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Nicholls has long-term Grand National plan for Topofthegame

Paul Nicholls has identified next year’s Randox Grand National as a long-term target for his sidelined stable star Topofthegame.

Winner of the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, the Flemensfirth gelding finished second to Lostintranslation at Aintree the following month but has not been seen in competitive action since.

Just as was the case this season before injury intervened, Nicholls hopes to see his charge return to action in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury at the end of November.

However, while he once considered him a serious contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he now views the world’s most famous steeplechase as a more suitable aim for the nine-year-old.

The Queen feeds carrots to Topofthegame on a visit to Ditcheat
The Queen feeds carrots to Topofthegame on a visit to Ditcheat (Matt Keeble/PA)

Speaking on a call hosted by Great British Racing ahead of being crowned champion trainer for a 12th time at Sandown on Saturday, Nicholls said of Topofthegame: “He’s fine and the plan would be for him to come in on July 1 and aim him again at the Ladbrokes Trophy.

“Now he’s a bit older this year and has had a few problems – in my view, the race to train him for would be the National.

“I think he would be fantastic round Aintree as he’s got some class.

“My aim is to try to get him back on track and have a good crack at trying to win the National with him.

“It’s not going to be easy – it’s a challenge – but he’s in good shape at the moment.”

Rachael Blackmore on the crest of a wave after National heroics

Rachael Blackmore is still struggling to comprehend the magnitude of her achievement after claiming Randox Grand National glory at Aintree.

The 31-year-old is used to breaking boundaries, having risen from relative obscurity to becoming one of the leading National Hunt jockeys on either side of the Irish Sea in the space of six years as a professional.

Just last month Blackmore became the first woman to ride the winner of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, aboard the brilliant mare Honeysuckle, and her six winners at the Festival saw her crowned leading jockey.

While those significant triumphs transcended sport to a certain degree, Saturday’s historic victory in the world’s greatest steeplechase has seen reluctant superstar Blackmore receive global acclaim.

“It’s still hard to process it all, to be honest. It’s been unbelievable,” she said.

“I was meant to fly home on Saturday night, but I missed my flight so I came home on the boat on Sunday and got home on Sunday evening.

“I genuinely lay awake in bed all night on Saturday. I was completely exhausted and got into bed thinking I was going to have a great night’s sleep, but I just could not shut down. I’ve been catching up on sleep ever since!

“I just couldn’t believe what had happened, I suppose. Your adrenaline would still be up and you’d be thinking about what was one of the biggest days of my life, so sleep just wouldn’t allow!”

Blackmore is well used to big-race success, but admits the feeling of winning the National on the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Times was different to anything she has experienced before.

Rachael Blackmore receives the Randox Grand National trophy
Rachael Blackmore receives the Randox Grand National trophy (David Davies/PA)

“It’s a very exciting race to be part of,” she told the PA news agency.

“I’d ridden Minella Times before, and he’s a beautiful horse to ride who jumps really well, so I was looking forward to going over the National fences with him.

“There’s a lot of anticipation in the build-up to the National. It’s so unique – 40 horses and 30 jumps. I suppose excitement was the overriding emotion on Saturday morning.

“You know very quickly if a horse is taking to the fences or not, and Minella Times absolutely took to them. After we jumped two or three fences, I knew he was really enjoying himself, and we got a fantastic passage around.

“Once you’ve got over The Chair and the water jump, you can kind of take a breath then as you’ve got over everything and you just have to go and do it once more!”

While Minella Times appeared to have victory in safe-keeping up the run-in, it was not until he passed the post that Blackmore let herself believe she had secured the most momentous of wins.

She added: “I could hear the commentator saying we were four lengths ahead, and I knew my horse wasn’t fading under me – he was going to stay galloping to the line. That is when I had the realisation that it might happen – and a few strides later it did happen.

“The feeling was just complete elation. It’s slightly different to Cheltenham – where you’re riding Honeysuckle in a Champion Hurdle, she’s favourite, and there’s a good bit of pressure attached to it.

“Going out in the Grand National, I didn’t feel any pressure. There’s not the same expectation, because everyone involved knows the amount of luck that’s involved.

“After Honeysuckle, my initial feeling was more relief, and then joy, whereas after the National it was complete joy straightaway.”

Rachael Blackmore could not believe she had claimed National glory
Rachael Blackmore could not believe she had claimed National glory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)
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Usually so composed in a race and afterwards, Blackmore did not find it so easy to keep her emotions in check on Merseyside.

“I probably was (emotional) afterwards, but it’s the Aintree Grand National – it’s such a big race,” she said.

“That’s not to say they’re not big races at Cheltenham. But Cheltenham is four days, with extremely important horses running every day – you can’t really allow yourself to kick back on Tuesday evening and enjoy the day, because you’ve a very important day the next day.

“After the National, Aintree was done. I had a ride in the bumper, but it’s just different.”

Among those who have congratulated Blackmore on her National triumph are tennis great Billie Jean King and Ringo Starr, drummer with The Beatles.

“It’s phenomenal,” she said.

“We used to go on camping holidays to France when we were younger, and The Beatles would be on the CD player in the car.

“I grew up listening to them, so it’s hard to believe when you’ve got people like that sending you well wishes.

“I’ve received well-wishes from everywhere, and people are just so kind. I feel extremely lucky to be in the position I’m in.”

Unlike many of her weighing-room colleagues, Blackmore was not bred to be a jockey.

Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham
Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle after winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

However, from an early age, the daughter of a dairy farmer and a secondary schoolteacher loved horses –  and the Grand National in particular.

She added: “I remember when the sileage was cut trying to get my pony to jump the channels of grass in the field – and imagined I was jumping fences at Aintree.

“The Grand National was the first thing that captured my imagination in the world of racing. It’s that kind of special race that captures a global audience – I never thought that I’d be winning it some day.

“I know I keep saying it, but it is genuinely hard to comprehend.”

Blackmore has certainly not had it easy, kicking off her riding career as an amateur struggling for winners on the point-to-point circuit before making the bold decision to turn professional at the age of 25.

Her career in the paid ranks got off to a steady rather than spectacular start, but she insists she never doubted she had made the right decision.

She said: “It took me a while to get that first winner as a professional, but I was no stranger to waiting a long time for a winner – they didn’t exactly come thick and fast as an amateur.

“There was never a moment where I thought ‘have I done the right thing?’, and that was mainly because I was riding a lot more.

“I was going racing nearly every day. It might have only been for one or two rides, but I was racing a lot more than before – which meant I was getting more practice and getting better at what I was doing.

“I received a lot of support. Shark Hanlon was my main backer then, and I wasn’t getting anxious because the winner wasn’t coming because that is racing, unfortunately.”

Not one to seek the limelight, Blackmore is nevertheless aware of her current position as a role model to potential jockeys of the future – whether that be male or female.

She said: “When I was starting off, I was seeing Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh achieving massive things. Seeing what they were achieving encouraged me and never made me think about gender – I never entered the weighing room thinking about gender.

“Hopefully that will just carry on now, and the same encouragement will be there for other people.

“We’re very lucky in our sport that it (gender) isn’t an issue. It’s the same with the likes of Hollie Doyle on the Flat – you’d be hoping that those things will all help.”

Blackmore is keen to pay tribute to De Bromhead, who himself has enjoyed remarkable success at Cheltenham and Aintree.

Henry de Bromhead and Blackmore at Aintree
Henry de Bromhead and Blackmore at Aintree (David Davies/PA)

As if becoming the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and the Gold Cup in the same week were not enough, he also saddled the second in the Gold Cup and the first two in the Grand National, with Minella Times followed home by stablemate Balko Des Flos.

“Henry’s achievements are nothing short of phenomenal,” she said.

“It’s incredible what he’s done – it has never happened before. I really hope that angle of it is not forgotten.

“To train those winners in Cheltenham, and have a one-two in the Gold Cup, was incredible – and then to come out and have a one-two in the Grand National, it really is a phenomenal story.

“He’s an exceptional trainer, and I feel very lucky to be part of his team. He’s got a very good team of staff that work for him, and it’s a privilege to be part of the whole thing.”

Blackmore and Townend (left) are battling out for the jockeys' championship in Ireland
Blackmore and Townend (left) are battling out for the jockeys’ championship in Ireland (PA)

With Cheltenham and Aintree in the rear-view mirror for this season, Blackmore is relishing the challenges ahead – with the Punchestown Festival next on the big-race calendar.

She can look forward to plenty of high-profile mounts and potentially making more history, as a thrilling race with Paul Townend to be crowned Ireland’s champion jockey comes to its climax.

Theirs is a friendship and rivalry which dates back to Blackmore claiming a very first victory on the pony racing circuit when she was just 15.

“I’d say I rode in five or six pony races in total, and Paul would have been very accomplished at the time and the champion pony race rider,” said Blackmore.

“For me, it took a lot longer for the penny to drop. He was extremely good back then, and I was definitely not in the same league.

Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore during the Grand National
Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore during the Grand National (Tim Goode/PA)

“You wouldn’t think we’d be in the situation we are now if you look back at the video. If you had to pick someone to ride a Grand National winner of the future from that video, I’d say I’d have been about 500-1!”

She added: “The last four weeks have been brilliant, but you can never accomplish everything you want to accomplish in racing.

“Racing is constantly turning. We came back from Cheltenham, and that was brilliant, but a few days later we were in Fairyhouse for the Irish Grand National – then we were in Aintree and now we’re gearing up for Punchestown.

“It’s a constant, evolving wheel where you’re definitely enjoying what’s happening, but you’re also getting focused on what’s coming up.

“I suppose there’s pressure there to prove you are what people say you are. But at the same time, if pressure got to me I’d probably be in the wrong job.

“It isn’t really a job to me. You’re a very privileged person when you can do something you love and get paid for it.”

Although Blackmore’s focus is very much ending a remarkable campaign on a high at present, she hopes there will be time to celebrate this summer – once coronavirus restrictions allow.

She said: “The minute Covid has decided to cease and resist, there will be a party!

“We have a break at the end of June, so it would be nice to get away if we can, but I don’t think you can do too much planning in the current circumstances.”

Harry Cobden to miss rest of season

Harry Cobden will has been ruled out of the final days of the jumps season after suffering facial injuries in a fall at Aintree on Saturday.

The rider was taken to hospital after parting company with Lucky One in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, but Cobden had initially hoped to make a speedy return.

However, he has been forced to end his campaign early with further checks revealing fractures in his cheekbone that will require surgery later this week.

Cobden currently sits in third in the jump jockeys’ championship, 13 winners behind Harry Skelton and 14 adrift of defending champion Brian Hughes, with the duo locked in an enthralling battle that ends on April 24 at Sandown.

Cobden’s outside challenge has now been ended, but he is focusing on next term already.

He tweeted: “I went for further scans yesterday and, unfortunately, they have shown that I have got a couple of fractures in my right cheekbone. I am having an operation on Thursday, but I am out for the rest of the season (likely to be six weeks).

“Good luck to both Brian and Harry in the champion jump jockey title race. I look forward to hopefully challenging you both again next season and I hope that next season also welcomes people back on to racecourses.”

Brian Ellison announces retirement of stable stalwart Definitly Red

Brian Ellison has announced the retirement of stable star Definitly Red after being pulled up in the Randox Grand National at Aintree.

The 12-year-old was running in the world’s most famous steeplechase for a second time, after being badly hampered when still going well in the 2017 renewal.

Definitly Red won 15 of his 38 career starts, including the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree twice, the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby and the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham.

Ellison posted on his Facebook page: “The decision has been made to retire Definitly Red after his run in yesterday’s Grand National. He pulled up two fences before the finish when getting tired, but delighted to report that he came home safe and sound.

“We, along with owners Phil and Julie Martin, have been honoured to have had such a wonderful horse. He has given us all so much pleasure and owes us nothing.

“We would like to thank everyone who has supported and followed ‘Red’ throughout his career.”

Enormity of historic National triumph still sinking in for De Bromhead

Henry de Bromhead was still on cloud nine on Sunday morning after saddling the one-two in Saturday’s Randox Grand National at Aintree.

Fresh from becoming the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase and the Gold Cup in the same week at the Cheltenham Festival, Minella Times provided the Knockeen handler with National glory, while stablemate Balko Des Flos filled the runner-up spot.

Just as he did after arriving home from Cheltenham, De Bromhead is required to quarantine for five days under Covid-19 protocols – giving him plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of his achievements – and those of Rachael Blackmore.

He said: “We got home safe ad sound last night and I’ve got a big smile on my face this morning, that’s for sure.

“It’s incredible – unreal. It’s hard to take it all in, to be honest. Hopefully it will sink in eventually.

“It’s a shame we can’t celebrate it properly, but isn’t it great it was all able to go ahead?”

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De Bromhead’s remarkable success has been somewhat overshadowed by Blackmore, who became the first woman in history to ride the winner of the National – just as she was in the Champion Hurdle with the brilliant mare Honeysuckle.

The trainer has nothing but praise for his stable jockey, adding: “I’m absolutely delighted for Rachael. It’s brilliant for her and no one deserves it more.”

Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore on their way to National glory
Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore on their way to National glory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Minella Times, Balko Des Flos and Chris’s Dream – who unseated his rider four from home in the Grand National – were all reported to have returned to Ireland in good shape.

The winner appears unlikely to run again this season.

De Bromhead said: “They’re all home and the three of them seem great.

“I haven’t spoken to anyone yet regarding plans, but I’d be surprised (if he runs again this season).”

Owner JP McManus was winning the Grand National for a second time following the 2010 success of Don’t Push It, who famously provided 20-times champion jockey Sir Anthony McCoy with his first and only victory in the race.

McManus’ racing manager, Frank Berry said: “It was a fantastic day and a great performance by Rachael and Minella Times. All credit to Henry and his team for producing the horse fit and well.

“I’m thrilled for JP and the whole family. It was a special occasion, with Rachael riding the winner – it’s a bit of history.

“Rachael has done it the hard way. She came from the bottom up and has worked really hard. It’s great to see her getting on good horses now and she’s delivering the goods.”

On future plans for Minella Times, Berry added: “You won’t see him again this year. He’ll have a good summer in Martinstown and we’ll plan next year’s campaign for him after that.

“It (next year’s Grand National) is a long time away, but you’d love to think he’ll be back there again.”

The best-fancied of seven McManus-owned runners in the 40-strong field was the Ted Walsh-trained Any Second Now, who ran a fine race to finish third after being badly hampered by the fall of Double Shuffle at the 12th fence.

Berry said: “He ran an absolute blinder. He got caught up with a faller and Mark (Walsh) gave him a wonderful ride to nurse him back into the race.

“That’s the joys of the National. You need a bit of luck on the day.”

Ted and Katie Walsh salute Rachael Blackmore and ‘fantastic result for racing’

Ted and Katie Walsh have heaped praise on Rachael Blackmore following her historic victory in the Randox Grand National at Aintree.

Fresh on the heels of being crowned leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival, Blackmore became the first woman to ride the winner of the world’s most greatest steeplechase aboard the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Times.

Ted Walsh, who trained Papillon to win the Grand National in 2000, is in awe of the achievements of both trainer and rider.

The moment Rachael Blackmore won the National
The moment Rachael Blackmore won the National (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday programme, he said: “It was a great race and a great result for the race.

“Henry de Bromhead capped one of the most extraordinary years of my life. To win any one of the four races he’s won – a Champion Hurdle, a Champion Chase, a Gold Cup and an English National – you could consider it a good year. To win all four, I don’t remember it ever happening before to one particular trainer.

“Then of course the icing on the cake was having Rachael on board as well. She’s a wonderful ambassador for the sport, a wonderful rider and such an unassuming young woman. It’s great for the game.

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“To have her on the biggest stage there is and riding the winner is great for the sport.”

Walsh saddled the third home Any Second Now, who did well to finish as close as he did after being badly hampered by the all of Double Shuffle at the 12th fence.

“I think it was extraordinary performance,” Walsh added.

Any Second Now (white cap) ran a race full of credit
Any Second Now (white cap) ran a race full of credit (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“Double Shuffle fell. If he’d fallen right he would have caught Rachael on the winner, but instead he fell in front of my fella and stopped him to a walk.

“I actually thought passing the stands Mark (Walsh) might let him jump a couple more and pull him up, but he started to pick up from there.

“He wasn’t good enough for the winner – he’d used up all his petrol to get there.”

The trainer is already eyeing a tilt at the 2022 Grand National, saying: “Twelve months is a long way away, but that would be the plan.”

Walsh’s daughter Katie had previously achieved the highest placing by a woman in the Grand National when third aboard her father’s Seabass in 2012.

While that record has now been beaten, she is thrilled for Blackmore.

She said: “When I knew he (Any Second Now) wasn’t going to get there, I found myself fixed on Rachael and absolutely roaring.

Seabass and Katie Walsh clear the last in the National
Seabass and Katie Walsh clear the last in the National (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

“She’s a great girl and an extremely hard worker. She’s so modest and realises how lucky, in one sense, she has been for all of this to happen.

“In another sense, I look at her and think ‘you deserve all this, because you are so good’. She’s so tactically aware and so strong mentally and physically.

“It was a fantastic result for her and a fantastic result for racing.”

Walsh added: “I often get asked the question ‘is this going to open the door?’. The door has been open for a very long time to any female jockey. You need a lot of luck and need to be able to work hard.

“You need to get the breaks – and when those breaks come, you need to be able to grab the bull by the horns and make the most of them.

“You have to be good enough and Rachael clearly has everything that you need and want.”

Sporting bodies in talks after Prince Philip’s funeral set for next Saturday

Sporting bodies are in discussions regarding plans for next Saturday’s fixtures following confirmation that Prince Philip’s funeral will take place at Windsor Castle that afternoon.

A national minute’s silence will be observed as the ceremonial royal funeral begins at 3pm.

The funeral will take place on a busy sporting weekend with the FA Cup semi-finals, a full Football League programme, the Women’s Six Nations and the opening day of the World Snooker Championship among the events on the calendar.

The Football League has announced that matches scheduled to begin at 3pm will be rearranged.

An EFL spokesperson said: “As a mark of respect, EFL matches scheduled for 3pm on Saturday 17 April will be moved to avoid a clash with the funeral of HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

“The EFL will now work with its clubs to determine at what time the matches will be played, giving consideration to the timing of the service.

“An announcement will follow in due course.”

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The Football Association, Premier League and the England and Wales Cricket Board are all in dialogue with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport regarding arrangements while the Women’s Six Nations is awaiting guidance, the PA news agency understands.

Barnsley v Middlesbrough – Sky Bet Championship – Oakwell
A two-minute silence was observed at football grounds across the country on Saturday (Isaac Parkin/PA)

In the Premier League, Wolves are due to host Sheffield United at 3pm, following the lunchtime fixture between Newcastle and West Ham.

The FA Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Manchester City is due to kick-off at 5.30pm at Wembley.

The Government’s published advice regarding the period of national mourning states: “The decision as to whether sporting fixtures continue to go ahead is at the discretion of organisers.

“Organisers may wish to consider using black armbands and observing a silence before matches are played.”

In Scotland, Rangers are due to host Celtic at 4pm, one of six fourth-round ties scheduled in the Scottish Cup.

A Scottish Football Association statement read: “In light of confirmation that the funeral of HRH Prince Philip will take place next Saturday at 3pm, we have entered dialogue with the relevant stakeholders with regard to Scottish Cup fourth round fixtures scheduled on that day.

“We will update participating clubs, supporters and partners in due course.”

The British Horseracing Authority will also hold discussions regarding its own plans.

The biggest race next weekend is the Coral Scottish Grand National at Ayr, which is due off at 3.35pm, while it also is the Greenham meeting at Newbury.

Crystal Palace v Chelsea – Premier League – Selhurst Park
Players from Crystal Palace and Chelsea observed the two-minute silence (Mike Hewitt/PA)

On Saturday, tributes were paid at sporting grounds up and down the country following Buckingham Palace’s announcement a day earlier that the Duke had died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 99.

Sportsmen and women observed a two-minute silence at the start of fixtures, and wore black armbands as a mark of respect, including at Aintree.

The Football Association announced flags at Wembley and St George’s Park will fly at half-mast.

EFL chair Rick Parry said of the Duke: “As a patron of over 800 organisations, his high regard for the encouragement of sport and welfare of young people was unequivocal, and his loss will undoubtedly be felt not only here in the UK but across the world.”

British Olympic Association chair, Sir Hugh Robertson, also paid tribute to the Duke.

“I would like to offer our sincere condolences to Her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Family, and especially to our President HRH The Princess Royal. The thoughts of the nation are with them all at this time,” he said.

Rachael Blackmore makes National history with Minella Times

Rachael Blackmore became the first woman to ride the winner of the Randox Grand National when steering Minella Times to glory at Aintree.

The Irish rider, 31, was top jockey at the Cheltenham Festival – where she won the Champion Hurdle – and crowned a fabulous season with an historic triumph in the world’s greatest steeplechase.

The writing was on the wall when she took Minella Times into the lead before the final fence, although she had to keep the Henry de Bromhead-trained eight-year-old up to his work as the famous Elbow approached.

Blackmore and Minella Times (11-1) were not for stopping, though, and galloped into racing folklore to win in the colours of JP McManus.

Balko Des Flos (100-1), ridden by Aidan Coleman, was second to give De Bromhead an incredible one-two.

Any Second Now (15-2) was third, with Burrows Saint (9-1) fourth and Farclas (16-1) fifth, as Irish-trained horses filled all those places.

An emotional Blackmore said: “This is the Aintree Grand National. I’m completely blown away.

“I got a fantastic passage the whole way. Minella Times was unbelievable, he jumped fantastic, I don’t think he missed a beat anywhere.

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Celebration time for Rachael Blackmore
Celebration time for Rachael Blackmore (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“He was able to travel into a gap, I seemed to have loads of space everywhere and you couldn’t have wished for a better passage. He was just unbelievable, he really was, his jumping was second to none.

“I’m so lucky to be riding these horses for Henry de Bromhead. He trained a one-two there which is incredible. That can’t be forgotten in the whole scheme of things.

“It’s great to win it in these colours, too. It’s always a privilege to ride for JP McManus and to win it for him is unbelievable. They’ve had a tough year so hopefully this can make things a little easier.

“This is a massive deal for me personally, not the fact I’m a female. The thing that hit me when I crossed the line was that I’d won the National, not that I’m the first female to win the National. I’m just delighted.”

De Bromhead said: “It’s fantastic. Rachael is breaking all records. We’re just delighted.

“Balko Des Flos ran a cracker and Chris’s Dream was going very well, but unfortunately he unshipped Darragh O’Keeffe four out. They all ran really well.

“It looked like Rachael had the race won at the last, but we all know how that can change. Any Second Now looked a bit unlucky with his passage and he started to come back at us and obviously Balko was staying on as well.

“Rachael got a great passage all the way round, a lot of luck on her side and he winged fences for her. It was brilliant.

“She knows the horse very well. We were unfortunate during the winter when having a couple of great runs and just getting beaten, but this made up for it.

“We put National-type fences together last week and it seems to have helped, but he’s such a brilliant jumper anyway. He was so good all the way.”

He added: “I thought I was dreaming after Cheltenham so this is amazing, it’s incredible and Rachael was unbelievable. It’s incredible to do it for the McManus’ family and we got a clear run the whole way.

“Of course you dream of winning this, but it was a distant dream. Anyone in the jumping game wants to win it, so I’m just so fortunate.

“Rachael is brilliant and we’re so lucky to have her, I think they broke the mould with her, what can you say?

“It’s a good partnership, you can see from when she joined us how we’ve gone from strength to strength. She’s just a fantastic rider and a lovely person to work with.

“I’m back on the ferry tonight so that’s something to look forward to!”

There was a sad postcript to the race, with news that the McManus-owned The Long Mile, who was pulled up, had suffered a fatal injury.

Bryony Frost, who was unseated from Yala Enki, was taken to hospital for assessment.

Thyme Hill denies Roksana in thrilling Stayers Hurdle

Thyme Hill made up for missing Cheltenham with a gutsy victory in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree.

A minor injury ruled the seven-year-old out of the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Festival, but he was brought back to fitness in time by his trainer Philip Hobbs.

There was also a change of jockey, with Tom O’Brien getting his chance after Richard Johnson’s recent retirement, having last ridden Thyme Hill to victory on his debut in a bumper at Worcester in October 2018.

O’Brien rode a copybook race, sitting in the main pack as Vinndication and Emitom set up a big early lead. The former was well clear at one stage, but he could not keep up the gallop.

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The race changed complexion in the straight and it soon became a duel between Roksana and Thyme Hill.

The former held a narrow lead, but she was worn down in the closing stages by a determined Thyme Hill (5-2 favourite), who got the verdict by a neck. Thomas Darby was third, four and a quarter lengths away.

Paisley Park was a big disappointment, Emma Lavelle’s nine-year-old being pulled up before the third-last flight without posing a threat.

Thyme Hill (left) does battle with Roksana (blue cap, right)
Thyme Hill (left) does battle with Roksana (blue cap, right) (Tim Goode/PA)

Hobbs said: “I should think he’s finished for the season, but the entries closed this week for the stayers’ hurdle in Punchestown. We didn’t enter. It was 1200 euros. We thought why waste that when it’s likely he’s not going to run.

“If he is going to go anywhere he’ll go for the Champion Hurdle in Auteuil at the end of May, which is worth more money anyway.

“Whether he stays over hurdles or goes chasing next season was going to be decided on what happened today so we now need to discuss it. He’s schooled over fences and jumps very well. He’s not the biggest horse in the world, but he will definitely jump fences, although while he looks the best in this league he might stay over hurdles.”

He added: “It’s great for Tom to kick-off with a Grade One win. In some ways it would have been nice for Richard to win on him, but it left the door open for Tom which is great. I’m not sure how long he’s been with us – rather like Richard, it’s been such a long time.”

O’Brien said: “I’m delighted he’s won for everyone. If anyone was doubting me, to get a Grade One win is spot on. The horse missed Cheltenham so to get it all right today is great.

“He’s a very uncomplicated horse. Richard has been in close contact about all the horses, but when I watched all his replays this morning I wondered if I needed to ring about this lad, he’s so straightforward and push-button. I did ring, and Richard just said he’s uncomplicated, try get a lead to the last and Harry (Skelton) came through on my inside and we had a good battle.

“I’ll never fill Richard’s boots, all I can do is pull up my own. I’ve been in the same position for so long but this is new now, I’m on a different calibre of horse.”

Shishkin stays unbeaten over fences with Aintree strike

Shishkin maintained his unbeaten record over fences with a workmanlike performance in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

Nicky Henderson’s exciting prospect may not have been as impressive as in previous races, but the 1-8 favourite got the job done to complete the Cheltenham/Aintree two-mile novice Grade One double after taking the Arkle Trophy last month.

Gumball made the running until Nico de Boinville decided to go on some way from home.

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Funambule Sivola put in a brave bid, but Shishkin was too good and went on to win by three and a quarter lengths in what was a good time.

Shishkin was left unchanged as 6-4 favourite for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase with the sponsors and Coral, while Betfair and Paddy Power kept him at 5-4.

Henderson, who also did the double with Chantry House, said: “It’s always difficult after Cheltenham to know how much to do with them. Obviously they are fit, but the team have done great because they came here in pretty good nick. Both are very good novices though, they’ve had pretty nearly perfect seasons.

“Nico said he could have done with a lead for longer. Gumball usually goes a solid gallop, but he didn’t today. He’s a very laid-back horse and at home you don’t see the speed you see on track. He’s got a wonderful temperament and I suspect he was just getting lonely. Fair play to the second, though.

“It’s amazing how quick he gets to the other side of a fence, it’s a very effective technique but it is a bit unusual.

“He won’t go to Punchestown, doing the two is difficult, doing the three, you need to be Sprinter or something, who did it one year.

“You’d like to think it will be the normal two-mile route next year, and I’d like to think Altior is at Sandown in two weeks. If they meet next year, they have to meet.

“It’s amazing we’ve gone from Sprinter to Altior and this lad is going the right way the whole time.”

My Drogo stars in Mersey Novices’ Hurdle

My Drogo took his winning run to four with a most convincing performance in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.

Connections of the Dan Skelton-trained six-year-old decided to miss Cheltenham and it proved a wise move, with My Drogo powering home under Harry Skelton.

Pulling away in the closing stages, the 5-4 favourite crossed the line nine and a half lengths clear of Minella Drama, ridden by Skelton’s title rival Brian Hughes. Guard Your Dreams was half a length away in third. The first three were well ahead of Ballyadam in fourth.

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My Drogo was held up towards the rear in the early stages as Llandinabo Lad made the running from Striking A Pose.

There was drama at the fourth-last flight, just as the race was warming up, with Lucky One and Striking A Pose both coming down.

Skelton managed to miss all that as he started to ask My Drogo for an effort – and it was plain sailing from there as the son of Milan opened his Grade One account in some style.

Both Harry Cobden and Jonjo O’Neill junior were thankfully on their feet after the spill, but Cobden was subsequently stood down for the day, meaning he missed the ride on Give Me A Copper in the Grand National.

Of the exciting winner, Dan Skelton said: “It’s a little bit of a relief. I felt coming here it was nearly his race to lose given the prep he’d had, missing Cheltenham – it’s such an advantage here.

Harry Skelton celebrates with My Drogo
Harry Skelton celebrates with My Drogo (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“We’d always planned to come straight here. To give away a penalty at Kelso, and that form has stood up, gave an indication of what was possible.

“It’s very exciting to be involved with a horse like him, he’s got it all. The plan was always to go chasing next year, despite the lure of better hurdles. Given his breeding, size and the way he jumps it’s now or never if we want to make him a top-class chaser.

“For a moment today I was worried we’d run him in the wrong race given how well he was going, but I always felt he’d get two and a half miles.

“We want to make him a staying chaser – next year he’ll start over shorter, but ultimately he’ll be a staying chaser.”

He added: “He’s going 100 per cent over fences. We’ll start him off over two miles in the autumn somewhere and build up in trip.

“I don’t think we’ll go further than two and a half miles next year. Then ultimately plot a career this time next year for him because his novice chase year is important. We’ve got to get through that prosperously and then look at the future.

“He’s a very exciting horse.”

Hometown Boy makes it an Aintree double for Stuart Edmunds

Hometown Boy recovered from a scare at the final flight to give trainer Stuart Edmunds a second winner at the Grand National Festival in 24 hours when landing the EFT Systems Handicap Hurdle at Aintree.

The six-year-old, ridden by Ciaran Gethings, was clear of the pack when he blundered at the last and gave away a few lengths.

However, Gethings soon got Hometown Boy back on an even keel and the 6-1 favourite kept on gamely to lift the prize.

Always prominent throughout in this extended three-mile contest, Hometown Boy had led before the third-last obstacle and was in control until he hit the top of the final flight.

J’Ai Froid was beaten three lengths in second place, with Tea Clipper four and three-quarter lengths away in third and Ashtown Lad a further two lengths back in fourth.

Edmunds, who had taken the last race on Friday with Rowland Ward, said: “To be fair this was a long-term (plan). We wanted to come here, but wanted a prep run so went to Kempton beforehand.

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“It was a bit of a gamble as he was also in over two and a half-miles, but we thought there were one or two more speedier types in there. He galloped through the line, though, and he couldn’t pull him up.

“I couldn’t repeat what I was thinking at the last! If he was a tired horse his legs would have gone to jelly.”

He added: “There’s nothing else for him this season and I think he’ll be a nice novice chaser next season – he’s schooled plenty over fences at home.”

Happygolucky gained compensation for finishing second at the Cheltenham Festival with a smooth victory in the Betway Handicap Chase.

Kim Bailey’s seven-year-old had to settle for second place behind Vintage Clouds in the Ultima, but he came back strong to take this £31,500 first prize.

He was always travelling well in the hands of David Bass and was in a good position in the early stages, as Kilfilum Cross and Lalor set the pace.

Happygolucky is a smart stayer in the making
Happygolucky is a smart stayer in the making (David Davies/Jockey Club)

When it came to the business end, Happygolucky (11-4 favourite) proved the strongest from the final fence and held Johnbb by two and three-quarter lengths. Spiritofthegames stayed on for third place, two and a quarter lengths away.

Bailey said: “We were beaten fair and square at Cheltenham by a revitalised horse, but we were staggered we did get beat. That was a great performance today. He’s a novice, but he’s very professional.

“I think we’ll be limited in terms of options for the rest of this season, but we are running out of time, it will be nice if he can come back here this time next year (for the National).

“He jumps so well and seems to stay, (but) I think you could run over shorter on softer ground.

“To start off next year there are the early races at Cheltenham, but if it’s soft we could think of the Paddy Power, maybe the Ladbrokes Trophy.”

Knappers Hill (8-1) stayed on well in the closing stages to land the Grade Two Two Weatherbys hstallions.co.uk Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race.

The five-year-old, trained by Paul Nicholls, took his unbeaten record to three when scoring by half a length under Megan Nicholls.

Peking Rose put in good late gains to fill second place, a length and a quarter ahead of the winner’s stablemate Stage Star.

Megan Nicholls with Knappers Hill
Megan Nicholls with Knappers Hill (David Davies/Jockey Club)

The winning rider said: “That was amazing – I’m on cloud nine. I can’t believe what has just happened. I spoke to Rachael (Blackmore) before I came out and she says she was shaking like a leaf and I feel like that now.

“It’s awesome. I’m delighted. Who would have thought I’d have been riding at this meeting? I had a great time pointing then turned to the Flat. I’m just so happy. Dad and the team have really helped and looked after me and when he mentioned about riding some of the bumper horses I was snapping his arm off. You can’t help but be excited riding young gorgeous horses like that.

“I know I’m babbling on, but I’m quite speechless at the same time. It’s awesome. Any bigger meeting whether it is over the Flat or jumps is huge. To be riding on Grand National day is like anyone’s dream. To have a winning chance, let alone be able to ride the winner is just amazing. It’s my first ride in a graded race.”

She added: “This horse has been fantastic. He was my first listed winner and he has now given me a graded winner. Mr Barber and Mr Vogt who own him have been huge supporters of the yard but me as well and to repay them is just incredible. My legs are going underneath me. I’m just ecstatic.”

Cloth Cap leads the way, with all set fair for National spectacular

The world’s greatest steeplechase will take place in front of empty grandstands this afternoon for the first and hopefully only time in its history.

The Randox Grand National is the natural highlight of the final day of Aintree’s three-day spring meeting – a card which also plays host to three Grade One contests, but was lost last year to the coronavirus pandemic.

And even though only participants, owners and essential personnel will be on track, the one race of the year that really captures the imagination of the wider public is back.

Before the main event, potential stars of the future will do battle in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, while Arkle Chase winner Shishkin undoubtedly takes centre stage in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase.

The Ryanair Stayers Hurdle also promises to be a fascinating affair, with familiar rivals Paisley Park and Thyme Hill meeting again after their Cheltenham Festival clash was scuppered by a setback for the latter.

Then it is the big one, as the afternoon climaxes with the National, where Cloth Cap heads a field of 40 for the famed Aintree marathon and is set to head to the famous start as one of the shortest-priced National runners ever.

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Can Ballyadam bounce back?

Ballyadam and Jack Kennedy clear the last on the way to winning at Down Royal
Ballyadam and Jack Kennedy clear the last on the way to winning at Down Royal (Niall Carson/PA)

Ballyadam was well-beaten when taking on Appreciate It in the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, but his nemesis is not in the picture this time as he lines up in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle. My Drogo, the mount of title-chasing jockey Harry Skelton, seems to be his chief rival, but Ronan McNally’s Dreal Deal is on a steep upward trajectory that is yet to reach a plateau.

Shishkin set to shine

Shishkin was a rare British highlight at this year's Cheltenham Festival
Shishkin was a rare British highlight at this year’s Cheltenham Festival (David Davies/PA)

Shishkin was unchallenged when taking the Arkle at Cheltenham, happily seeing off the likes of Allmankind and Eldorado Allen. Neither will oppose him in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase, with Philip Hobbs’ Gumball looking to be his most worthy rival out of the small field of five contenders. The race seems to be his for the taking.

Paisley and Thyme meet again

Aidan Coleman riding Paisley Park (right, spotted cap) to victory in the Long Walk Hurdle from Thyme Hill
Aidan Coleman riding Paisley Park (right, spotted cap) to victory in the Long Walk Hurdle from Thyme Hill (left, white cap) (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Thyme Hill was ruled out of the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham due to a minor muscle strain, but he is back in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle. He will cross paths with his old foe Paisley Park, who was third in the Cheltenham contest behind Flooring Porter and Sire Du Berlais. The two have met twice before this season, with Thyme Hill coming out on top in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle before Paisley Park exacted his revenge in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. Also in the mix is Dan Skelton’s Roksana, who was third behind the big two at Ascot.

Can Cloth Cap be topped?

Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore
Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Jonjo O’Neill’s Cloth Cap is the red-hot favourite for National glory, but 39 other runners, 30 fences and four and a quarter miles stand in his way. Burrows Saint, Discorama, Any Second Now and Minella Times – the mount of Rachael Blackmore – are bidding to continue the Irish dominance witnessed at the Festival, while Welsh hopes are represented by Potters Corner and the English attack is bolstered by Tom Lacey’s out-and-out stayer Kimberlite Candy.

Three people arrested after drone spotted near Aintree

Merseyside Police arrested three people on Friday after a drone was spotted being flown near to Aintree racecourse.

The police said three men – a pilot and two spotters – aged 54, 52 and 35 were arrested on Red Rum Close in Aintree on suspicion of offences under the Air Navigation Order. The drone was also seized.

A search of a vehicle linked to one of the men resulted in a large quantity of cash also being seized, police said. Information has been submitted to the Civil Aviation Authority.

Police officers outside Aintree racecourse
Police officers outside Aintree racecourse (Danny Lawson/PA)

Chief Superintendent Paul White said: “We have a team of officers and partners who are monitoring any drone activity around Aintree racecourse to establish if any offences have been committed.

“On this occasion they detected breaches in legislation which resulted in the three men being arrested and the drone being seized.

“Merseyside Police will continue to seek ways to combat the illegal use of drones to keep the communities of Merseyside safe.”

The issue of drone use around racecourses has been going on for some time. It is believed images from drones are used to give in-running punters an unfair advantage on betting exchanges, because the streamed pictures may be a few seconds ahead of TV channels.

Bookmakers on top after day two of Aintree – but National will be pivotal

Bookmakers came out marginally on top as the second day of the Grand National meeting produced a mix of favourites and long-shot winners.

In scenes reminiscent of Cheltenham, the Irish were dominant from the off with a 22-1 victory in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle courtesy of Denise Foster’s Tronador, who prevailed by two and a half lengths under Jack Kennedy and left 6-1 favourite Mister Coffey back in fourth.

Belfast Banter then backed up his County Hurdle effort with a triumphant run in the Betway Top Novices’ Hurdle at 9-1, whereas joint-favourites Dusart and Third Time Lucki came home in third and fourth respectively.

Chantry House, ridden by Nico de Boinville, clears a fence on his way to winning the Betway Mildmay Novices’ Chase
Chantry House, ridden by Nico de Boinville, clears a fence on his way to winning the Betway Mildmay Novices’ Chase (David Davies/PA)

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The next two races went the way of favourites as Chantry House also recorded a Cheltenham-Aintree double when claiming Betway Mildmay Novices’ Chase at 11-8 for Nico de Boinville and Nicky Henderson.

It was then the turn of Fakir D’oudairies, who was emphatic in winning the Marsh Chase for Mark Walsh and Joseph O’Brien, by 11 lengths at a price of 2-1.

Livelaughlove was another Irish winner when taking the Randox Topham Handicap Chase for Patrick and Willie Mullins at 15-2, with the 7-1 favourite Caribean Boy pulled up two fences from home.

The closing two contests saw the market leaders beaten, with the Doom Bar Sefton Novices’ Hurdle claimed by 66-1 chance Ahoy Senor, while the highly-fancied 13-8 shot Bravemansgame was seven lengths behind.

The Pinsent Masons Handicap Hurdle was a similar story as the 9-2 joint-favourite Camprond finished second behind Rowland Ward, who prevailed at 12-1 for Charlie Hammond and Stuart Edmunds.

Ahoy Senor floored backers at 66-1
Ahoy Senor floored backers at 66-1 (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Paddy Power spokesman Paul Binfield said: “It was an up and down day and a score draw between bookies and punters, with the former assisted by the last result and slightly ahead going into National day.

“But, as ever, the final outcome of the meeting will all come down to the Grand National itself.”

Coral’s David Stevens painted a similar picture, saying: “The second day of the meeting started well for us, with Tronador and Belfast Banter both beating better-fancied rivals in the opening two races, but then punters fought back with victories for well-backed favourites Chantry House and Fakir D’oudairies.

“However, although Livelovelaugh was not without his backers in the Topham, that was as good as it got for punters, with Ahoy Senor and Rowland Ward ensuring we ended the day in front, although punters will very much get their revenge if Rachael Blackmore makes history in the National.”