Nicholls Strong Hand in Fixed Brush

Haydock’s Fixed Brush Hurdle is small on history, but has quickly become big on reputation.

Not just seen as a staying hurdle event, the race is often used as a transition from the smaller obstacles to a career over fences. The impressive roll of honour is testament to its attraction, with past winners including Halcon Genelardais, Diamond Harry, Grand Crus and Dynaste.

The first running was in 2005, and six of the 11 winners were bred in France. It’s a race that has favoured young precocious types, with five and six-year-olds winning all bar three. David Pipe’s three victories from 2010 to 2013 typified the profile, with Grands Crus, Dynaste and Gevrey Chambertin all French bred five-year-olds.

Pipe is the most successful trainer in the race, but will not be adding to his record on Saturday, as he is without a contender. Last year’s event went to Dan Skelton with his ill-fated Baradari. Yet another five-year-old, he revelled in testing conditions, winning easily despite the burden of 11-2 on his back.

It’s surprising for a handicap, that weight has never proved an obstacle to success. Three top-weights have been successful, with only four horses having carried less than 11 stone to victory in the event’s short history. Horses making their seasonal debut have a decent record in the race, so don’t be put-off by those lacking a prep-run.

It’s something of a surprise to see that Paul Nicholls is yet to win the Fixed Brush. That could all change on Saturday, as he has three leading contenders; all bred in France. Mr Mix and Ibis Du Rheu fit the winning profile perfectly, as both are progressive looking five-year-olds. Both are expected to head over fences this winter, and Nicholls has clearly chosen this as a suitable starting point. The former is arguably better suited by testing conditions, and made a satisfactory return in the Silver Trophy at Chepstow last month.

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Ibis Du Rheu won the Martin Pipe at the Cheltenham Festival on good ground, and I’d be concerned that this trip; just shy of three miles, on testing ground, may stretch his stamina somewhat. Arguably the stronger contender for Nicholls is the older French Bred, Caid Du Berlais. He’s returned to hurdles after a year off the track through injury, and impressed last time with victory at Aintree. The trip looks fine and he is proficient on all ground conditions. Nicholls has claimers on all three contenders, with Stan Sheppard taking a valuable 5lb off Caid, Jack Sherwood 5lbs off Ibis and the impressive Harry Cobden taking 3lbs off Mr Mix.

The Skeltons took the race last year, and are likely to have the favourite on Saturday, with Two Taffs currently heading the market. An embryonic chaser, this son of Flemensfirth is a gorgeous looking fella. He travels powerfully through a race, and ran a cracker in the EBF final at Sandown on soft ground back in March. The trip and conditions should suit, as should the long straight at Haydock, which should aid this big, powerful galloping sort. He looks sure to go well.

Matorico’s an interesting contender for Jonjo O’Neill and JP McManus. Another five-year-old, he ran with promise last season, winning a fair handicap at Cheltenham in April. He ran a couple of times on the flat during the summer, but has not been sighted since May. A son of Mastercraftsman, he appears to cope with all conditions, and could prove a fair each-way proposition.

Harry Fry looks set to run his Albert Bartlett winner Unowhatimeanharry. He went through last season undefeated, and will have no problems with ground conditions. His improvement throughout the last campaign was astounding, and a mark of 149 looks fair enough. It would come as a surprise if he didn’t run well, though as an eight-year-old the trends are very much against him.

Paul Nicholls has started the season in sensational fashion and I fancy he has the firepower to win this race. Of his three, Mr Mix is the one that I will be siding with. He’s sure to have improved from his Chepstow run, and I’ll take him to get the better of Two Taffs and Caid Du Berlais. Expect a host of decent chasers to come from the race, whatever the outcome on Saturday.

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