‘Power Failure’ latest blow for Mullins

The Cheltenham ‘Trials Day’ takes place on Saturday, and will once again attract a host of high-class horses, putting their Festival credentials to the test.

The meeting is always a classy affair, and this time has the bonus of the rearranged Cross Country along with the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase which was transferred from a frozen Ascot. The eagerly anticipated clash between Un De Sceaux and Ar Mad will sadly now not take place, as trainer Gary Moore decided against sending his young chaser to the Cotswolds.

When contacted by the BHA, and asked about the likely switch to Cheltenham, Moore is quoted to have said ‘It's not a fair track or a conventional racecourse’, and he suggested a move to Sandown would be best. Moore added: “If they run the race at Cheltenham I think they might get only two or three runners. I'd say it's unlikely we'd be one of them.”

Now there’s no doubting that Ascot has more in common with Sandown than Cheltenham, and Moore has a terrific record at his local track. But I’m amazed that he isn’t taking this opportunity to test Ar Mad at the recognised ‘Home of Jump Racing’. Kauto Star won a Tingle Creek at Sandown, a King George at Kempton and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, all within a four-month period. I don’t recall Nicholls saying that he’d give the Gold Cup a miss because of those awkward undulations and tricky fences.

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Ar Mad is a hugely talented chaser with the potential of becoming a star of the sport. To do that, Moore will surely need to bite the bullet at some stage, and send him to Prestbury Park in search of the most prestigious prizes. We know the horse has a tendency to jump out to the right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t ‘win big’ at jump racing’s major festival. Captain Chris famously overcame such tendencies to win an Arkle in 2011.

In time, it’s possible that Moore will regret making such a hasty decision, as it appears he did when removing the horse from the King George at Christmas. As we approach February, the yard’s most talented horse has now run just once this winter. The ‘have a go’ attitude of Colin Tizzard has been one of the most refreshing aspects of this jump racing season. He sets an example that others may wish to follow.

Of course, owners and trainers have every right to send their horses wherever they wish, and many would argue that the obsession with Cheltenham is unhealthy for the sport. That’s a debate for another time I fancy.

In the absence of Ar Mad, Un De Sceaux will go off a short-priced favourite for the Clarence House. Willie Mullins appeared happy to take on the new challenge, when saying yesterday: “He is great and I could not be any happier with him. The travelling did not seem to take anything out of him and I am pleased with what I have seen from him at home. I am looking forward to the race.”

I don’t wish such a contentious start to the article to detract from the thrilling action that will take place over the coming weeks. This weekend we hope to see Thistlecrack, Faugheen, Min, Vroum Vroum Mag and the aforementioned Un De Sceaux. Willie Mullins, in particular, will be stoking-up the furnaces, with those spring festivals fast approaching. He’s also in the unusual position of having a serious challenge to his trainers’ crown.

There’ll be plenty of tension in the air at both Cheltenham and Leopardstown this weekend. Thistlecrack continues his education at the toughest jumps circuit, whilst Faugheen returns from injury, with racing fans hoping and praying that the ‘Machine’ can return to his former glory.

One major Mullins asset that will miss proceedings, is the wonderful mare Annie Power. Thought to be on the verge of a return, it seems she has been struck down by a leg injury, and may well miss the remainder of the season. It’s yet another setback for the master of Closutton, during a winter that has tested his disposition more than most.

Moore’s Mad to miss Christmas Cracker

We’re now less than two weeks away from the highlight of many peoples Christmas.

Turkey and roasties, along with Christmas pud and Brandy sauce are all well and good, but it’s the King George VI Chase that has me counting down the number of sleeps with mounting anticipation.

Cheltenham’s Gold Cup and the Grand National at Aintree are rightly seen as two of the jewels in the National Hunt crown. But the sight of top-class chasers hurtling around Kempton, with every miniscule error magnified ten-fold in its significance, is for me, one of the greatest races of the winter. It’s not dissimilar to the Tingle Creek at Sandown, when horses are ‘at-it’ from the off, with the winner often being the slickest and fastest for longest.

Desert Orchid was a fabulous two-mile chaser, capable of winning a Tingle-Creek and a Victor Chandler Chase, yet won the King George at three miles in 1986, 88, 89 and 1990. One Man was another that had the speed and accuracy to win a Champion Chase at the minimum trip yet had enough stamina to take Kempton’s showpiece in 1995 and 96.

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Many forget that the great Kauto Star won back to back Tingle Creeks before becoming a record-breaking five-time winner of the King George. Recent winners, Silviniaco Conti and Cue Card undoubtedly possess that crucial blend of pace and stamina to lift this prestigious Christmas prize.

Despite appearing to have many of the requisite qualities, Gary Moore has decided that the time is not yet right to take the plunge with his exciting young chaser Ar Mad. Moore said of the decision: “I spoke to the owner (Ashley Head) and he definitely won't be going to the King George. There'll be a lot of pace in the race and it will be a tough race for his first time over three miles, and I won't test him out in one of the best chase races of the season. The plan is to go to Ascot for the two-mile-five-furlong Grade One, and he might have a prep run beforehand.”

The fact that Ar Mad has only recently returned from injury will have undoubtedly had a bearing on the decision, and time is certainly on the young chaser’s side. Nevertheless, the prospect of Moore’s exciting front-runner going hoof to hoof with Coneygree around Kempton was incredibly appealing.

If Moore isn’t up for a King George clash, the same cannot be said for Sara Bradstock. She remains bullish and is more than hopeful of revenge over Cue Card after the Betfair Chase defeat at Haydock. “I can honestly stand here and say that I’m very frightened of Cue Card,” said the trainer, “but I’m not frightened of Thistlecrack. He is a beautiful, very talented, athletic horse, but he’s still going in the air, he’s still jumping rather than racing to me. He’ll learn, I’m sure he will, but I think it’s going to be a tall order to go a Coneygree type of pace and jump. He hasn’t done that yet, has he?”

Of Cue Card, Bradstock is fully aware that her fella needs to apply more pressure at Kempton, than he was able too at Haydock. He should strip fitter this time, and his jumping is a major asset. Slick over his fences, and a relentless galloper, he appears to tick King George boxes. “The only way we can beat Cue Card is by making it impossible for him to get to us cruising,” said Bradstock. “If you see him cruising up behind us, he’s going to beat us, because he’s got more toe, but what I want to see is him already having to start racing before he gets to us. Then we’re in for a battle, which I’m hopeful we can win.”

Tizzard was yesterday leaving options open, when speaking at a media event. He has the top two in the betting, and though money has come for Thistlecrack, the trainer may have been hinting at the novice option at Kempton. “While Thistlecrack would be comfortable racing at speed, it may lead such an inexperienced fencer into making mistakes,” said the trainer. “We just want to make sure it’s right for him. A flat-out gallop round Kempton, he could easily sit third or fourth, pick ’em up and beat ’em all. Or it could take him out of his comfort zone. We had a long discussion about it with Tom Scudamore. It’s not straightforward.”

It’s that intense pressure on the jumping that will surely cause Tizzard to go the novice route, leaving Cue Card to take on Coneygree in a sensational main event.

Mullins Tingle King – But Also Holds The Ace

Un De Sceaux did his best to throw it away, yet still had enough in the locker to battle back to a thrilling success in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown.

This was a case of the quicker horse winning, rather than the most fluent jumper succeeding. Mullins’ chaser is a classy sort, but he’s not one for standing off a fence and launching himself in an extravagant manner. He got in close at the last two fences, and each time appeared to hand the initiative to Sire De Grugy. But Walsh’s mount is quick over the ground, and had enough time from the last to the line to get his head back in front.

Walsh was clearly thrilled with the victory, and said: “It's a great race to be part of and I've ridden some wonderful horses in it, I've been very lucky. Being the champion that he is, Sire De Grugy served it up to us, I got back on top going to the last and when I got hold of him he started to rally all the way to the line, and he's won over further. This horse wears his heart on his sleeve, he just has that natural will to win. It's brilliant. He's a pleasure to ride.”

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Colm O'Connell owns Un De Sceaux with father Edward, and said: “It's very emotional for us, he's a family horse. This win is dedicated to my parents, who are at home and didn't travel today. This is the biggest day of our racing lives and our thanks go to Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh and all the team. They train him, and we pay the bills - that's our only involvement.”

Watching in Ireland, Mullins said of the victory: “I left it up to Ruby to ride the race as he found it as he knows the other horses so well. He settled him well and he is probably settling better with a bit of age. It was a real battle. He'd two untidy jumps at the last two and had to dig deep. I felt he was better equipped to run in a race like that on his first run of the season.”

The race developed as many had anticipated, with Ar Mad setting a strong gallop from the front. All looked well for the returning youngster, until a serious error at the first of the railway fences almost brought him to his knees. The loss of momentum took him from first to third, and he suddenly looked a little sluggish. As the front two went head to head from the last, it was notable just how well Ar Mad finished off the race. Ring-rust put paid to his chances this time, but he remains a potential star.

Having come so close to winning another Tingle Creek, Gary Moore was far from disappointed when speaking to Channel 4: “I thought once he'd (SDG) got upsides him he'd just about stay on, but I think he probably outstayed us. I felt I might just have taken the edge off him running him two weeks ago, he's getting a bit older and to have two tough races in two weeks at the age of 10 takes a bit of doing, so fair play to the horse.”

Of Ar Mad he added: “He showed what a good horse he is, to make a mistake like he did and not be beaten too far after nearly 300 days off shows what a good horse he is. He's the one to take out of the race for me, I'd take them all on again any day of the week. I'm not worried about stepping up in trip, I think he'd go further now.”

Speaking yesterday, Moore reiterated the possibility of an assault on the King George, when saying: “Both horses are fine this morning, which is the main thing. I think Ar Mad proved he is a very talented horse. We could run him over three miles or two and a half and I don't think he'd have a problem. I'll speak to his owner (Ashley Head), but we could supplement him for the King George. I suppose it might depend on what else runs, like Thistlecrack. His next run will either be the Desert Orchid at Kempton or the King George, I think.”

The future looks bright for Ar Mad, though possibly at trips beyond the minimum trip. Un De Sceaux once again proved himself a solid performer, though is undoubtedly vulnerable to a bolder jumping two-miler. The Tingle Creek probably confirmed that the division is at the mercy of Mullins’ latest star chaser, Douvan.

Mullins and Moore in Tingle Creek Tussle

Douvan stays at home after all, with Mullins opting to send Un De Sceaux over for the Tingle Creek at Sandown.

“It was an easy enough decision to make,” said the Closutton supremo. “It was probably Un De Sceaux all the time as he’s used to travelling to France and the UK, while Douvan is only a novice going into Grade 1 company against horses who are well used to running in Grade 1s.”

While his Arkle winner heads to Cork on Sunday, Mullins will be hoping that the ground at Sandown is not too lively for Un De Sceaux, who is undoubtedly at his best with plenty of juice underfoot. His best performance of last winter came at Ascot, when easily accounting for Sire De Grugy in the Clarence House Chase. He led from the drop of the flag on that occasion, stretching away from the chasing pack to win by five lengths.

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He came off second best to Sprinter Sacre in the spring on quicker ground, though was still very much ‘best of the rest’ behind the now retired champion.

Gary Moore fires two arrows at the target, and has last year’s Tingle Creek winner, Sire De Grugy, seemingly firing on all cylinders. He ran a cracker at Ascot last time, though his victory off top-weight came in a handicap against rather modest opposition. He was certainly impressive, but winning yet another Grade 1 will be much tougher. He does take to Sandown particularly well, having won four chases from five at the track. He’d be making it a record equalling three wins in the prestigious event, though only Moscow Flyer has managed to win the race as a 10-year-old.

Moore also unleashes the six-year-old Ar Mad. He too has a love of the track, having romped to victory in his two previous visits. He looked a potentially top-class novice chaser last winter, before injury curtailed his season. His demolition of Bristol De Mai at this corresponding fixture was quite sensational. If returning in that kind of form, he could take some catching. He and Un De Sceaux rattling along at the front could be a sight to behold. It will be interesting to see if he can draw an error or two from the Mullins contender.

Tom George is also double-handed, with God’s Own probably his best chance of success. He already has a trio of Grade 1 victories to his name, with two of those coming at Punchestown. Right-handed track on decent ground is ideal for the eight-year-old, though Un De Sceaux has had the better of their encounters thus far. He appears to have plenty in his favour, but I fancy he’ll find one or two with a little more zip.

George captured the Haldon Gold Cup with Sir Valentino in November, but this is undoubtedly a different proposition for the seven-year-old. He’s an improving sort that should not be discounted out of hand, and will come here match-fit, whilst some may need the run. No horse has won the Haldon and followed up here since Flagship Uberalles in 1999.

Champion trainer Paul Nicholls has a fabulous record in the race, but a Vibrato Valtat victory would be a huge shock. The horse is simply not good enough in this company, and has now become very difficult to place. He was tried at 2m5f in the Stella Artois at Ascot last time, but failed to land a blow. He’d need plenty of these to have an off day, to have any chance.

The markets have it about right, as they often do in the Tingle Creek. Favourites have a strong record, and the Champion Chase is regularly a pointer to this. Un De Sceaux looks the likely winner, with the youngster Ar Mad the main danger. Moore’s six-year-old has been off since February, and that tips the balance towards the favourite. Chances are that they will go head to head from the off, inevitable placing emphasis on the pairs jumping. It’s sure to be a thrilling spectacle.

Arzal loss a hammer blow for Harry

I was truly gutted to hear of the loss of Arzal; Harry Whittington’s talented young chaser.

When tragedy befalls a stable star, and that of a relatively fledgling yard, the loss seems all the more distressing. Arzal had become the flag-bearer at Hill Barn Stables having excelled in his first winter over fences, culminating in a terrific success in the Grade 1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

On his Facebook page, Whittington released the sickening news, saying: “We regret to announce the tragic news that we had to put Arzal to sleep today. We are all devastated here at Hill Barn. He was a standout horse in a small yard who brought us all so much joy. He was also a good friend to everyone who was involved with him. He will be sorely missed and never forgotten.”

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The six-year-old had won five of his 12 UK starts, with three of those victories coming over fences. A bold front-runner, his dominant display in a novices’ handicap chase at Newbury in November gave notice of his undoubted talent. But for a serious error, he’d have finished much closer to Ar Mad at Kempton over Christmas in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase.

At the end of January he chased home Henderson’s classy young chaser Vaniteux at Doncaster. Whittington made the decision to bypass the Cheltenham Festival, and was rewarded when his young star romped home at Aintree by eight lengths. After Arzal’s victory his ecstatic trainer had said: “I was going into it with no expectations, but once he jumped the first I was pretty happy. It's amazing for the whole team. I can't tell you how much of a team effort it has been at home. It has been way beyond my expectations and this has been the icing on the cake.”

His liking for flat tracks meant the Old Roan back at Aintree had been the logical long-term target. Sadly, such hopes and dreams have been crushed. Of course for those involved in the sport, these dramatic highs and lows are all too familiar. The team at Hill Barn Stables must now dust themselves down and continue with the great work under the leadership of Harry.

When he started out in 2012 with just five horses, he could not have imagined such stunning progress in such a short period of time. With around two dozen horses now in the yard his strike rate in the region of 25% for the 2015/16 season was quite incredible. Prize money of over £200,000 compared to £44,000 in the previous campaign, emphasises the giant strides that have been made. Whittington, along with Mulholland, Skelton, Fry and Greatrex, are part of an exciting crop of young trainers, set to change the face of Jump racing over the coming years.

For those at Hill Barn, they will be hoping that another talented six-year-old can raise the spirits, when Emerging Force takes the plunge at Punchestown later today. This strapping gelding has all the attributes of an exciting chaser, but for now will step-up in company to take on a strong looking field in today’s Grade 1 stayers novice hurdle. The likes of Bellshill and Coney Island set a high standard, but Whittington’s youngster looks to have a bright future and is clearly highly rated by connections.

The loss of Arzal is a sickening way to end such a thrilling season. Our thoughts go out to Harry and his team, along with our wishes for a rapid return to brighter times.

Moore Of The Same – Team Moore Strike At Warwick

Need a talented two-mile chaser - who you gonna call? No not the GHOSTBUSTERS, but rather the REPUTATIONBUSTERS!

The ‘go-to’ trainer in the two-mile chase division was at it again on Saturday, when the Gary Moore trained Violet Dancer romped to victory in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick. The three runner event was billed as a suitable prep for the Nicky Henderson trained L’Ami Serge. Sent off the 1/5 favourite, he was expected to cruise to victory, further enhancing his Arkle Chase credentials. However, Mr Moore had other ideas, and again captured a valuable Saturday prize.

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Violet Dancer joins a powerful looking team at Cisswood Stables, with Sire De Grugy, Traffic Fluide and Ar Mad already exhibiting their talents on the track during the winter. The six-year-old has a similar running style to the yard’s star novice, and between them they have now downed both of Henderson’s leading two-mile novice chasers, with Ar Mad having beaten Vaniteux at Christmas.

Violet Dancer attacks from the front, forcing errors from those trying to land a blow. At Warwick neither L’Ami Serge nor Fox Norton were able to get close, with the contest all but over turning for home. Just as exuberant though less flamboyant at his fences than Ar Mad, this fella is quick to put himself right at his obstacles and spends very little time in the air. He has the look of a flat track bully, likely to be at his very best on tight turning tracks.

Winning jockey Jamie Moore said: “He's very genuine and tough and hard like a lot of Dad's. I thought I'd serve it up to L'Ami Serge down the hill and again turning in. He can hit the odd fence, but he's a very hard horse and has won impressively.”

Henderson felt that his horse had failed to produce his best, but in truth he was hurried out of his comfort zone, and never looked to have the gears to reel in the winner. Last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle exposed L’Ami Serge’s inability to cope with a relentless gallop. He remains a talented horse, but he’ll need to be stepped up in trip if he is to have any chance of winning at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Moore’s have Ar Mad going left-handed at Plumpton today, with a ticket to Cheltenham resting on his performance. For me it’s the wrong track to test him on. The tightness will exaggerate any tendency to jump out to his right, whereas a track like Cheltenham would be more forgiving. Nevertheless, let’s hope he passes the test and takes his position on the Arkle starting line. The race would be the poorer without him.

Whatever the outcome, Team Moore continue to thrive, and have the ammunition to take on all-comers in two-mile chases over the coming years.

They’d be Mad not to go for it

Captain Chris has had a long and illustrious career. The last few years have been blighted by injuries, yet whether he returns to the track or not he has given Philip Hobbs and owners Diana and Graham Whateley numerous thrilling days at the races.

No mug over hurdles, his career took off when sent over fences at the end of 2010. Beaten by Paul Nicholls’ Ghizao first time at Cheltenham, he came off second best once again to the same horse at Newbury when in receipt of 10lbs. A further second place finish when stepped up in trip for the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown, left trainer Hobbs with a tough decision as to the correct Cheltenham Festival target.

Many were surprised when Captain Chris was dropped back in trip to tackle the Arkle Chase, but the decision was emphatically vindicated when the horse stormed up the famous hill to defeat Finian’s Rainbow, despite jumping out to his right on numerous occasions.

Throughout his career, the habit of leaping out to the right has proved a barrier to further success at Cheltenham. Indeed since the Arkle success his four further career wins have all come on right hand tracks. It’s no surprise that Ascot and Kempton have become favourite destinations with his last victory coming in the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase when winning by a country mile.

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That habit of moving out one way or the other when taking obstacles is far from ideal, though many horses have overcome the issue to win major events. Vautour so nearly did so in the King George just a few weeks ago.

And that brings us to the latest trainer with the same conundrum to ponder over. Gary Moore finds himself in the enviable position of having a top class novice chaser in the yard. Ar Mad was disappointing at Plumpton on seasonal debut, when taking on the larger obstacles for the first time. The habit of jumping out to the right was there for all to see, especially in the latter stages of the race.

However, his three victories since, at Kempton and Sandown, have all been impressive. He took the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase in stunning fashion, and then overcame Henderson’s Vaniteux to win the Wayward Lad at Christmas. In the latter of those two he jumped perfectly straight for the majority of the race.

So has Moore overreacted to that first outing at Plumpton? The tightness of the track would certainly have helped to exaggerate the tendency to go right over the obstacles and a return to a more galloping track would be in his favour. Ar Mad was also ridden very differently that day, and in doing so he took a mighty hold, fighting for his head for much of the contest. His three victories since have all come with the jockey allowing the horse to charge along in front, a tactic which has clearly suited the exuberant chaser.

Yesterday Gary Moore informed us that the horse is currently on a break, and should he take in the Arkle, he is likely to go straight there. “Ar Mad is grand, but he's on a break at the minute, simply because there are no races for him now until Cheltenham,” said the West Sussex handler. “I've spoken to a lot of people I respect about this and some say he'll be fine and others say to stick to what you know,” Moore added.

After the latest win at Kempton his jockey Josh Moore said: “It would be a shame to miss an Arkle when you have the horse.” And having been adamant that his charge would not go Cheltenham, Gary Moore added: “It’s something we might just have to try.”

Captain Chris showed that an Arkle can be won by a horse that prefers going the other way. Watching that crucial Plumpton run again and again leaves me of the opinion that a change in tactics, coupled with a larger more galloping track will ensure that Ar Mad takes his place at Cheltenham. And there’s every chance that he’ll run an absolute blinder, though a certain Willie Mullins runner may prove more of an obstacle than the left-handed track.

Please Sire – Can We Have Some Moore

Last Fence Drama at Sandown

Last Fence Drama at Sandown

Gary Moore’s current purple patch is testament to the highs and lows of our great sport.

Since sustaining a painful injury at his Sussex stables which saw him hospitalized for several days, the fortunes of the yard have turned dramatically, culminating in yet another treble at Sandown on Saturday, including victory in the Grade 1 Tingle Creek for stable star Sire De Grugy.

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Travelling with far greater verve than when last seen at Exeter, and spring-heeled at his fences, the nine-year-old was sent to the lead at the Railway Fences and looked to have the race in safe keeping turning for home. However, Special Tiara renewed his challenge and at the final fence the two collided mid-air before Sire De Grugy pulled out more towards the finish.

The impact at the last was substantial and there’s certainly a strong case for the result having been reversed by the stewards. Ultimately the result stood and Gary Moore along with the exuberant connections were able to commence celebrations. The relieved trainer said: “He has put Devon behind him and one or two runs last season. Hopefully he can progress from today. When he jumped the ditch the first time he was positive at it. In my mind this ranks higher than winning the Champion Chase. Everybody seems to make Cheltenham the be all and end all, but I don't and to me this is as good as winning at Cheltenham.”

Henry De Bromhead, trainer of the runner-up, was rather less than impressed with the result, saying: “He should have won, obviously he was coming to win the race and the other horse took him out, it was as simple as that. I was delighted with his run, and we will decide where we go next when we get home.”

That final fence drama should not detract from a wonderful performance from Moore’s fella. The ex-champion is certainly back to something like his best, though down the line may well find a certain Un De Sceaux plying his trade at a different level.

Back in third on Saturday was Vibrato Valtat. At a track he clearly enjoys, and with conditions appearing to be in his favour, he just came up short. Outpaced by Sire De Grugy he briefly closed turning in, but was then put in his place by the front two. At the age of six there is time for further improvement, but it’s likely he’s simply not quite good enough in this type of company.

Earlier on the card Moore had saddled the winner of the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase, when Ar Mad caused something of an upset with an outstanding front running display. Wonderfully slick over his obstacles, he set strong fractions before staying on well to run out a 10 length winner. He has to go right handed, and his trainer was quick to dismiss the Cheltenham Festival as an end of season target.

A pair of Grade 1 victories and trebles on consecutive days at the Esher track was a truly exceptional performance from the Sussex handler and his team. Few would grudge one of racing’s most likeable families every bit of their well-earned success.