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The Lanzarote Hurdle – Nicky to nick-it from Nicholls

Kempton’s Lanzarote Hurdle was established in 1978 and originally run over two miles. In 2007 the race was extended to its current trip of 2m5f.

In the 10 renewals since the change in trip, just three winners have carried more than 11 stone to victory. Paul Nicholls and Nick Williams have landed three apiece in that period, with Modus winning for team Ditcheat 12 months ago.

Six-year-olds have been dominant in recent times, with the race tending to favour a progressive type with few hurdling miles on the clock. Three of the past 10 winners had only run three times over hurdles, prior to landing this valuable event. Despite the race usually attracting a fair-sized field, shocks have proved rare. Of the past nine renewals, Micheal Flips at 9/1 was the biggest price winner.

Nicky Henderson is responsible for the front two in the betting for tomorrow’s renewal. Diese Des Bieffes is only a five-year-old, and has had just three outings over hurdles. He was runner-up to classy novice If The Cap Fits last time at Kempton. Outpaced during that two-mile contest, he stayed on strongly in the home straight, and it would be a surprise if this extended trip didn’t prove ideal. He’s by popular French stallion Martaline, responsible for classy types including Dynaste, Disko and Agrapart. Leading juvenile hurdler We Have A Dream is also among his progeny. Henderson’s youngster is set to carry 11-2, though 5lb claimer Mitchell Bastyan appears booked for the ride. This fella looks to have a huge chance.

William Henry will carry top-weight and is challenging his stablemate at the top of the market. He came down on chase debut and has reverted to hurdles. A classy novice last term, he was runner-up to Wholestone at Cheltenham last January, with Poetic Rhythm five-lengths back in third. The strength of that form has been well advertised this winter, and of those at the top of the handicap, he looks the class act.

Bags Groove joins him at the top of the pile. Harry Fry’s seven-year-old won a Pertemps Qualifier at Kempton in November, but is raised 5lbs for that effort. This looks more competitive, and I’m far from sure that he has enough improvement left to win off this latest mark.

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Paul Nicholls has enjoyed plenty of success in the race, and has another leading contender in Topofthegame. The six-year-old is lightly raced, with just four starts under rules, and is another reverting to hurdles after falling on his only chase outing. He was some way behind William Henry in the race at Cheltenham, though was a huge raw baby at the time. There’s every chance that he can turn that form on its head, especially as he gets 6lb from that rival. He’s by Flemensfirth, and as such should have no problem with conditions. He should go close.

Nick Williams has a couple lurking at the bottom end of the handicap. With such an outstanding record in the race, the Devon trainer cannot be dismissed. Dentley De Mee looks the one to keep an eye on. The five-year-old has had just three outings over hurdles, and though he’ll need to improve plenty to be competitive here, there’s every chance that he could do exactly that. He gets the best part of a stone or more from the leading protagonists, and it would be no surprise to see him sneak into a place.

Owner JP McManus captured last year’s event, and has one of the favourites this time in the Alan King-trained River Frost. He was fifth in a strong renewal of the Silver Trophy at Chepstow in October, and that form certainly gives him a chance here. He too is lumbered with top-weight, and will be ably assisted by Barry Geraghty; twice a winner of this race in the last five years. This six-year-old is clearly a player, but I’m not convinced he’s quite good enough.

Siding with Paul Nicholls or Nicky Henderson is often a sensible decision, and I think the pair have this race between them. I’m just favouring Diese Des Bieffes over Topofthegame, though I fancy it’ll be close.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

2017 Cheltenham Festival Top Jockey Betting Guide

The ‘Top Jockey’ betting at the Cheltenham Festival is always a fascinating market and provides punters with another sub-plot to keep them interested over the four-days of top-notch National Hunt action.

No Barry Geraghty this year after the JP McManus-retained pilot has been ruled out through injury, but with top jockeys like Ruby Walsh, Richard Johnson, Noel Fehily, Aidan Coleman, Bryan Cooper, Nico de Boinville, Sam Twiston-Davies and Mark Walsh then racegoers will be hunting through the entries trying to plot which of the leading jockeys have the best rides.

In recent year’s Ruby Walsh has dominated this market – ridding the most winners over the four days 8 times in the last 9 seasons, including in 2016, and 10 times in all. His association with the powerful Willie Mullins team, that fired in another seven Festival winners in 2016, makes him the clear favourite again in the 2017 Cheltenham Festival Top Jockey betting market and with that in mind it’s easy to see why the ‘silver fox’ pilot, who has ridden a total of 52 Cheltenham Festival winners, is already odds-on to take his Cheltenham Top Jockey Title haul to 11.

Walsh will have the pick of all the main Mullins horses over the Festival – like Douvan, Vroum Mag, Limini, Un de Scueax and Yorkhill, while he’s sure to also get the leg-up on plenty of spares if Mullins doesn’t have a runner in the race.

So, Ruby is a worthy favourite?

With no Barry Geragthy – who looked to have a cracking array of horses for his boss, JP McManus, to pick from – this will certainly help Ruby’s cause as most of Geragthy’s rides will now be spread out to a handful of other top jockeys. JP’s second retained rider – Mark Walsh – has naturally come in for support in the betting after it was confirmed that he’ll be riding leading Champion Hurdle hope – Yanworth – plus former Ryanair winner, Uxizandre.

However, those looking for other options away from Ruby Walsh, might sway towards Noel Fehily. This likeable jockey looks likely to pick up some more of Geraghty’s spares in the form of Unowhatimeanharry (Stayers Hurdle) and Buveur D’Air (Champion Hurdle), while he’s also on the well-touted Neon Wolf, who heads the Neptune Investment Hurdle betting.

Of the rest, top Irish jockey Bryan Cooper, who will ride the main Giggintown Stud horses, is interesting with such a large number of decent horses to pick from. His best chances look like coming from Petit Mouchoir, Apples Jade, Empire Of Dirt and Death Duty.

With the festival over four days then it really is numbers game, and without stating the obvious a mixture of 2 or 3 bankers in your locker, plus rides in almost all the available races (don’t forget there are a few amateur or conditional races) is the perfect cocktail to being the top jock at Cheltenham.

Did you know? Back in the 1990’s former champion jockeys Richard Dunwoody and Peter Scudamore landed the top jockey title with only 2 wins! But, don’t forget the festival was held over 3 days back then! 

Another name to mention is Sam Twiston-Davies, who will ride the best of the Paul Nicholls runners, but although it will be a shock if Nicholls isn’t picking up a few races, he doesn’t seem to have any real banker material this year so it’s hard to see Twiston-Davies challenging for the top jockey title.

Aidan Coleman might be a better outsider – he’s likely to ride a lot of the Jonjo O’Neill and Venetia Williams horses, plus he’s already been confirmed for My Tent Or Yours (Champion Hurdle) and Minella Rocco (Gold Cup).

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Nico de Boinville is worth a mention too – he looks sure to go in with Altior in the Arkle Chase so that should get him off the mark on Day One, and with the powerful Nicky Henderson team behind him too then he’s another that might be worth a small cover bet against Ruby.

The champion jockey – Richard Johnson – is another that is sure to get on the score sheet, but a bit like Twiston-Davies he’s bound to have plenty of rides, but with no real bankers then he might be scrapping around a bit, and even at a double-figure price it’s hard to get too excited.

So – yes – there are a few cases to be made for taking on Ruby Walsh, with Noel Fehily, Bryan Cooper and Nico de Boinville looking the best alternatives, but really it’s hard to get away from the ‘Silver Fox’. Okay, no Annie Power, Faugheen or Vautour this year, but he’s still got more so-called ‘bankers than any of the other top jocks and that’s good enough for us.

Finally, the last thing to note when it comes to this market is don’t forget that seconds, thirds and even fourth-placed finishes can help land a jockey this prize. In the event of a tie (winners) then the amount of seconds, and then thirds will be taken into account!

Best Bet: RUBY WALSH
Danger: Noel Fehily

 

Recent Cheltenham Festival ‘Top Jockey’ Hall Of Fame

2016: Ruby Walsh (5)
2015: Ruby Walsh (4)
2014: Ruby Walsh (3)
2013: Ruby Walsh (4)
2012: Barry Geraghty (5)
2011: Ruby Walsh (5)
2010: Ruby Walsh (3)
2009: Ruby Walsh (7)
2008: Ruby Walsh (3)
2007: Robert Thornton (4)
2006: Ruby Walsh (3)
2005: Graham Lee (3)
2004: Ruby Walsh (3)
2003: Barry Geraghty (5)
2002: Richard Johnson (2)
2001: Meeting Abandoned
2000: Mick Fitzgerald (4)
1999: Mick Fitzgerald (4)
1998: Tony McCoy (5)
1997: Tony McCoy (3)

 

Leading Current Jockeys At The Festival

Ruby Walsh (52)
Barry Geraghty (34)
Richard Johnson (20)
Davy Russell (17)
Tom Scudamore (9)
Ms Nina Carberry (7)
Sam Twiston-Davies (7)
Paddy Brennan (6)
Bryan Cooper (6)
Mr Jamie Codd (5)
Nico de Boinville (4)
Andrew Lynch (4)
Paul Townend (4)
Sam Waley-Cohen (4)

Festival Blow – Geraghty ‘Down and Out’

We’ve had such a good spell with the Friday Preview Piece, that it was very disappointing to see the tip for the BetBright Chase, Irish Saint, run such a poor race on Saturday. He was never slick enough at his fences, and faded tamely out of contention turning for home.

The race went to Pilgrims Bay, who was given a fabulous ride by James Best. The horse often finds little off the bridle, and has to be delivered as late as possible. The seven-year-old cruised into contention approaching the last, and was nudged out to victory, defeating the well fancied Double Shuffle by less than a length.

In Friday’s article, I’d also mentioned Triolo D’Alene as a live contender at a decent price. Unfortunately, Henderson’s classy chaser, was pulled-up early in the race, and has subsequently been retired. It typified a turbulent day for the master of Seven Barrows, which saw his talented juvenile, Charli Parcs crash out at the second-last in the Adonis Hurdle. In truth, the youngster was never travelling, and although mounting a challenge when falling, he was by no means sure to win. There must now be questions over whether he’ll head to Cheltenham, and his price of around 10s for both the Supreme and the Triumph Hurdle looks rather skinny.

The news was worse for his stricken jockey Barry Geraghty. He looked badly shaken when rising slowly from the ground, and a trip to the hospital confirmed that he had broken several ribs and suffered a collapsed lung. With the Cheltenham Festival just a couple of weeks away, Geragthy will not have recovered in time. His absence is a blow for Nicky Henderson, but more so for owner JP McManus. He will miss a host of exciting rides, including Yanworth or Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle, Coney Island, Uxizandre, Defi Du Seuil and Unowhatimeanharry in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

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Nicky Henderson’s disappointment at the demise of Charli Parcs was quickly replaced by optimism as to the future of River Wylde. The six-year-old travelled beautifully in the Grade 2 Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle, and found plenty when asked to go and win his race. His jumping was slick throughout, and another fine leap at the last helped him pull three lengths clear of Elgin at the line. He’s bred to stay further, being by Oscar out of a Mandalus mare, though the dual Champion Hurdle winner Monksfield also appears in his pedigree. He’s still as big as 16s for the Supreme, a race where Nicky Henderson excels. That looks a generous price to me.

Earlier in the day, Henderson had watched a trio of Festival fancies put through their paces with a racecourse gallop. Champion Hurdle contender Brain Power, looked particularly impressive, working alongside Peace & Co and Josses Hill. Available at 8/1 for the opening day showpiece, he’s a striking looking individual, and every inch a chaser in the making. Henderson believes that decent ground is key to his chances at Cheltenham. He’s undoubtedly a serious contender in a wide-open renewal.

In a day of mixed fortunes, Nicky Henderson still has plenty to look forward to with Cheltenham now just a couple of weeks away. Sadly, Barry Geraghty is the latest in a long line of Festival casualties.

Lions run with pride at Haydock

A pair of lions roared at Haydock in the Grand National trial, but it was Vieux Lion Rouge that proved himself ‘King of the jungle’ on this occasion.

Prominent throughout, the winner and his main challenger Blaklion, moved to the head of affairs at the third last. The pair jumped impeccably over the final few fences, pulling well clear of the remainder. David Pipe’s Becher Chase winner came out on top, with the Twiston-Davies RSA winner finishing three lengths adrift. Vieux Lion Rouge was in receipt of a crucial 6lbs from the runner-up, and both will now be aimed at Aintree, where the weight differential is only 3lbs. Pipe’s eight-year-old shot to the head of the betting for the main event in April, whilst Blaklion, somewhat surprisingly to me, can still be backed at 25s.

Pipe was thrilled with the victory, and especially the way the horse pulled out more when pressed over the latter stages. Tom Scudamore was just as thrilled with the win, when saying: “He never used to finish off his races, but running in the National as a novice made a man of him. He was foot-perfect in the Becher and was foot-perfect today. He wasn't the greatest jumper before he ran in the National last year. We can head there with confidence and a few pounds up our sleeves, we hope.”

Nigel Twiston-Davies had anticipated a huge run from Blaklion, and was not disappointed. Sent off favourite, the top weight lost little in defeat, and with his charge 3lbs better off next time, the trainer will be hopeful that positions can be reversed. He sounded bullish when saying: “We'll win the National and forget about being second today. His jumping was spot on at almost every fence and even when he was tired he put himself right, and that's what you need for Aintree.”

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This looked a classy renewal, and the way the front pair pulled miles clear of the remainder, despite having plenty of weight to carry, suggests both will be serious players when Aintree comes around.

Age proved no barrier for Cue Card at Ascot, as he disposed of a bunch of handicappers in the Ascot Chase. Some had ‘crabbed’ his King George performance, despite him finishing second to the Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack. There was nothing of that quality in opposition this time around, and he was rightly sent off a short-priced favourite. He demolished the field, and now heads to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham as part of a powerful Colin Tizzard trio. It’s a mouth-watering prospect.

At Wincanton, Yanworth captured the Kingwell Hurdle in workmanlike fashion. Many onlookers appeared unimpressed, and he drifted slightly in the Champion Hurdle market. Nevertheless, the main event at Cheltenham remains a wide-open affair, and Yanworth will be staying on strongly at the finish. His jumping may need to improve, though Petit Mouchoir looks the only horse likely to be stretching the field from the front. He remains a serious player in my eyes, and Barry Geraghty has a tough decision to make when choosing between him and race favourite Buveur D’Air.

He Who D’Airs – Henderson Switch Pays Off

Nicky Henderson shuffled the pack before playing a pair of aces at Sandown on Saturday.

Early in the week, Buveur D’Air looked set to contest the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, before heading for a shot at the JLT at Cheltenham. But after a change of heart, he was switched to the smaller obstacles, and duly strolled to victory in the Contenders Hurdle. That left the Munir and Souede owned Top Notch to step in, and out-class the opposition in the Grade 1 showpiece.

He’s certainly not the biggest, but that hasn’t stopped Top Notch from being extremely slick and accurate at his fences. He made one mistake out the back, but otherwise put in an immaculate round of jumping. Always travelling powerfully, Daryl Jacob held on to his mount until the last, before sweeping past Baron Alco and pulling five lengths clear. The disappointment of the race was Clan Des Obeaux, who having been sent off a short-priced favourite, failed to cope with the intensity of the event. His jumping became ragged, and he ultimately faded tamely to finish last of the five runners.

Daryl Jacob and connections were winning the Scilly Isles for the third consecutive year, and the jockey said: “It was a great performance. That was a real test for him. He's not the biggest in the world but he makes up for it with his heart. He deserves it. He's very, very consistent and he always tries his heart out. This was a big step and it told us a lot.”

An emotional Nicky Henderson said of the winner: "This is a real favourite. He's nearer a pet than a racehorse. He came as a juvenile hurdler and I thought that was all he ever would be. He had a good year last year. He won the Morebattle (Kelso) and was fifth in the Champion, and had nowhere to go so we tried him over a fence. He was beaten first time out, and then we found him two lovely, easy races, and you could see him grow in stature and confidence. Daryl says the two and a half miles suits him well. It will probably be the JLT he'll go for at Cheltenham.”

Top Notch is now widely available at 7/1 for the JLT, with connections having finished second in the race 12 months ago, thanks to Bristol De Mai.

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Earlier in the day Buveur D’Air had put his Champion Hurdle credentials to the test, and ran-out an easy winner of the Contenders Hurdle. In truth, only Irving looked to be any sort of meaningful opposition, and Nicholls’ hurdler is far from reliable. He had one of his off days, which left Rayvin Black alone in the task of stretching Henderson’s classy youngster. Oliver Sherwood’s eight-year-old did his best from the front, but Barry Geraghty cruised alongside just yards from the post, winning ‘hard-held’ by a length and a half.

Buveur D’Air was a classy novice hurdler, finishing third in the Supreme before beating Petit Mouchoir at Aintree. He forms part of a JP McManus double-act heading for the Champion Hurdle in March, along with Alan King’s Yanworth. Geraghty will have a tough decision to make as the opening day of the Festival draws near. Speaking to ITV Racing, he said: “He did it well. He was very slick over his hurdles. He was a bit sticky at the first, but after that he did it well. The ground is tough, but he obviously did it easily.” And when asked if the horse was a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, Geraghty added: “You'd like to think so.”

Henderson spoke of the winner, and of the switch to hurdles, saying: “I think that has earned him his (Cheltenham) ticket. He's done nothing wrong over fences, but he is very good at this and very talented. I thought it was worth a shot and he had to do what he did. We didn't learn a lot, I just think at this stage of his life he might just be a sharper hurdler than chaser.”

The trainer added: “Barry said he can make a length or two over hurdles with him but not so over fences. He is very quick, slick and pacey. He likes soft ground, but good ground will be fine. It was good enough ground in the Supreme last year, but they just all got first run on him. With a bit of luck, he would have finished second and anything that finishes second to Altior is a good horse.”

Henderson has an outstanding Cheltenham Festival record. Performances at Sandown show that Seven Barrows are assembling another powerful squad that will head to the Cotswolds in March.

Stat of the Day, 14th January 2017

Friday's Result :

2.30 Lingfield : Speed Freak @ 7/2 BOG 2nd at 3/1 Tracked leader, pushed along 2f out, ridden to lead entering final furlong, soon joined, headed final strides

Saturday's pick goes in the...

12.55 Kempton

Before I post the daily selection, just a quick reminder of how I operate the service. Generally, I'll identify and share the selection in the evening before the following day's race and I then add a detailed write-up later on that night/next morning.

Those happy to take the early price on trust can do so, whilst some might prefer to wait for my reasoning. As I fit the early service in around my family life, I can't give an exact timing on the posts, so I suggest you follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook for instant notifications of a published pick.

Who?

Ericht @ 7/2 BOG

Why?

He comes here boasting excellent credentials for the task ahead, having won 3 of his 6 runs here at Kempton, as well having 6 wins on Good to Soft / Soft ground, 5 wins under Barry Geraghty, 5 wins going right handed and 4 wins at 2m4f/2m5f.

On top of all that, he has the benefit of being trained by Nicky Henderson, who has certainly started the new year in fine style, with 11 winners from 27 (40.7%), whilst here at Kempton he is 129/437 (29.5% SR) for 167.8pts (+38.4% ROI) since 2008.

That's consistent long-term profit year on year and in respect of today's race, those 437 runners are...

  • males : 116/388 (29.9%) for 138.6pts (+35.7%)
  • during the December to April months : 102/343 (29.7%) for 188.2pts (+54.9%)
  • ridden by Barry Geraghty : 70/202 (34.7%) for 53.5pts (+26.5%)
  • in handicaps : 30/158 (19%) for 128.3pts (+81.2%)
  • in chases : 44/131 (33.6%) for 39.1pts (+29.9%)
  • on good to soft : 35/112 (31.3%) for 50.2pts (+44.9%)
  • and at Class 3 : 26/95 (27.4%) for 96.2pts (+101.3%)

AND...Barry Geraghty riding a male runner in the December - April period = 29/80 (36.25% SR) for 44.7pts (+55.9% ROI)

...hence...a 1pt win bet on Ericht @ 7/2 BOG which was offered by Bet365 and at least 9 others at 7.30pm on Friday, so we should all be able to get on! To see what your preferred bookie is offering, simply...

...click here for the betting on the 12.55 Kempton

Don't forget, we offer a full interactive racecard service every day!

REMINDER: THERE IS NO STAT OF THE DAY ON SUNDAYS

Here is today's racecard

Henderson Holds Powerful Hand At Ascot

It may be small on history, but the Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle at Ascot is certainly big on popularity.

The valuable event, now known as the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle, is a Grade 3 run over two miles. It came into being back in 2001, with Nicky Henderson the most successful trainer having picked up the pot on three occasions. It’s a race that the Irish have started to target, with Gordon Elliott striking gold twice in the last four years.

Victories are spread between four, five and six-year-olds, with just one seven-year-old success. The race tends to go to unexposed types and is noted for going to horses with strong recent form. Every winner of the Ladbroke had won or finished placed on its previous outing.

And like last week’s Caspian Caviar, this is handicap that can be won by those carrying plenty of weight. In its short history, two have lumped top-weight to victory, whilst 12 months ago, Jolly’s Cracked It carried 11st 3lbs in the thrilling dead-heat finish with Sternrubin.

This is one Saturday handicap that has eluded champion trainer Paul Nicholls. He’s had plenty of cracks at it, and Ptit Zig came pretty close when runner-up in 2013 off top-weight. Discounting Nicholls would of course be folly, as Frodon’s success proved last weekend.

With a strong record in the race, it’s no surprise that Nicky Henderson’s Consul De Thaix is towards the head of the market. The four-year-old is certainly unexposed, with just four runs to his name. And he has the requisite strong recent performance, thanks to a second-place finish in his seasonal debut at Sandown. He stayed on powerfully on that occasion, though had to be stoked up plenty early enough to get on terms with the leaders. It’ll be quick on Saturday, and he’ll need to travel better if he’s to land a winning blow.

Stable companion Brain Power got the better of him at Sandown and is set to re-oppose tomorrow. He’ll be worse off at the weights, but travelled like a dream to win last time. He looked to have idled a little in front, and I’d be far from certain that those placings will be reversed. He ran a cracker in a Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival back in April, and is a big imposing sort. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t run a huge race.

Henderson also runs top-weight Hargam. He was disappointing last time at Cheltenham, but better ground will certainly help. Though classy, he is not the biggest, and he may again struggle to haul 11st 12lbs in such a competitive handicap.

Nicholls goes with Diego Du Charmil and Modus, with the latter arguably his best hope. The former was well beaten by Sternrubin at the track in October. He was sent off favourite that day, and was incredibly disappointing. It’s a tough one to forgive, especially as he appeared badly outpaced from some way out.

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Modus finished third in the same race and was undoubtedly suited by the sounder surface. He then ran another cracker in the Greatwood at Cheltenham, and is clearly in good heart. Barry Geraghty takes the ride, and he had plenty to choose from. He looks likely to go close, but is up 5lbs for that effort at Prestbury Park, and that’s enough to put me off.

Jolly’s Cracked It and Sternrubin are back to try and defend their crowns. The former returns from injury and therefore lacks a prep-run. Nevertheless, he has gone well fresh in the past, and has a terrific record at Ascot. He’s a seven-year-old, which on the trends is a negative, though he has relatively few miles on the clock. He’s been well-backed throughout the week, and may well go off favourite. He’s 6lbs higher than last year, and it’s a tough ask on his return, but he’s a huge rugged sort, and cannot be discounted.

Sternrubin is another that loves the track, and remains on a competitive handicap mark. He could only finish fifth last time at Cheltenham, which strictly speaking knocks him out of contention on trends. He’s also a little more exposed than most, even though he’s only a five-year-old. Trends say no, but I fancy this fella will go close again.

Dan Skelton hit the big-time with victory in this in 2013, and Willow’s Saviour is back for another try. A spell on the sidelines, followed by a season over fences, means that he arrives here a trend busting nine-year-old. Yet those two years off the track leave him with few miles on the clock, and he is two from two at the track. I fancy he’ll run a big race.

And what of the Irish challenge?

Tony Martin and Noel Meade have entries that are prominent in the betting. Martin has Pyromaniac, Quick Jack and Golden Spear, with any of the three capable of going well. Quick Jack is a hardy dual-purpose performer, and though high enough in the handicap, has the 7lb claimer James Slevin in the plate. He seems to have been around forever, yet it’s surprising that he’s only run nine times over hurdles, and has an impressive 33% strike-rate.

Pyromaniac was down the field in this race back in 2014. Another that mixes flat and jumps to great effect, he also looks plenty high enough in the handicap, and is tough to fancy. The one that sneaks in carrying 10 stone, is Golden Spear. The five-year-old is yet to make a real impact over hurdles, with one win from six outings. But the same cannot be said over the flat, where he was last seen winning the November Handicap at Leopardstown. He’d previously run a cracker in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket. He’s an interesting contender, and is as short as 7/1 in some places.

Despite having to carry plenty of weight, I’m keen on the chances of Brain Power after his impressive performance at Sandown. I would also expect Sternrubin and Jolly’s Cracked It to go close again, though Willow’s Saviour is my each-way fancy. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Monday Musings: Of Bazza and the Boys in Blue

Monday matters

By Tony Stafford

Never mind what the bookmakers tell you, going racing is a highly acceptable pastime as far as its natural audience is concerned. You honestly can’t judge a sport’s popularity by the numbers that switch onto a certain television channel, be that terrestrial or one of the two excellent Racing-only pay channels, Racing UK and Attheraces.

Doncaster on Saturday was Lincoln Day and even though the BHA have compromised its uniqueness as it no longer starts the Flat, this year they even sanctioned a Redcar meeting at the beginning of last week. The ground there was desperate and the “product” was of a depressingly low standard.

Luckily the folks of South and indeed West and North Yorkshire love their Doncaster with its vast betting and drinking areas where the beautifully-attired lasses somehow keep pace with the lads. What’s great about it, you probably see more 20-plus gents wearing smart suits there than you would walking around a City Centre anywhere in the country.

It’s an event and the car parks and approaches shout it long before you get there. The ground here was pretty horrible, too, but for John Ferguson it was joy all the way as Secret Brief, in the Godolphin blue, saw off the brave effort of the Jeremy Noseda-trained Bravo Zolo and Ryan Moore.

Fergie remains stuck on 71 winners as his jumping trainer’s experiment winds down, but there’s no sign of anything but righteous confidence as the Charlie Appleby – Saeed bin Suroor squads keep the blue flag flying high.

The chief exec/ managing director/ head honcho/ supremo – choose your title – did not try to suppress the smile as he collected the trophy for what remains not just an historic old race but also a more than acceptable one in prizemoney terms.

Sadly, the number of written media in the press rooms of the country for anything but the Festivals, is down to a hardy few. Doyen locals Tom O’Ryan, Colin Russell and Joe Rowntree were there, as were commentator John Hunt and correspondent Cornelius Lysaght for BBC Radio 5, but the days of two and more for each newspaper are long gone.

I’ve written before about Ascot’s ability to pull in the fans and the Sunday meeting there successfully saw off the televised all-overpowering Premier League matches from Leicester and Old Trafford, as well as England’s epic World T20 final, settled by four towering sixes at the start of the last over by the West Indies’ Carlos Brathwaite off a crestfallen Ben Stokes.

Yet such is the one-eyed nature of the media, Monday morning’s Mail Online led off with the gathering of a few present and some past colleagues of out-of-action England and Man U captain Wayne Rooney at a Cheshire restaurant where Mrs Colleen Rooney celebrated her 30th birthday. Is it me? No it’s them.

Ascot, where 11,374 attended the corresponding meeting in 2015, attracted a whopping 18,009 crowd, almost 60% higher. It’s still special to go to the home of the Royal meeting and considering the length of time the younger element has to get a shade on the tottery side, there is relatively little of the bad behaviour and over-indulgence that used to happen a few years back once the football season ended.

Solving the problems posed to punters by Ascot’s all-jumps card was clearly easier than winner-finding at the two Flat-race Sunday fixtures at Doncaster and the Curragh when no favourite won at either venue.

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Found’s failure to cope with the conditions in her first race since beating Golden Horn at the Breeders’ Cup will not have worried Aiden O’Brien and the Coolmore team too much, but over at Limerick, the defeat of the J P McManus-owned Noble Emperor in a seven-runner handicap hurdle had much more immediate impact.

The race over two miles was typical of many jump races in Ireland where often a front-runner goes into a long early lead until its supporters watch it drift back into the pack before fading long before the finish.

The problem for Noble Emperor, the 7-4 favourite trained by Tony Martin and ridden by JP’s retained jockey Barry Geraghty, was that market rival Velocity Boy (2-1) was the horse fulfilling that role under Barry Cash.

Velocity Boy, a seven-year-old, had won a point-to-point two seasons ago. He also had two wins under rules from eight starts before yesterday. Coincidentally, both had been at Limerick, the latest when a rapidly-fading dead-heater in the two and a half mile novice event on the same card 12 months ago.

He’d run pretty well in two comeback runs last month after almost a year off, and trainer William Murphy clearly had him in good fettle as the starting price indicates. Velocity Boy was soon twenty lengths clear and the chasing pack could hardly be described as “chasing” so little attention did they seem to be taking of the leader.

Geraghty reported his instructions were to keep the horse covered up, but with so few runners and the propensity for many Irish races to be strung out over many lengths from the outset, that proved a task too difficult apparently for the jockey to achieve. Maybe, though, this always well-researched rider noted Velocity Boy in that race last year and believed he’d fade again.

Unfortunately for Barry, with Velocity Boy displaying admirable velocity and stamina, he had to go away from the two horses from which he’d tried unsuccessfully to get cover and go for home before he wanted to. By the line, he was still 11 lengths off the untroubled winner, with the rest beaten off 15 lengths and more behind.

All the jockeys, bar Cash, were interviewed afterwards, but Geraghty was singled out. He was banned for 30 days, which if confirmed at what is sure to be an appeal hearing, will keep him out of Punchestown and all those lovely JP winners. Tony Martin was fined €3,000 and the horse banned for 60 days.

The stewards clearly thought Bazza rode a “non-trier” race, but managed to do nothing about the remaining five riders. Anyone who regularly watches Irish jumping, especially novice events with their customary 20-plus runner fields will be wondering how those same stewards, who condone the unambitious attempts of many as the fields split into two or even three groups many lengths apart could act in the way they did yesterday.

There’s rather more scrutiny around novice hurdles in Britain but the feeling remains that many of the big stables, Flat and jumps, get somewhat less careful attention than their more lowly counterparts.

Meanwhile, I had a two-day trip north at the end of the week, preceding Doncaster with a lovely morning in Shropshire at Kinsale stud. Six foals have already arrived for the boss and the latest, a daughter of Nathaniel and I Say is simply a princess, so elegant, correct and aware of her place in the firmament. Tried Red Carpet, but that’s not available. Raymond cannot wait to see her or the six home-bred yearlings for that matter, so we’ll be going back before the Guineas.

Paget and Miller – An Inimitable Pairing

With the Cheltenham Festival fast approaching, I thought I would take a look at one of the earliest stars and his eccentric owner.

Dorothy Paget purchased Golden Miller in 1931 along with a potentially decent hurdler named Insurance for close to £10,000. Paget was the daughter of Lord Queenborough and Pauline Payne Whitney. The Whitney family were famed in America for their association with the thoroughbred racing industry.

She was an aristocrat, born into a privileged lifestyle with a love of all things fast. She’d been a fair rider in her youth, but issues with her weight meant she became a spectator rather than a participator. Fast cars and racehorses became her passion and she threw plenty of money at both pastimes.

In 1930 she financed the construction of supercharged Bentleys in a business venture with racing driver Tim Birkin. A three year spell failed to deliver a single victory on the track, but the same could not be said for Paget’s involvement in horse racing.

In the 1930’s and 40s she became champion owner both on the Flat and over the Jumps. Her horse Straight Deal won the Epsom Derby and she owned seven Cheltenham Gold Cup winners. She also won the Champion Hurdle on four occasions and the outstanding Golden Miller took the Grand National for her in 1934.

She became a notorious character within the sport and was renowned for her eccentricity. A complete disregard for men in a sport dominated by them was always likely to create a story or two. She constantly moved her horses from one owner to another after numerous clashes, famously falling out with Golden Miller’s trainer Basil Briscoe despite the horse having won numerous Gold Cups and a Grand National under his guidance.

Paget became a notorious gambler spending thousands at a time. Her largest bet was said to be £160,000 to win just £20,000, and although that particular bet was successful many were not. Bookies stayed open at night to receive her phone-calls and late night punts, often on races that had already taken place.

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She ate to excess and smoked non-stop during every waking hour, and it was therefore no surprise that a heart attack took her at the relatively young age of 55. Books have been written on the legendary owner and her unconventional and often belligerent lifestyle.

But what of that fortuitous purchase back in 1931? The two horses went on to win the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle. Insurance repeated his Champion Hurdle triumph in 1932, whilst Golden Miller became one of the all-time greats, going on to win the Gold Cup five times between 1932 and 1936. He also completed the Gold Cup and Grand National double in 1934.

He was bred in Ireland by Barry Geraghty’s grandfather Laurence. The horse was trained by Basil Briscoe in Cambridgeshire. He had told Paget that she was purchasing a future Gold Cup winner. He proved to be a terrific judge. He won his first Gold Cup at the age of five and went on to dominate the race for half a decade. Fluid over his fences rather than spectacular, the horse fell in love with Cheltenham and saved his best for the course.

His most thrilling success came in 1934 when taking on the excellent Thomond II. The pair had met on several occasions with Golden Miller coming off second best at Kempton. Only five horses made the starting line, with the two favourites settled at the back. With less than a mile to go the pair stepped on the gas and in a thrilling head to head it was Golden Miller that clung on to his crown by less than a length.

Despite years of success, Paget moved all of her horses from Briscoe placing her Gold Cup winner with Owen Anthony. The horse won again at Cheltenham completing his incredible five-timer. His record has never been matched, and Paget remains the most successful owner in the history of the Gold Cup. Both were exceptional in their own inimitable way.

McManus targets further Betfair Hurdle Glory

Newbury hosts the prestigious Betfair Hurdle on Saturday, with prize money of £155,000. The two-mile handicap hurdle is renowned for uncovering classy types who go on to strike gold at the highest level.

The race was established in 1963 and originally known as the Schweppes Gold Trophy. The three times Champion hurdler Persian War took the event in 1968. He’d taken the previous season’s Triumph Hurdle and had to haul a hefty 11st 13lbs to victory against 31 opponents.

Make a Stand was another gifted hurdler who won the race during a dominant 1997 campaign. Trained by the legendary Martin Pipe, the six-year-old went on a stunning run of victories culminating in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. He improved by an incredible 55 pounds during the season, taking the opposition apart with a string of devastating front running performances. Having taken the Newbury event by nine lengths he won the Champion Hurdle by five in a performance described by Alastair Down as “a remorseless display of speed and precision hurdling”.

In recent years the race has become a successful target for those looking to head for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at The Festival. Two names in particular stand out, and both carried the famous JP McManus silks.

Get Me Out Of Here took the race in 2010, displaying a stunning ‘turn of foot’ from the last flight. In hindsight he was clearly ‘thrown in’ off a handicap mark of 135. He headed for the Supreme at Cheltenham and came agonisingly close, when beaten a head by Menorah, with the Irish odds on shot Dunguib back in third.

Three years later My Tent Or Yours carried the famous green and gold to victory in the Betfair Hurdle. He oozed class when taking up the running between the last two hurdles and storming to a five length success. So impressive was the performance that he headed to Cheltenham as a strong favourite for the Supreme Novices’ hurdle. Sadly for JP McManus, Nicky Henderson and AP McCoy, a certain Champagne Fever refused to be passed on that memorable Tuesday in March.

It would be remiss not to mention the ill-fated Darlan, who was unfortunate not to win the race in 2012. He was still travelling powerfully when coming down two from home. He too went on to finish second a month later in the Supreme at Cheltenham. Tragically just a year later he was fatally injured when falling at Doncaster. He was a hugely talented horse, and one feels that his loss left an indelible mark on his trainer Nicky Henderson.

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On Saturday it’s the turn of Paul Nicholls to send a JP McManus contender into battle. The famous colours will be carried by several challengers, but it is Modus that looks set to head the market, and has the potential to move on to bigger and better things. A terrific second place in last year’s Champion Bumper identified him as a classy individual, and he followed up with a brilliant third behind Bellshill at the Punchestown Festival.

He’s two from three over hurdles having had his stamina stretched under a penalty when third last time at Taunton in testing conditions. He has course form having won at Newbury back in November, though is likely to be at his best on a sounder surface which he certainly will not get on Saturday.

However, a handicap mark of 139 could prove lenient, and yesterday Nicholls said of his runner: “He was a good bumper horse and we bought him in the summer and sold him to JP. He's a much more mature horse and is getting better all the time. We like him a lot and it's a good race for a novice in that you might be well handicapped whereas in a year you might not be.”

The Champion trainer went on to say: “He's got a lot of ability, but one thing I think is he'll be a lot better on better ground. He can cope with the soft ground. He just lacks a bit of experience, but one thing he does do is jump well. I'm very happy with him and he's a high-class horse. He's a horse who's going to get two and a half miles in time, but he's not slow.”

It’s more than likely that Barry Geraghty will be onboard, further enhancing the chances of the famous green and gold capturing this prestigious event once again. An impressive win would ensure that Modus heads to Cheltenham as a major contender for the Supreme.

Hells Bells-hill – Saturday Shocker

Saturday proved something of a reputation buster, with upsets on either side of the Irish Sea causing inevitable shockwaves on the Cheltenham Festival markets.

Ireland had more than their fair share of shocks with numerous hotpots hitting the buffers. The opener at Leopardstown very much set the tone for the afternoon. Ivanovich Gorbatov had started the day as the Triumph Hurdle favourite on the back of an impressive hurdle debut at the track over Christmas. Strongly fancied to follow up, he struggled to go with the strong pace set by Jer’s Girl and Let’s Dance. In trouble turning for home he failed to land a blow and finished 10 lengths back in fourth.

The Willie Mullins trained Footpad stayed on best of all for a surprise win, further strengthening the juvenile stronghold of owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. They now have three of the top six in the Triumph Hurdle betting, having taken first and second in last year’s renewal. The winner is built for fences and appeared well suited by the testing conditions. Quicker ground at Cheltenham would prove problematic, though he’ll be flying up that hill.

Let’s Dance stayed on well for third in Saturday’s race, despite having done much of the donkey work up front. Her action suggests she’ll be suited by a sounder surface and I was taken by her performance. She’s lightening quick over her obstacles and looks to have a bright future.

The demise of Ivanovich Gorbatov will have surprised many, but he had surely been over-hyped on the evidence of just one run. Bellshill on the other-hand had a strong bumper campaign and several impressive victories over hurdles on his CV. Challenging Yanworth at the head of the Neptune market, he was sent off strong favourite for the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. Nevertheless, he too had his inflated reputation punctured when trailing home third, behind surprise winner Bleu Et Rouge and Gordon Elliott’s Tombstone.

Sent on by Ruby Walsh he led until approaching the final flight, but had no answer to the powerful finishes of the front two. Tombstone loomed large at the last, but it was the McManus owned runner, also trained by Mullins, who found most for pressure, scooting clear for victory. He’d run with great promise when finishing behind Tombstone and Long Dog at Christmas, but was ridden more prominently this time round by Barry Geraghty.

The jockey is already set to partner Neptune favourite Yanworth at Cheltenham, but Mullins suggested that race would be the likely target for Bleu Et Rouge, saying: “He ran very well here at Christmas and he learned an awful lot so after talking to Mark (Walsh), Barry went out there with a bit of confidence. The horse looked a bit green going to the last, but Barry thought if he could keep a little bit up his sleeve for after the last, he might beat Tombstone, which he did. All the jockeys are saying the ground is very testing so another two or three furlongs of the Neptune might suit him.”

It was a taking performance from an improving sort, though the win probably only served to strengthen the confidence in a Yanworth success in March. The result was however another boost for the form of the Future Champions Novice winner Long Dog. He’s likely to head for the Neptune with spring ground at Cheltenham sure to suit.

Gigginstown jockey Bryan Cooper had voiced concerns over the testing ground as the Irish Gold Cup approached. And so it proved when race favourite Road To Riches appeared unable to cope with the testing conditions, finishing a well-beaten second to last year’s winner Carlingford Lough. Noel Meade’s charge lacked his usual zest and though showing plenty of guts to be involved in the finish, never looked like coming out on top.

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The race appeared to be going the way of Gigginstown’s Valseur Lido, but a last fence blunder plunged Ruby Walsh into the dirt, leaving the way clear for the strong finishing McManus owned runner.

After the race a deflated Meade spoke of Road To Riches, saying: “Watching the race I was never happy and Bryan came back and said the horse was never really carrying him. We always feared the ground and maybe that contributed to the way he ran. We'll see how he comes out of it and then make plans.”

On Sunday the trainer appeared more enthusiastic when saying: “He seems to be OK, which is good. I think they just went too quick. He never got into a rhythm, and was back and forth a bit in the race. He was only just beaten in the Gold Cup last year so I think he should go back there again. Good ground would help him but it's up to the owners which race they want to go for.”

It’s clear that Meade feels his horse has a chance in the Gold Cup, but the owners have Don Poli, Don Cossack and Valseur Lido all vying for a place on the starting line. Road To Riches has proven himself capable of winning over shorter, and the bookies probably have it right with the horse as short as 5/1 for the Ryanair.

Many pushed him out to 20s for the Gold Cup and they were doing the same with Peace And Co after his lacklustre performance at Sandown. Henderson’s Champion Hurdle hope has done little right so far this winter, and this latest setback surely ends all hope of a win at Cheltenham in March. Or so you would think.

Despite another desperate performance his trainer refuses to throw in the towel, and a check on Peace And Co’s breathing is now on the agenda, with Henderson saying: “It's been a bit of a hotch-potch preparation in that, as you know, we were trying to run a fortnight ago and although we mended it pretty quick, when you miss three days you might as well miss a week. It wasn't ideal. I'm not making excuses; he will come on for the race quite a lot. But that's not the point really - he switched off, he jumped well, he travelled well, he just didn't come home.”

Time of course is running out with The Festival just a month away. The Irish are coming, and they’ll take some stopping.

Defining return for Des Champs

Sir Des Champs on comeback trail

Sir Des Champs on comeback trail

It’s rare that a listed chase from Thurles would create such a stir, but today’s 12.55 will see the return to action of one of Ireland’s leading staying chasers.

Sir Des Champs has been off the track since running fourth in the Lexus Chase almost two years ago. Beaten by Bobs Worth, First Lieutenant and Rubi Ball on that occasion, nine months earlier he had finished a gallant runner-up in the Gold Cup of 2013, again losing out to Bobs Worth.

There’s little doubt that even at the relatively young age of nine, he will encounter a competition that has moved on somewhat in his absence. Those adversaries of 2013 have all fallen from grace, replaced by younger upwardly-mobile types, including Coneygree, Don Cossack and Djakadam.

Despite all that, if Sir Des Champs does retain his former ability he will still make his presence felt in the top staying chases in Ireland. And with so many resources at their disposal, there’s always the chance of Gigginstown sending him to England in search of a suitable target along with his more favoured ground conditions.

This afternoon’s event at Thurles is also a starting point for Lyreen Legend, trained by Sandra Hughes and ridden by Barry Geraghty. I have a soft spot for this fella, and am of the opinion that he has been tried over unsuitable trips more often than not. He’s another returning from a spell on the side-lines, and at the age of eight could well have plenty more to offer.

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However, he’s no staying chaser in my eyes, and today’s trip is as far as I’d be running him. The Ryanair ought to be his end of season target. Those who doubt my words should watch again the Gold Cup of 2014, where he travelled as well as anything turning for home, before fading out of contention.

These two will be the latest to get their campaigns underway, adding further to the excitement and anticipation of a winter of top class chasing action. Cue Card, Coneygree, Don Cossack and Road To Riches have all whetted the appetite, and on Saturday it will be the turn of Silviniaco Conti and Vautour to make their appearances.

Nicholls’ dual King George winner has also won the Betfair Chase on two occasions and is a short priced favourite to do so again. Whilst at Ascot the eagerly awaited return of Vautour is sure to set the pulses racing. He’s due to run in the Stella Artois 1965 Chase, formerly the Amlin, which on the face of it appears a decent prep for the King George at Christmas. And that is where the two are likely to meet, along with Don Cossack, in what may well be the most thrilling encounter of the season.

Added to these, we are yet to sight either Don Poli or Djakadam, a pair that are impossible to dismiss when looking ahead to the major events throughout the winter.

It’s hard to keep pace at this time of the year. This season, arguably more than any before, has the potential to be one of the greatest ever witnessed by jump racing fans; especially those partial to a staying chase or two. It’s a division jam-packed with talent, both young and old, set to thrill in an unrelenting tsunami of outstanding action. Hold on tight.

It’s ‘Nico’ Time – De Boinville Flying High

Nico with Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham

Nico with Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham

Nico de Boinville continues to ride the crest of a wave after a double at Southwell followed on from his stunning weekend at Cheltenham.

Not only is he being given more opportunities on Nicky Henderson’s star performers, but he partners the Gold Cup winner Coneygree and is getting the ‘leg-up’ on a number of smart types for Henderson’s former assistant Ben Pauling, as was the case yesterday.

His winning ride on Sprinter Sacre on Sunday was clearly a thrilling moment for a jockey who has had a long relationship with the former champion two miler. It is Nico that has worked the mighty gelding over the years only then to pass on the reins to stable jock Barry Geraghty on race-day. He did have one spin on the horse at Sandown in April, though Sprinter was clearly still a distance away from his best.

Sunday was oh so different and clearly an emotional experience to have finally partnered the stable star in a Grade 1 event, with the horse in tip top shape and able to do himself justice.

After the win De Boinville said: “He was fantastic and I was lucky I had the thrill of riding him but even watching him must have been something special. He was jumping and travelling like his old self and he did that well in the end, even kicking clear after the last and putting them to the sword. I haven't got a clue what the plans are - I'm just enjoying the moment.”

After spending such a long time in the shadow of Barry Geraghty, it seems that the tide is finally turning for the 26-year-old, and rightly so. He’s certainly served his apprenticeship on exceptionally talented horses. Riding out the likes of Long Run and Sprinter Sacre in their pomp when still in his early 20’s can only have done wonders for the rider’s confidence.

Not that self-assurance has even appeared an issue for the young jockey. Privately educated, Nico won an Open Scholarship to Bradfield and top marks in three A Levels meant he swept to Newcastle destined for great things. As an actor he had played lead roles in school productions, yet the role he was most desperate to play was that of a professional jockey.

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His aunt rode at Badminton and his mother was once part of the British dressage squad. There was always the likelihood that the youngster would be a natural in the saddle. Story has it that he was rising at the trot by the age of two. At nine he became Supreme Champion in the ‘Search for a Star’ class, at the Horse of The Year Show at Wembley. A stint at dressage followed, but the young rider was soon back competing at events and team chases.

In his late teens, during a gap year, De Boinville gained further riding experience with a spell in France working for Richard Gibson. On his return to the UK he was fortunate to get a few rides for his uncle Patrick Chamings and then a couple more for his near neighbour Andrew Balding.

In 2009 he joined Seven Barrows, though progress was slow, and at times the jockey became far from settled. Just a handful of competitive rides in his first few years at the yard had him contemplating heading back to France.

At the time it was his trainer that gave the necessary reassurance. “I said I thought that he was being a bit hasty,” said Henderson. “Of course he was getting frustrated but I had always told him that there could be no promises. And anyway he then got on Petit Robin in a big handicap and kept the ride on him to be second in the Ladbroke at Ascot and fourth in the Betfair at Newbury. From the very beginning you could see he was a natural horseman. He had lovely hands but what was missing was racing experience.”

During those early years at Seven Barrows Barry Geraghty spoke of Nico’s progress and undoubted promise, saying: “I like his attitude when we are schooling together. He is always riding for the horse, not to try and attract attention to himself. He lets the fences come to him and gets the horse to learn to pop. If someone had got excited and put a gun to Sprinter Sacre’s head he could have been a long time learning. Nico was the man who started him.”

Those tough early years of learning his trade, and taking the rare opportunities when they came his way, are now certainly paying dividends. He gave Altior a great ride at Cheltenham and was terrific aboard Bobs Worth at Aintree a few weeks back. Henderson knows that when Geraghty is on duty for JP McManus, he can rely on Nico de Boinville to do the business, under any amount of pressure.

It’s hard to imagine that this winter could top the last, but it just might.

The Imperial Cup – Pipe Targets Huge Bonus

David Pipe

Pipe - Imperial Cup King

Tomorrow is the turn of Sandown to take centre-stage, with the running of the William Hill Imperial Cup. A Grade 3 handicap hurdle run over two miles, it was first contested in 1907 and is one of the most prestigious hurdle races of the season.

Always a popular and highly competitive race, it is run on the Saturday before the Cheltenham Festival. Connections have an added incentive of a huge financial bonus of £100,000 should he or she go on to win any race at the Festival. Gaspara was the last to do so when she went on to win the Fred Winter at Prestbury Park. She was trained by David Pipe, and both he and his father before him have a terrific record in the race.

The Pipe team have won this four times in the last 10 years, including last March when Baltimore Rock was successful. When looking for a prospective winner punters should note the poor record of horses high in the handicap. Indeed the last to win carrying more than 11 stone was Korelo, yet another Pipe horse, back in 2003. Younger improving types have a great record in the race with horses aged four, five or six having won all bar two renewals since 2001.

Saturday’s showpiece will be run on soft ground with David Pipe’s four-year-old Bidourey currently the race favourite.  Undefeated in five career starts, the French gelding was an emphatic winner of a novice hurdle at Sandown on his last start. In truth he’s beaten nothing of any quality to date and this will be by far his toughest test. But he’s a lovely big scopey horse who is very well bred being a son of Voix Du Nord out of a Mansonnien mare. He looks a horse for the future, and whether a race of this nature is coming along too soon, time will tell.

Paul Nicholls hopes to collect yet another big Saturday pot and sends Calipto in to battle just three weeks after finishing fourth in the Betfair Hurdle. That looked a decent performance having had four months off the track, but he’ll need to have improved considerably to win this. He stayed on steadily at Newbury with many of the opinion that a step up in trip would be favourable. Sandown’s stiffer finish is sure to suit and he will strip fitter, but whether he can improve enough is questionable.

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The top-weight is another from France who brings some terrific form over the Channel. Camping Ground will have his work cut out to win off his lofty mark, with the aforementioned history very much against him. But he does look a classy sort and his UK debut at Warwick over fences was impressive. He does have entries at Cheltenham over the larger obstacles and this looks a decent prep-run with one eye on the bonus prize and one on winning at the Festival.

Arzal is likely to be a popular choice with punters. Harry Whittington’s five-year-old has impressed this winter and ran a belter in the Betfair Hurdle having had nothing but bad luck in running. Claimer Paul O’Brien again takes the ride and a valuable 7lbs off the back of his mount. He looks capable of another huge run.

West Wizard was seven lengths behind Arzal when they met back in November. Henderson’s highly touted gelding has proved frustrating and somewhat disappointing to date, though he has been beaten by several decent sorts, including Jonjo’s impressive novice Minella Rocco last time at Kempton. He’s handicapped to get much closer to Arzal this time round and has Barry Geraghty in the plate. A strong traveller and clearly talented he should go close, though he’s becoming hard to trust.

Of the remainder Some Buckle trained by Tom George and ridden by Paddy Brennan looks sure to go close. He’ll be dropping back in trip having run well in the Neptune trial at Cheltenham in January. Prior to that he only just failed to beat Glingerburn at Doncaster and he was last seen giving 9lbs and a beating to Bristol De Mai. That form looks as strong as anything here and odds of 14/1 look pretty generous.

Whoever takes the pot is likely to find they are travelling to the Cotswolds early next week in the hope of a very profitable quick-fire double.