Just when all hope seemed lost; after that man from Ireland had popped over and stole all the goodies, Paul Nicholls rose from the canvas and landed several haymakers of his own.
The major blow that could yet land the title for Team Ditcheat, was the dramatic success of Vicente in the Coral Scottish Grand National. The seven-year-old had run consistently well throughout the winter and was probably a little unfortunate to only finish fifth in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham when meeting interference at a crucial stage. On Saturday he travelled powerfully throughout, and though he has a habit of getting in close at some of his fences, he was able to mow down Seeyouatmidnight after the last, with the fast finishing Alvarado getting up on the line for second place.
The victory brought a much needed £119,595 first prize, and proved part of a stunning four-timer for the nine times champion trainer. Le Mercurey was another impressive winner, out-gunning Bristol De Mai in a cracking two and half mile Champion Novices’ Chase. The trip proved ideal for the six-year-old, and he was given an aggressive ride by Sam Twiston-Davies, serving it up to the favourite from some way out. He’s yet to prove himself at Cheltenham, but looks the ideal sort for the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November.
Nicholls was clearly thrilled with the day’s work, and said after: “We've laid Vicente out for this all season. I gave him a prep run in the four-miler where he lost his chance when a loose horse fell in front of him, but he learnt a lot from that, it was good experience in a big field.” He went on: “I told Sam to drop his iron a couple of holes as he is a horse who has his own way of jumping and has a light mouth. Sam gave him a peach of a ride.”
Nicholls followed a sensational Saturday at Ayr with another four-timer at Wincanton on Sunday. The prize money will have had little bearing on the championship outcome, but momentum appears to be with the reigning champ, as both he and Willie Mullins now try and mastermind the ‘coup des grace’ at Sandown next Saturday, when the National Hunt season draws to its thrilling conclusion.
With a tenth trainers' title now within touching distance Nicholls added: “I think that put us in front so next Saturday is going to be a big day. We'll have plenty of runners and Southfield Theatre will be our representative in the big race. I'm not going to Perth but we'll have runners all week. There's good prize-money during the week, but at the end of the day it is the big races at Sandown at the weekend that are going to make the difference.
The showdown at Sandown is a fitting finale to another terrific winter of Jump racing action. Mullins is expected to send Un De Sceaux across the Irish Sea to challenge his Champion Chase conqueror Sprinter Sacre. The Grade 1 Celebration Chase carries a top prize of just over £70,000, and that could prove crucial when the pounds are totted up. The Irish Champion Trainer is looking to become the first from Ireland to take the trainers' crown in Britain since Vincent O'Brien 62 years ago.
Vroum Vroum Mag is likely to run in the bet365 Select Hurdle, whilst Valseur Lido or maybe Vautour could arrive on the boat in an attempt to lift the Grade 2 Oaksey Chase, a race that Nicholls has targeted for ex-Champion Chase winner Dodging Bullets.
Mullins will look closely at the bet365 Gold Cup, a race that Nicholls has won twice in the last four years. The Closutton trainer could risk Gigginstown’s Measureofmydreams, who was well fancied for the Scottish National at Ayr, but came down at the third. There’s also the chance of a more experienced chaser or two lining up, with Boston Bob, Sir Des Champs and On His Own all possible contenders.
I’d also expect to see a group of Mullins juveniles arrive for the opener next Saturday. He filled three of the top four spots in the Triumph at Cheltenham, with three from the Nicholls yard in the top 10. A splash of entrants from both camps would make for a spicy starter to proceedings.
Though the Trainers’ title remains in the balance, the Jockeys’ crown has been a done deal for some time. Richard Johnson has stepped into AP’s shoes in a very similar fashion, relentless in his pursuit of a first title. No-one could be more deserving, and it would come as no surprise if AP were to be entrusted with handing over the winners’ trophy.