Rarely does a Saturday go by without Paul Nicholls hitting the target. He’s had an incredible winter which has seen him pull miles clear in the trainer’s championship.
He’s now amassed over £2million in prize-money; Philip Hobbs is currently second best with £1.1million. It’s Nicholls’ chasers that are doing the damage with a strike-rate approaching 30%
His novices are dominant and on Saturday this trend continued when Irish Saint thrashed Melodic Rendezvous and others in the Pendil Novices’ Chase at Kempton.
He simply jumped and galloped the opposition into submission having been sent to the front by Sam Twiston-Davies. He’s clearly a horse with a bright future, especially when the ground is testing. His trainer hinted at missing Cheltenham when after the race he said: "He did it nicely and I think he improved from last time. He's in the JLT and could run if the ground was very testing, or wait for Aintree." The bookies were taking no chances and quickly shortened the horse to around 10’s for the JLT.
But the champion trainer was far from reliant on just his novice chasers striking gold, as Rocky Creek put in a dominant performance to win the Grade 3 BetBright Chase. Last year’s Grand National fifth showed his well-being winning comfortably despite carrying top-weight. It became an armchair ride for Twiston-Davies who after the race said: “He was awesome and it was a great training performance. He was a different horse today, gritting his teeth at the start and was a pleasure to ride - very straightforward.”
Nicholls also appeared impressed, enthusing: “I think this is the best we've ever had him. Last year he wasn't finishing his races, but he's seemed very well and looked great today. I was keen to get a run into him before the National and he'll go straight there now."
The day saw another top-class chaser back to form, when Sire De Grugy put his disappointing Newbury reappearance behind him with a faultless success at Chepstow. The champion two-mile chaser was giving plenty of weight away to his three opponents, but travelled well throughout and jumped with plenty of enthusiasm. Kept up to his work, he pulled seven lengths clear of Grey Gold. In truth he needed to win against such opposition and is now vying for favouritism for the Champion Chase.
With Cheltenham only two weeks away, the quick back to back appearances on testing ground have to be a slight concern for Sire De Grugy fans. There’s little doubt that the decision to run him on Saturday after such a poor performance at Newbury was the right one, but the preparation has been far from ideal. In the circumstances, it would be an incredible achievement if he was to retain his crown in March.
Arguably the most impressive run on Saturday came from Robert Stephens’ juvenile in the Adonis Hurdle. Beltor ran a belter, cruising through the race before shooting clear from the last. He was keen throughout, but pleasing for all concerned was that he still had plenty in the tank when needed. The son of Authorized has taken incredibly well to hurdles and a top price of 10/1 for the Triumph Hurdle seems fair enough on the back of such a performance.
He was lightly raced on the flat as a three-year-old before changing codes, and had only attained a rating in the mid 70’s. It’s likely that he would have progressed some way beyond that mark, and he now looks to be serious each-way prospect for the Festival.
Only in his second season as a trainer, Stephens was clearly thrilled with the performance: “His work has always been very good. His win at Ludlow was encouraging and he'd come on since - he's done that very nicely. It's massive for us in our second season training to come to meetings like this and win Grade 2s. It's realistic to dream about Cheltenham and the nice gallop there will help him settle."
Winning jockey Tom O'Brien added: “I can't wait until they go faster for him. He's done that very easily and is a credit to Robert and his wife Rosie - brilliant. He's earned a crack at the Triumph and I'm really looking forward to Cheltenham."
‘Hear Hear’ to that.