Tag Archive for: Ascot

Skelton content to tackle Clarence task with Amoola Gold

Dan Skelton is happy to let course specialist Amoola Gold face a seemingly impossible task in the SBK Clarence House Chase at Ascot on Saturday.

Amoola Gold is the lowest rated of the five horses entered for the Grade One feature but with prize money down to the fifth, Skelton is not afraid to take on Shishkin and Energumene.

A similar exercise proved profitable for the Skelton stable two years ago when Marracudja picked up £16,000 for finishing third of five behind Defi Du Seuil. However, there was a sting in the tail as Marracudja was put up 11lb for his pains.

What Amoola Gold has in his favour is an excellent course record that reads two wins and two second places from four visits to Ascot.

“It’s unrealistic to think we can win, obviously, against probably all of them on numbers but he definitely excels at Ascot and you’ve got to be in those races. When they cut up to small numbers you’ve got to give it a go,” Skelton told Sky Sports Racing.

“I ran Marracudja quite controversially in this race two years ago. He went up all that weight and there was a bit of a discussion about that. He finished third that day and picked up a chunk of prize money. You’ve got to be in it.”

Shishkin and Energumene in line for Clarence House clash

Saturday’s big clash between Shishkin and Energumene remains on the cards as the big two headline five confirmations for the SBK Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, last year’s Arkle winner, is unbeaten in six chase starts and looks the heir apparent to former stablemate Altior, who dominated the two-mile scene for so long.

However, in the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene he is set to meet possibly his toughest rival to date as his only defeat since moving to Ireland came in a bumper back in November 2019.

The pair were due to meet in last year’s Arkle only for Energumene to suffer a late setback.

Speaking on Monday, Henderson said: “He won’t be doing much between now and the race, I think, he doesn’t need to do much anyway.

“Nico (de Boinville) might feel he wants to jump a fence on him midweek at some stage, but he also might think there’s nothing to gain from that either, so we’ll see.

“I’d prefer it if there was a ferry strike in Ireland or something, but it doesn’t look like there will be!”

Both have only been seen once to date this season, with Shishkin beating Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen at Kempton over Christmas while Energumene won the Hilly Way at Cork.

Energumene has been hugely impressive since joining Willie Mullins
Energumene has been hugely impressive since joining Willie Mullins (Brian Lawless/PA)

Last year’s winner First Flow is also on target for the race.

Kim Bailey’s 10-year-old won the Peterborough Chase last time out but reverts to two miles at the Berkshire track.

He will be ridden by regular partner David Bass, who is already counting down the days.

“I can’t wait. Being involved in a race like this is a privilege really, to be going to Ascot on a Saturday to ride in a Grade One on a very, very good horse,” Bass told Sky Sports Racing.

“Look, the opposition are obviously very good horses but First Flow is consistent, he loves Ascot so we’ll give it a go.”

Paul Nicholls’ Hitman, second to stablemate Greaneteen in the Tingle Creek, could also line up with, Dan Skelton’s Amoola Gold the fifth and final possible in the mix for the Grade One.

Ascot a possible aim for Highway One O Two

Highway One O Two could head to Ascot for the Betfair Cheltenham Free Pot Builder Handicap Hurdle next month following his excellent effort in defeat at Kempton on Saturday.

Trainer Chris Gordon is eyeing this £50,000 prize for the seven-year-old, who found only Cobblers Dream too good when making most of the running in the two-mile-five-furlong Lanzarote Hurdle that carried a purse of £100,000.

“I was well pleased with the horse, he ran his heart out, but I’d like to say a big thanks to Kempton and Coral for putting on such good prize money. We picked up 21 grand for finishing second so it’s great,” said Gordon.

“He ran an absolute solid race and the winner is obviously on the right side of the handicap at the moment.

“He’s come out of it really well and we might go for a two-mile-three-furlong race at Ascot in about three to four weeks’ time. I’ve got that in mind at the moment.”

Henderson confirms Shishkin all set for Energumene showdown

Shishkin will head to the Sbk Clarence House Chase at Ascot next weekend after Nicky Henderson confirmed he had worked well at a fog-bound Seven Barrows on Saturday morning.

Last season’s Arkle winner showed his well-being with a 10-length success in the Grade Two Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton Park over Christmas, and is all set for a mouthwatering clash with the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene.

Henderson – back on a racecourse after contracting Covid-19 – confirmed: “My thinking is not what I was seeing. Because I can promise you, it was such thick fog this morning that they went past in a flash. But I am glad to say it really was a flash – it was so fast.

Shishkin on his way to victory at Kempton Park over Christmas
Shishkin on his way to victory at Kempton Park over Christmas (Steven Paston/PA)

“We are going to give Shishkin the green light and Nico (de Boinville) was thrilled with him. Barring accidents in the week and all sorts of things that come and bite you and haunt you, we will go to Ascot.

“He was thrilled with him this morning. He will jump five fences, but only when we can see them. You sure wouldn’t want to school this morning, that’s a certainty. His work was very good.

“It was what Nico was looking for that time before Kempton and it only just arrived that time. He is a heck of a lot lighter than he was when he came here.

“So I would like to think we are in shape.”

Of meeting Energumene before the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Henderson added: “Tell Willie to stay at home! I haven’t done so yet. You don’t intend these clashes to happen before March and Shishkin is well and he has to run before March and this is where we are going to go.

“The timing works out a bit better than Newbury (Game Spirit Chase). I like it better. He has had a nice run and has put him spot on for this. It gives me the chance to step back and then build up.”

Jonbon will be seen next at Haydock
Jonbon will be seen next at Haydock (Steven Paston/PA)

Henderson also had news of some of his other stable stars, including Jonbon.

He said: “Jonbon will go to Haydock on the same day (as the Clarence House). He worked very well. They all went well from what I can see. All pilots were happy. Jonbon was good, Nico was happy, Chantry House was great, Champ was great, so they are all on course.

“I think Champ will go to Cheltenham over hurdles, I think that is the probability. He still has got both options (Stayers’ Hurdle and Gold Cup) open.

“He hasn’t schooled over anything since Ascot.”

Royal Ascot capacity reduced following feedback

Crowd capacity this year’s Royal Ascot will be reduced as the track attempts to “improve customer experience” at the showpiece meeting.

Attendance at the fixture was capped at 12,000 last year due to covid restrictions and following feedback from racegoers, plus what Ascot has termed “a long term ambition”, numbers will be reduced across the Royal Enclosure, Queen Anne Enclosure and Windsor Enclosure for all five days of the Royal meeting.

The Royal Enclosure capacity will reduced by 1,000 people while the Royal Enclosure Gardens will be extended to create a new area next to the track.

Capacities for the Queen Anne and Windsor Enclosures will be reduced by 4,150 and 2,000 respectively and new facilities will be introduced while the Village Enclosure, located on the Heath in the middle of the course, will be in operation for the first time since 2019, with “space and scope” to increase the previous capacity of 6,500.

The Queen was back at Royal Ascot in 2021 to watch her Derby prospect Reach For The Moon
The Queen was back at Royal Ascot in 2021 to watch her Derby prospect Reach For The Moon (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Felicity Barnard, Ascot’s commercial director, said: “We are really pleased to be making these customer-focused changes to Royal Ascot this summer. They will provide an improved experience for all our racegoers across the three main enclosures, ensuring a more enjoyable atmosphere and better access to facilities throughout the site.

“A key message in the feedback from the 2021 Royal Meeting, when attendance was limited to 12,000 per day as part of the Government’s Events Research Programme, was that people really appreciated the benefit of additional space.

“This set us on a journey to look at how we could reduce density to improve comfort across the site going forward in a ‘normal’ scenario. Incorporating feedback from previous years and other racedays, it became clear to us that we needed to make a fundamental change in terms of the capacities across the site.”

Barnard went on: “This was especially the case in our premier public area – the Queen Anne Enclosure – and reducing the number of people there significantly and investing in improved facilities will deliver a much better environment for people to enjoy the world-class racing on show.

“It is crucial that we protect the unique and very special sense of occasion that people feel when they come to Royal Ascot and we hope that these changes will provide an enhanced experience for all our racegoers.

“Ticket sales have been strong since launch last summer and they will clearly be in higher demand as a result of these changes at what will be a special Royal Meeting in the Platinum Jubilee year.”

Lavelle content with revised mark for Wincanton winner Killer Clown

It is not often a trainer is satisfied with revised handicap marks, but Emma Lavelle insists she is “happy” Killer Clown has been given a fighting chance after his wide-margin win at Wincanton on Saturday.

The eight-year-old gained the second chasing success of his career when landing a Class 2 handicap by nine and a half lengths under Tom Bellamy.

The Tim Syder-owned gelding is now up to a revised mark of 142, although any thoughts of a trip to the Cheltenham Festival are on the back burner for now.

Lavelle said: “Killer Clown went up 7lb which is fair enough and he seems to have come out of the race well, so that’s great.

“If he was very bright, we might look at Ascot (bet365 Handicap Chase on Saturday week), but at this stage I’m happy with where we are rating-wise and we will make some decisions in the next week.

“There is no point going to the well too often at this time of year.”

Although Killer Clown has taken time to blossom, the Ogbourne Maizey handler has always thought a lot of him and the key to his improved form has been the addition of a tongue tie.

Lavelle added: “He is a smasher, he really is. He has run well, but had not gone on as much as we had hoped and I think the tongue tie has made a big difference to him, because he definitely saw his race out well.

“He didn’t have to do too much on Saturday, but he did gallop out to the line and certainly on his work at home, it seems to have made difference to him.”

However, long-term targets may not include a trip to Prestbury Park.

“There are some nice two-and-a-half-mile handicaps in the spring, with some nice prizes to go with it. I don’t know that Cheltenham would be the right sort of place to go with him,” she added.

“As for Aintree, you are struggling on the Mildmay track for two-and-a-half-mile races with him and then you finish up looking at the Topham or something. I don’t know – we’ll see. There are options out there.”

Paisley Park will bid for a third Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham
Paisley Park will bid for a third Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham (Julian Herbert/PA)

Meanwhile, Lavelle is hoping the recent rain persists for former Stayers’ Hurdle winner Paisley Park, who is set to return to Cheltenham on Trials Day.

Having finished third in each of his three starts this season, Paisley Park is on course for an attempt to win the Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle for a third time, after victories in 2019 and 2020.

“Touch wood he is in great order and the Cleeve Hurdle is very much the plan,” confirmed Lavelle.

“He is on target for that and we are looking forward to it. Hopefully for him, anyway, the rain keeps coming, as that is what he needs – that proper test.”

Any plans to belatedly send the Andrew Gemmell-owned 10-year-old over fences were scuppered by a dry autumn and if all goes well, the Stayers’ Hurdle, which he won in 2019, is still the primary goal.

“I can’t say I’m that disappointed we are still over hurdles,” she added.

“I think that it was an option to go over fences and his run in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot was a good one on ground that really didn’t suit, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him run on proper soft ground and see where we are with him.”

Jonbon team seeking suitable next step for Supreme favourite

Nicky Henderson is keen to give exciting hurdler Jonbon more experience before the Cheltenham Festival, but is struggling to find a suitable race for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle favourite.

JP McManus’s fledgling star romped to an emphatic Grade Two success at Ascot under Aidan Coleman last month to make it two from two over hurdles.

Having previously shown a tendency to get warm and over-race, Jonbon had shown more maturity and plenty of athletic ability on his second hurdling start, with Coleman making nearly all the running and powering home up the straight.

Frank Berry, McManus’ racing manager, said: “All is very good with Jonbon. It is amazing with all the racing, but Nicky is struggling to find a novice hurdle over two miles to run him in. That is a bit of a problem at the minute.

“I’d say the first two-mile novice coming up, he’ll have a run in it.

“We hope that, by the end of the month or whatever, Nicky will find a race for him, but there is a bit of difficulty finding one.”

Berry revealed that a decision has yet to be taken on which race the Henderson-trained Champ will contest at the Cheltenham Festival.

Champ overcame a 274-day break to land the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot last month – his first run since being pulled up in the Gold Cup, and looked better than ever.

Berry said: “Champ has an entry in the Gold Cup and will have an entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle and I’d say we’ll leave it up to Nicky Henderson nearer the time and see what he wants to do.

“We’ll see how he is in the meantime – he is in good form and he has come out of his race very well and Nicky is happy with him.

“He’s a grand horse and it was nice to see him living up to his name!”

The French-trained Easysland is still on course for the Glenfarclas Chase, despite not being seen since finishing runner-up to Tiger Roll in last season’s renewal.

Easysland is still in course for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase
Easysland is still in course for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase (Simon Cooper/PA)

Trained by David Cottin, Easysland had previously slammed Tiger Roll by 17 lengths in the 2020 edition and remains 4-1 joint-favourite with that rival for the three-and-three-quarter-mile event on March 16.

“Easysland has had a few setbacks but hopefully he is getting there,” said Berry.

“There was nothing substantial, just minor issues, but it just slowed the whole job down with him. Hopefully he will get back on song now.

“You’d like to think he will get back to Cheltenham for the cross country chase and hopefully he will get there. We’ll have to see what happens after that.

“We’ll see if he has a run beforehand, but nothing has been decided yet.”

Bandey maps out Towton target for Saint Palais

Saint Palais is set to return to Wetherby for the Towton Novices’ Chase next month after being hiked 10lb by the handicapper following success at Newbury last week.

The Richard Bandey-trained five-year-old made it three wins from four outings over fences, completing a hat-trick, with a comfortable win under Harry Bannister in a competitive renewal of the Mandarin Chase.

Having previously scored at Wetherby, the Tadley handler hopes the diminutive Saint Palais can take a step up to graded company in his stride with a return to the West Yorkshire track.

Bandey said: “The handicapper has put him up to a mark of 145 now. He is absolutely fine. He’s been bucking out in the field since the race.

“He will be back in training on Wednesday, but he is in great form and we are looking at Wetherby for the (Grade Two) Towton Novices’ Chase on February 5.

“We don’t want to over-face him, but with his new mark, we just have to see how he fares in a race like that. It will tell us where we go with him until the end of the season.

“We are not going to run him at Cheltenham. He liked Wetherby the other day and it is a 10lb rise from what he was running off last time, but we will see how he fares.

“Either that race or the Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase at Ascot (February 19) – that is another race we have got on our mind. They are both going to be slightly differently-run races with smaller fields, but not unlike a handicap, and so he has to step up again, probably.”

While Saint Palais took time to warm to the task in soft at Newbury and his winning margin over Gericault Roque was just a length and a quarter, he could be called the winner a long way from home in the three-and-a-quarter-mile event.

Bandey has no qualms about the lackadaisical way he raced early on.

“We have watched the replays of Newbury plenty of times! He looked like he wasn’t jumping and wasn’t travelling early on, but that is him,” said Bandey.

“He just switched off. Actually, he jumped fine and just wasn’t exuberant until Harry put him into the race and then you watched his jumping come to life.

“Jumping the last three in the home straight – he was awesome and didn’t put a foot wrong and jumped the last probably the best of all of them.

“When you have got a horse like that who can switch off and then jump like that, it is lovely.

“It was a competitive enough Mandarin and they went a good gallop end to end and then the front two quickened quite significantly. That is when the jumping did what it had to do. It was there every time you asked for it.

“I’m not going to say he is going to improve another 10lb at all because that would be dreaming, but talking to Harry, if he had asked him to go on another five lengths or so, he could have done. He only does enough when he gets to the front and his ears start flicking.

“We will look forward to the next step up because that will tell us where we go afterwards.”

Kempton option for Drasher before Ascot return

Dashel Drasher is likely to have the Ladbrokes Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton on January 15 as his next start before he returns to his beloved Ascot the following month.

The nine-year-old’s main aim is the Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase on February 19 – which he won in 2021.

Dashel Drasher made a winning return to hurdling when defying top weight in a competitive handicap at Newbury last week after being taken out of the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Trainer Jeremy Scott reports his stable star to have taken the race in his stride so far.

“It was fantastic. It was a good effort. He’s all good and the plan at the moment would be the Silviniaco Conti,” said the Somerset handler.

“There is that Lingfield race (Winter Million Chase) worth £150,000 over two miles and six furlongs (on January 23) but I think the ground might go if we get too much rain.

“At the moment it’s the Silviniaco Conti and then go back to Ascot. Time wise it’s great as long as he comes out of this hurdle race OK. That is the plan at this stage.

“He hasn’t done anything much, but he seems 100 per cent.”

‘Seriously good’ Energumene all set for potential Shishkin showdown

Energumene is reportedly on course for a mighty clash with Shishkin in the Sbk Clarence House Chase at Ascot later this month.

A mouthwatering showdown between the pair in last season’s Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham failed to materialise when the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene met with a setback.

But he maintained his unbeaten record over fences at Punchestown and reappeared in style at Cork in early December.

With Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin making a stylish return of his own at Kempton Park over Christmas, a box office head-to-head could be on the cards at the Berkshire track on January 22.

Shishkin thrilled Nicky Henderson at Kempton Park
Shishkin thrilled Nicky Henderson at Kempton Park (Steven Paston/PA)

Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, told Sky Sports Racing: “We think Energumene is seriously good. We were sick not to have him declared in Leopardstown after choosing Chacun Pour Soi, but he’s entered at Ascot and that’s the plan at the moment.

“We chose Chacun for Christmas and we had to find a race for Energumene and that looks the ideal one for him.

“He looks a much better chaser than he was a hurdler or bumper horse, even though he was unexposed in those divisions. If you were here on the gallops there’s about three horses that take your eye every day, so until we see there’s a horse better than him we think he’s as good as anything.

“Every morning you see Energumene, he takes your eye. Even just his presence, he has a presence, he knows he’s good – and he is very good.”

First Flow poised for Clarence House clash with Shishkin and co

First Flow is on course to defend his crown in the SBK Clarence House Chase at Ascot on January 22.

Kim Bailey’s charge was unfancied at 14-1 last year, but floored 11-8 favourite Politologue by seven lengths after being prominent throughout in the Grade One feature.

Having made a successful reappearance in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon four weeks ago, First Flow will attempt to win the prestigious Ascot prize a second time.

First Flow could clash with Shishkin at Ascot
First Flow could clash with Shishkin at Ascot (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

But he is likely to face a stiffer task this time, with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin and the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene among the entries. Both are unbeaten over fences and have been successful at the top level.

“I’m absolutely delighted with him and he’s on course to take on Shishkin, and anyone else, who wants to turn up, at Ascot,” said Bailey.

“It will be a bit tougher, but then he was an unfancied horse in the race last year.”

Shishkin and Energumene could clash in Clarence House

Exciting Arkle winner Shishkin could be on course for a clash with unbeaten chaser Energumene in the SBK Clarence House Chase at Ascot next month, according to Nicky Henderson.

Shishkin missed the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown as Henderson was not happy with the seven-year-old, before making a belated return to land Grade Two Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton on Monday.

Earlier this week, Willie Mullins outlined the Grade One Clarence House Chase as the likely target for Energumene, winner of last season’s Ryanair Novice Chase at Punchestown, thus potentially setting up a mouthwatering appetiser for the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March.

Henderson said: “I would have thought that was the race. I would generally rather go Clarence House than Game Spirit (at Newbury). We’re thinking that way.”

The Seven Barrows handler also offered updates on Chantry House and Mister Fisher, who were both pulled up in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

He said: “Some horses just don’t like Kempton sometimes. Chantry House was always flat to the boards and was never really enjoying it. I would think the most likely place he will go is Cheltenham for the Trials day (Cotswold Chase).

“Mister Fisher ran really well. He had no chance and I begged the owner not to run him in a way, but he came into the straight and just blew up. He had a fibrillating heart a month ago. He has done well to get back from that in that time.

“Where are his options? That is why we ran him over three miles. What else are you going to keep him for?”

Henderson is also mulling over options for Epatante, who dead-heated in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle before running out a ready winner of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

He added: “Epatante is 100 per cent. I don’t know where she goes next – I have really no idea.

“But as we said at the beginning of the season, she has got two targets – the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle and whatever happens after that, it doesn’t matter.”

Energumene and Shishkin headline 11 Clarence House contenders

Energumene is among 11 entries for the SBK Clarence House Chase at Ascot on January 22 – with Willie Mullins confirming the race is firmly in his sights.

Absent from the two-mile Grade One at Leopardstown over Christmas, in which stablemate Chacun Pour Soi was a late absentee, Energumene has only been seen once this season.

That was in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork, where he once again showed his ability in winning by over eight lengths.

He has only met with one defeat since joining Mullins having won a point-to-point in England, and that came in his first bumper.

Since then he has won a bumper, a novice hurdle and five over fences, including two Grade Ones, but this would be his first trip outside Ireland having missed last season’s Cheltenham Festival.

“That’s the plan at the moment. We said we’d sidestep Christmas and go there. All is good with him,” said Mullins.

“We had to make a decision and decided we wouldn’t get him ready for yesterday, we thought it was probably quick enough.

“The Clarence House is better spaced out time-wise.”

It could be an early clash with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, who returned to action with a scintillating display at Kempton on Monday.

Shishkin could take on Energumene at Ascot
Shishkin could take on Energumene at Ascot (Steven Paston/PA)

However, Henderson has yet to confirm Ascot as the plan, coming as it does just three weeks after the Desert Orchid Chase.

Last year’s winner First Flow is likely to defend his crown having won the Peterborough Chase over two and a half miles and the second at Huntingdon, Funambule Sivola, is another possible.

Paul Nicholls has two possibles, Hitman and Rouge Vif, while Sky Pirate is in the mix for Jonjo O’Neill.

Amoola Gold, Eldorado Allen, Sizing Pottsie and Waiting Patiently complete the list.

Ronald Pump could make quick return at Leopardstown

Ronald Pump could be set for a quick reappearance at Leopardstown having run too keen to do himself justice in the Long Walk Hurdle on Saturday.

Matthew Smith’s stable star was sent off a well-fancied 3-1 chance for the Grade One, but Keith Donoghue had struggled to get him to settle and despite turning into the straight still well in contention, his early exertions told and he faded into fifth behind Champ.

He is entered in the Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle on December 28 and Smith has not ruled out running him in that should everything go well between now and then.

“He just never settled. Keith said he fought him most of the way and used up whatever energy he had before he needed it,” said Smith.

“He was well in himself, but obviously the blinkers got him too lit up and he never settled. It’s disappointing we didn’t get a proper read off him, but that’s the way it goes.

“He just never dropped the bridle for two miles and you won’t get away with doing that at that level.

“Last year Keith said it took him ages to grab the bit so we’d worked him in blinkers and he was good, he had them on in a schooling bumper and obviously in the Hatton’s Grace but that was only two and a half miles and they went a right gallop.

“Unfortunately they had him too lit up at the weekend. First time you could have understood, it but they didn’t go much of a gallop. It was as simple as that.”

Ronald Pump ran too keen to do himself justice at Ascot
Ronald Pump ran too keen to do himself justice at Ascot (PA Wire)

He went on: “We’ll keep him at three miles, that isn’t a problem.

“He seems in great form, travelled home well and seems full of beans so we’re not ruling out running him at Leopardstown – if we think he’s OK and everything is good we probably will run him. We’ll keep the blinkers off and take our time a bit.

“It’s disappointing, if he’d finished last with no excuses then you could take it but he just didn’t settle.”

What to do with a ‘high-class problem’ like Champ?

JP McManus has put so much into National Hunt racing that one can be forgiven that most races and most horses mean as much as any other to him. Nothing could be further from the truth.

He rarely gives much away. Yet the softly-spoken Irishman still gets an almighty craic from the big days and there is no question he is one of the most compassionate when it comes to any of his horses.

But at Ascot on Saturday he admitted that there is one horse who holds a special place in his heart, one that he insists now gives him “a high-class problem”.

Champ has undoubtedly had his problems. A Grade One winner over hurdles (Sefton Novices’ Hurdle) and over fences (RSA Novices’ Chase, beating Minella Indo), he was pulled up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March and had a subsequent back operation.

His reappearance at Ascot after nine months off in the Howden Long Walk Hurdle was supposed to be something of a fact-finding mission for Nicky Henderson’s charge, a prep run for bigger things to come.

Yet he showed real determination, finding a second wind and coming back on the bridle to win with ease. The official verdict was a length and three-quarters, but in truth he simply broke runner-up Thyme Hill’s heart.

In this calendar year, Champ has had three runs – the Game Spirit Chase, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Long Walk Hurdle. An unlikely trio if ever there was one.

So now connections have a problem. The nine-year-old – named after 20-time champion Sir Anthony McCoy – is such a talent that he has McManus and Henderson in a quandary.

“Which race to go for – the Gold Cup or Stayers’ Hurdle? We’ll leave it to Nicky,” said McManus.

“I’ve no problem staying over hurdles and equally, if he goes over fences, I have no problem with that.”

Unusually, he candidly added: “There are few horses in training that give me as much pleasure as this horse.

“He is named after the man he’s named after (McCoy) and he is a slow or late-maturing horse who has had niggly problems all his life, but Nicky has shown tremendous patience in dealing with them and giving him the time.

“No horse gives me as much pleasure. We deliberated a long time before we put it (McCoy’s nickname) on a horse, so we thought a lot of him from the start.”

Champ in full flight
Champ in full flight (Nigel French/PA)

Champ has won six of his eight races over hurdles now and the Stayers’ Hurdle is certainly on the radar, especially since Henderson has lost – for the time being at least – his top hope Buzz. The ante-post favourite was ruled out with a pelvic injury on the eve of the Long Walk.

Though immediately cut to 4-1 favourite for the Stayers’ by Coral afterwards, another crack at the Gold Cup remains a possibility, should his jumping not hold him back.

For Henderson, it was merely a relief to get him back on course after his back operation and McManus was keen to pay tribute to the veteran trainer.

“It was a great training performance by Nicky,” said McManus.

“After Cheltenham last year, it was challenging. I wouldn’t know much about the injury, but he had a back injury and Nicky did a tremendous job to get him back and I have to give him full marks.

“Champ summered well and he came back in good form, and we hoped that this is what he would do, but you never know, especially after that run in the Gold Cup, which was a disappointing run for everybody.

“It is back to the drawing board, but he looked to enjoy himself.”

Champ sees off Thyme Hill
Champ sees off Thyme Hill (Nigel French/PA)

While Henderson felt his class may be an asset ahead of the Long Walk, he insisted he would need the run.

McManus added: “Nicky had him fairly ready in fairness. He doesn’t leave too much to chance.

“I would say he will be better for the run and it was exciting when he ran a little bit free about 10 furlongs out – I said, ‘God, not so early – there is plenty of time for that’.

“But he did well to see it out and get his second wind and see off Thyme Hill.”

Of course, the billion dollar question remains.

“I would like to do the right thing, whatever that is,” said McManus.

“I’d like to do the right thing for the horse, whether it is the Gold Cup or the Stayers’.

“Let’s see how he comes out of this. It is a high-class problem!”

And in Henderson, McManus and McCoy, there is no better team to solve it.