon Elliott will put up a fierce challenge for the trainers’ crown, the team at Closutton have mighty firepower at their disposal. The Christmas period is sure to prove key, with valuable events at Leopardstown the next test for both camps.
Back in the UK, Nicholls, as always, sets the pace. But he’ll be looking over his shoulder, as Colin Tizzard looks set to unleash his own ‘big guns’ at Kempton. Jump racing fans look set to enjoy a thrilling Christmas, with equine stars galore, lighting up the holiday period.