Paul Nicholls led a British fight-back on day two of the Cheltenham Festival. Willie Mullins may be the Jump Racing King of Ireland, but on these shores Team Ditcheat remain the dominant force. The champion trainer sent out three winners including the new Champion Chaser Dodging Bullets.
The Neptune Novices' Hurdle opened proceedings and it was the Dermot Weld trained Windsor Park who took the prize. His finishing kick proved decisive in a race that appeared to lend itself to the sprinters. Three geldings that were bred for the flat filled the first three spots.
The huge Beast Of Burden had set a modest pace before the gathering pack took over three from the finish. Davy Russell pressed for home on the winner and looked in command from then on. Willie Mullins’ Nichols Canyon, ridden with more restraint on this occasion, finished a respectable third. Vyta Du Roc looked unfortunate in fourth having made a complete mess of the last when challenging the eventual winner.
Ireland followed up in the second race of the day when Don Poli won the RSA Chase. It proved to be something of a victory for the owner over the trainer, as the devastating display fully vindicated Gigginstown’s insistence that ‘The Don’ should take his place in the RSA rather than the four miler. He looks to be a horse of true class and when asked to go and win his race by Bryan Cooper, quickly put lengths between him and the rest.
Devouring the famous hill, Don Poli won by a yawning six lengths, and after the race Mullins sounded as thrilled as anyone when saying: “He had far more reserves in the locker than I thought he would have. He's not even racing coming up the straight, he is only galloping, looking around. It's a sure sign that he has got lots left in the locker. Florida Pearl was probably the best RSA winner that I have ever had and this fellow looks as good as him.”
With an Irish ‘Guinness Fest’ in full swing the time had arrived for the Paul Nicholls show to begin. Normally reserved for a Saturday afternoon, the greatest trainer this side of the Irish Sea saddled three winners in two hours. The prestigious Queen Mother Champion Chase was undoubtedly the highlight. But a new French recruit got the ball rolling in the Coral Cup.
No-one can pronounce his name, but we are set to get plenty of practice over the coming winters. Aux Ptits Soins is a beautifully bred five-year-old owned by John Hales. His victory was a narrow one, but for such an inexperienced horse to take a hugely competitive handicap at the Festival is mightily impressive.
Next up was the race of the day billed as the battle of the returning champions. Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy topped the betting, though the form horse this winter has undoubtedly been Dodging Bullets. And the race very much proved that a horse has to be in tip-top shape to win at the Festival. Champagne Fever had been pulled out in the morning after his altercation with a travelling companion leaving a field of nine.
Special Tiara set a searching pace with Dodging Bullets and Somersby prominent. From some way out it became apparent that Sprinter Sacre was struggling. He lacked his usual zest and Geraghty could never quite get him alongside the leaders. He was set to be scoped after the race in the hope of finding an explanation for the lacklustre performance.
The rushed preparation endured by Sire De Grugy would not have helped, but the ground appeared the main excuse for his defeat. Never quite able to land a blow, he came home fourth. In the end Dodging Bullets doggedly out-fought the ever consistent 11-year-old Somersby, with Special Tiara back in third.
Paul Nicholls has performed wonders with his new stable star and the winner was given a terrific ride by an ecstatic Sam Twiston-Davies. After the race he said: “What a horse, Harry Derham and the team have done a great job. Harry rides him all the time. I need to get my breath back, I'm shaking a bit.”
Nicholls completed a terrific day with a first and second in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle. French-bred horses again dominated with Qualando defeating stable companion Bouvreuil.
With two fancied runners in the World Hurdle today, this year’s Festival looks set to be one of the best for Ditcheat for many a year.