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Jumps Over and Feeling Flat

Nicky Henderson captured the Trainers’ Championship for the second time in five years, with a dominant display at Sandown on Saturday.

Paul Nicholls had hoped for a successful final day of the campaign, but it was Henderson who landed a treble on the day, and came close to making it four, when Vyta Du Roc was denied by a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup.

Altior proved the star-turn with a stunning display in the Grade 1 Celebration Chase. He swept past the Champion Chase winner Special Tiara, as they headed for the last fence, and though he got in close, he quickly regained momentum, sprinting to an eight-length victory. His jumping was arguably as good as we’ve seen from him throughout the winter, and he travelled effortlessly throughout. It was a truly devastating display, and many Jumps fans will already be licking their lips at the prospect of Altior versus Douvan in the autumn.

Juvenile hurdler Call Me Lord had been a comfortable winner for Seven Barrows in the first, and L’Ami Serge finally put in a performance worthy of his talent, in winning the Grade 2 Select Hurdle. That double for owners Munir and Soude arguably should have been a treble on the day, when Vyta Du Roc appeared to be given plenty to do, before charging through traffic late-on to fail by just a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup. Peter Bowen’s Henllan Harri was given a peach of a ride by son Sean, and managed to hold-off Henderson’s horse. Though not the biggest, the runner-up will surely be aimed at nationals next season.

Of his success in the title race, Henderson said: “We’ve got some Grade One horses and to be fair to Paul, he has done incredibly well and won a huge amount of prize money whereas we’ve got horses like Altior, Buveur d’Air and Might Bite.” Of Altior he added: “He's top class. I think we've always known that. He’s got a bit of everything - he's got class, he's got the gears. I think we've always known that he is very special ever since a young horse as a hurdler. You know that Special Tiara is going to set serious fractions but this fellow can always have it covered as he has the pace to do it.”

A special Sandown mention goes to the wonderful Menorah, who won the Oaksey Chase for a fourth time, before being retired by connections. The 12-year-old has been campaigned at the highest level throughout his career, and has brought great success to owners Diana and Grahame Whateley. It was terrific to see him go-out with such a stunning display.

So, whilst Henderson successfully kept Nicholls at arms-length, the same could not be said in Ireland, with Gordon Elliott finally overwhelmed by a tsunami of Willie Mullins winners. A lead of around €400,000 going into the Punchestown Festival put Elliott in pole position, but despite several unlucky defeats during the week, the Master of Closutton still managed to retain his crown by a staggering €199,455.

Great Field was mightily impressive in winning the Ryanair Novice Chase earlier in the week, and on Friday, Wicklow Brave in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Bacardys in the Champion Novice Hurdle put Mullins in front. A double on the final day of the meeting, which included a victory in the juvenile hurdle for Bapaume, proved to be the title clincher.

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Of the dramatic turnaround, Mullins said: “I didn't think it was possible for us to win, particularly when a few of the early photo-finishes went against us this week. It's fantastic to win and a big thank you to all the team at home and all my owners. It's been a funny season. It hasn't been that enjoyable and I'm glad it's over. Gordon is a great competitor. He's fantastic and has been a gentleman the whole way through.”

Elliott had led from the off, and was understandably gutted to come off second best: “It's a bit heart-breaking. We've led from day one of the season, but to be in the same sentence as Willie Mullins is brilliant. Hopefully we'll do it one year. I'm still only 39 and hopefully I'll be around for another few years. We've equalled Willie's record of 193 winners in a season. I said coming here that if I could equal that, it would be something. I'll keep my head up and enjoy it.”

Saturday’s action brought the curtain down on a dramatic National Hunt season. Mullins’ ‘against all odds’ title victory will have left him needing a summer break more than ever before. The loss of Vautour was a huge blow, and then Mr O’Leary took his horses elsewhere. Faugheen, Annie Power and Min were all struck-down by injury, yet the Master of Closutton found a way to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.

A tough winter also for Paul Nicholls. His title challenge masks an underlying decline in the quality of horses at his disposal. He desperately needs to uncover a star or two if he is to challenge a resurgent Nicky Henderson. Sprinter Sacre was retired, but Altior has moved seamlessly into the role of Seven Barrows Superstar. He also has a new hurdling hero in Buveur D’Air.

And both will be looking over their shoulders, as Colin Tizzard continues to build on a stunning campaign. Fox Norton, Thistlecrack and Native River have all captured major prizes, and promise much of the same for some time to come.

Now, if we can just get this Flat season out of the way.

Punchestown – The Brits Are Back For More

Several Brits came and conquered a year ago at the Punchestown Festival. And those same trainers are queueing-up today in hope of repeating that success.

Team Tizzard struck gold on the opening day, when the fast-improving Fox Norton landed the Champion Chase. He needed to be rousted along by Robbie Power to stay in touch with Un De Sceaux, but once on terms approaching the last, his superior stamina proved the crucial factor. The horse may well head for the King George at Kempton, and looks tailor-made for the Ryanair next March.

A year ago, Harry Fry was thrilled to saddle Fletchers Flyer to victory, and today has a leading contender in the Stayers Hurdle with Unowhatimeanharry. By no means disgraced, when third at Cheltenham behind Nichols Canyon and Lil Rockerfeller, the nine-year-old appeared outpaced late-on. Noel Fehily takes the ride, and may need to force the issue a little earlier in the piece, if he is to take the sting out of several swifter opponents.

Warren Greatrex trained the surprise winner One Track Mind a year ago, and he’s back for more. The trainer has given up on a chasing career for the talented seven-year-old, after a pair of disappointing attempts over the larger obstacles. This year’s renewal looks a strong affair, but Greatrex will be hopeful that a return to hurdles will spark a return to form.

Nicky Henderson loves a trip to Punchestown, and will be hooking-up with his great friend Jess Harrington. Who could forget the wonderful Sprinter Sacre, strutting his stuff for the Irish racing public a few years back. The stable won last year, when Cup Final took a three-mile handicap hurdle, and today Henderson has a talented mare Kayf Grace, entered in the two-mile Mares Novice Hurdle. Good enough to defeat Augusta Kate at Aintree last year, she’s been off the track since December due to a minor leg injury, but will hopefully be able to do herself justice here.

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Philip Hobbs should also be represented today by a returning Punchestown Festival winner. No Comment may lack star-quality, but he’s no mug, and won under a power-packed ride by Jamie Codd 12 months ago. He beat Monalee on that occasion, and looked to have a bright future, but has arguably been slightly disappointing thus far. Nevertheless, he ran well to finish second at Aintree last time, and could be off a decent mark for a prominent finish in the valuable three-mile handicap hurdle. Owned by JP McManus, it would come as no surprise should this fella go close to repeating last year’s success at the course.

Rebecca Curtis is another of the British raiding party, hoping to add further Punchestown glory. Irish Cavalier has proved a hero at the meeting, and during the week the Welsh trainer has several other entrants capable of going close. Geordie Des Champs has a touch of class about him, and may well be taking on No Comment in today’s staying handicap hurdle. Another of the McManus battalion, he also ran a cracker at Aintree, when third over possibly an inadequate trip of 2m4f. He’s also entered on Saturday over the shorter trip, though I’d hope he goes for this. He’s capable of running well in either event, and looks a horse that needs decent ground to shine.

These successful British raiders are ably supported by other familiar names, hoping for a taste of Punchestown glory. Neil Mulholland will have been disappointed with Peter The Mayo Man on Tuesday, but has half-a-dozen or so more entered throughout the week, including his classy young chaser Shantou Village. Kim Bailey, Anthony Honeyball and Gary Moore also have a handful entered during the festival.

Colin Tizzard may be leading the British assault, but expect one or two other victories as the Brits take in Ireland’s most prestigious Jumps festival.

Power Surge both Home and Away

An undoubted star of the three-day Aintree meeting, was Ireland’s Robbie Power.

It’s proved to be an incredible period for the popular jockey, yet he looked set to miss much of it, when struck down by a serious looking back injury at the end of January. At first, his participation in the Cheltenham Festival seemed in doubt, but thankfully Power was back in action in no time, and onboard Sizing John, when the young chaser advertised his Gold Cup credentials, in the Irish version at Leopardstown in February.

Several weeks later, the jockey arrived at Cheltenham in his role as Jess Harrington’s number one, and captured the main prize. Sizing John was part of a treble during a thrilling Festival, with Supasundae taking the Coral Cup, and Rock The World winning the Grand Annual. The victory in the Gold Cup for owners Ann and Alan Potts secured the jockey his spot as retained rider, and he certainly made the most of it at Aintree.

Sporting the famous green, yellow and red silks, Power made a huge impact at Liverpool for trainer Colin Tizzard, first causing an upset on Pingshou in the Grade 1 Top Novices’ Hurdle. The seven-year-old had finished down the field in the Supreme, but bounced back to form with a four-length success over Malcolm Jefferson’s talented youngster, Mount Mews. He galloped powerfully to the line, and looks to have the stature to make a nice chaser next season.

Power then had a dream ride on the impressive Fox Norton. He ran-away with the Melling Chase, thrashing Sub Lieutenant in the process. He’d only just failed to land the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, and this step-up in trip appeared to suit. Tizzard’s chaser looks to be progressing at a rate-of-knots, and may well be one for the King George next Christmas, with the owners having Sizing John for the Lexus Chase in Ireland. Power may have to forego the Turkey and Christmas pud.

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Sizing Codelco was something of a bonus on Saturday, but Finian’s Oscar looks the real deal. The jockey had the opposition covered turning for home in the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, and the five-year-old stayed on powerfully for a three-length success. There’s every chance he’ll be sent over the larger obstacles next season, with Power then having the prospect of riding Finian’s, Foxy and Sizing John. He must be licking his lips in anticipation.

Arguably his greatest achievement in the saddle, was riding Silver Birch to victory in the Grand National of 2007. The son of an Irish show-jumper, he became champion conditional jockey in 2004, and though better known for success in Ireland, he did partner Boston’s Angel to victory in the RSA at the Cheltenham Festival of 2011 for Jess Harrington.

His top-level victories on home soil have been numerous, and include Grade 1s on Jezki, Big Zeb, Oscars Well, and twice on Boston’s Angel. He also partnered the Harrington trained Our Duke to victory in a Grade 1 chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. It’s this staying chaser, not risked at Cheltenham, that could prove a realistic challenger to Sizing John next season. Power will hope that the pair can be kept apart during the winter, though a clash looks inevitable at some stage, with Our Duke appearing to be this year’s outstanding staying novice in Ireland.

The man from Meath has Fairyhouse and the Punchestown Festival still to look forward to, before a well-earned summer break. He’ll then be counting down the days, desperate to get back aboard several of the best horses in training, and dreaming of yet another winter to remember.

King Arthur Rules At Aintree

One For Arthur became King of Aintree, as he stayed on powerfully to land the Grand National in thrilling fashion.

The Gigginstown pair of Roi Des Francs and Rogue Angel set the pace for much of the race, tracked by the heavily backed favourite Blaklion. As the front duo began to feel the pinch, Noel Fehily took up the running on the strong-travelling market leader, and looked to be making a break for glory. But at the second last it was One For Arthur that swept to the front, with Cheltenham hero Cause Of Causes launching a brave challenge.

At the elbow the winner had pulled three lengths clear, and maintained that advantage all the way to the finish. A brave Cause Of Causes galloped all the way to the line for second place, whilst Saint Are stayed on well to pip Blaklion for third.

It was a first Grand National win for Scotland since Rubstic in 1979. The winning trainer Lucinda Russell, was bursting with pride when saying of the success: “I am so proud of the horse. He jumped fantastically and I thought Derek gave him a great ride. He has done us proud, he has done Scotland proud and he has done everyone at the yard proud.

“Before the Melling Road, I was up with the owners and we just shouted, ‘We're going to win the National.’ Derek is great at getting these horses to finish strongly and I knew that he would stay, so maybe it was a bit bold but it was right.”

It was a wonderfully cool ride from Fox, who sat well off the strong pace, timing his challenge to perfection. The victory was especially sweet, as he had only just returned from injury to make the ride. He fractured his left wrist and right collar bone in a fall last month, and spent three weeks in Jack Berry House, undergoing intensive treatment at the rehabilitation centre.

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“I saw the doctor a couple of days after the fall, and he took the plaster cast off,” Fox said. “I asked him whether I could back in four weeks and he said the only way to do it would be to be without a cast and left a splint on. I stayed there for just under three weeks and I didn’t leave. I did a lot of physio work in the hydro pool and training on the bike. Every other bit of fitness work you could do without putting any pressure on the collar bone I did it.”

Though only half the field finished the race, it was fantastic to see all 40 runners return home safe and sound. Of the leading pre-race contenders that failed to place; Vieux Lion Rouge again appeared to find the National trip beyond him, finishing sixth. Very much in touch three from home, he was almost 30 lengths adrift at the finish.

Top-weight and last year’s runner-up The Last Samuri was unable to cope with the burden of 11-10, and trailed home in 16th place. Definitly Red was badly impeded at Becher’s first time, and had to be pulled-up shortly after. Gold Cup fifth Saphir Du Rheu only made it to the 11th fence, and More Of That failed to last out the marathon trip, being pulled-up by Barry Geraghty at the last.

Of the top 15 finishers, only Blaklion carried more than 11 stone, with the first three home carry 10-11, 10-13 and 10-10. Despite all the talk of classier renewals and handicap-compression, weight remains a vital factor in winning the World’s greatest steeplechase.

Away from the National, there’s a need to mention the fabulous Aintree experienced by Colin Tizzard, owners Ann and Alan Potts and their jockey Robbie Power. Finian’s Oscar and Sizing Codelco were winners on the day, adding to Pingshou and Fox Norton a day earlier. It’s been an especially thrilling period for the owners, following on from the glorious success of Sizing John in the Gold Cup. They have much to be excited about.

Cue an Aintree Tizzard Treble

The Randox Health Grand National Festival kicks-off today, with Cue Card’s appearance in the Betway Bowl the undoubted highlight.

Cheltenham had promised so much for trainer Colin Tizzard. Indeed at Christmas, the Dorset handler had the top three in the betting for the Gold Cup, and many were talking of a ‘blue riband’ clean sweep. Injury to Thistlecrack was a major blow, and when the big day arrived, Cue Card came down at the third last, whilst Native River, though putting up a brave performance, could only manage a third-place finish behind Sizing John.

Tizzard’s team suffered another pre-Cheltenham blow, when leading Neptune Novices’ Hurdle contender Finian’s Oscar, was ruled out due to a minor setback. And further frustration was forthcoming, when the fast finishing Fox Norton came within a whisker of capturing the Grade 1 Champion Chase.

Last year’s successful Aintree assault was led by Cue Card, with Thistlecrack and Native River adding further gloss to a wonderful few days. Tizzard will be hoping for more of the same, though the protagonists differ slightly.

His stable star is favourite for today’s Betway Bowl Chase, having romped to success 12 months ago. Empire Of Dirt may prove to be his toughest challenger, though Cue Card at his best, or anywhere near, would surely win this with the minimum of fuss. And I expect him to do so.

Part two of a potential Aintree treble is the Champion Chase runner-up Fox Norton. He runs in the Melling Chase on Friday, and is currently the market leader. This step-up in trip should surely suit the gutsy young chaser, who finished with such a rattle at Cheltenham.

He faces tough opposition, especially in the form of Tom George’s nine-year-old God’s Own, who landed this event 12 months back. He was half a dozen lengths behind Fox Norton at Prestbury Park, but arguably has stronger form at Aintree. He’ll also enjoy the trip, and a sound surface, though I can’t see him reversing the Champion Chase placings.

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Sub Lieutenant will look to build on an outstanding campaign, and could prove a sterner test for the favourite. Runner-up to Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair last time, he filled the same spot behind Sizing John in the Kinloch Brae in January, and ran a cracker when third to Djakadam in the John Durkan back in December. Those performances are outstanding, and I’d expect him to be ridden aggressively by Bryan Cooper, and prove hard to pass.

This looks a hugely competitive renewal, with Uxizandre looking to bounce back from a disappointing Cheltenham, and Kerry Lee’s pair of Top Gamble and Kylemore Lough both capable of going close. But it’s Fox Norton for the Tizzard’s that looks to possess the class to come out on top in a battle-royal with Sub Lieutenant.

A win there for Tizzard and owners Ann and Alan Potts, will raise hopes of a famous double for connections, when Finian’s Oscar goes for the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle on Saturday. No doubt gutted to have missed Cheltenham, the team have a potential star in this undefeated novice hurdler. He’s been impressive in his three starts under rules, especially when a comfortable winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle earlier in the season. This better ground should suit the son of Oscar, as should the two-and-a-half-mile trip.

Messire Des Obeaux brings strong form to the table, having finished third in the Neptune behind Willoughby Court and Neon Wolf. Alan King’s five-year-old carries the familiar silks of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, and is without doubt a classy sort. But I’d be surprised if Finian’s Oscar were turned over, though this is certainly his toughest test to date.

A ‘Tizzard Treble’ at the home of the Grand National would be no less than the handler deserves, after such a sparkling campaign. The Cotswolds in March may have proved a little disappointing, but Merseyside in April could once again prove a whole lot more satisfying.

Cue a Glorious Finale

Could Thursday at Aintree be the last time we see the wonderful Cue Card on a racecourse?

Though nothing has been said publicly, the 11-year-old’s trainer Colin Tizzard, and proud owner Jean Bishop, must be mulling over the option of retiring the wonderful chaser. And should he repeat last year’s success in the Betway Bowl, it would prove a perfect way to bring the curtain down on a dazzling career.

Cue Card launched his long and illustrious career with victory in a Fontwell bumper back in January 2010. The four-year-old had ‘quickened clear’ to win ‘readily’, in the style of a talented young horse. A few weeks later, Tizzard and his team were celebrating a Cheltenham Festival success, as the youngster ‘romped clear’ to win the Champion Bumper at odds of 40/1. It was a stunning victory.

A year later he returned to Cheltenham, and was far from disgraced when fourth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. In a stellar renewal, the race went to Al Ferof, with Spirit Son second and a young Sprinter Sacre in third. A month later, he then chased home the talented Spirit Son at Aintree in the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, with Rock On Ruby eight lengths back in third.

A decision was then made to send him over fences, and he opened his account with a comfortable win at Chepstow in October 2011, beating Silviniaco Conti in the process. Tizzard had to decide whether to campaign Cue Card at the minimum trip, or target the RSA the following March. A defeat to Bobs Worth at Newbury, when appearing to be out-stayed, and getting tagged on the line, sealed the deal. A young Cue Card was not short of gears, and the Arkle Chase looked the right fit at this stage of his development.

Unfortunately for Team Tizzard, a certain Sprinter Sacre was lying in wait, and when the pair met in March there could be only one winner. Cue Card ran a cracker in defeat, just seven lengths off the winner, and miles clear of the remainder.

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The following season started with a romp in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter, before a failed first attempt at three miles in the King George. He took the Grade 1 Ascot Chase en-route to Cheltenham, and understandably dodged a clash with Sprinter, instead taking in the Ryanair Chase. It proved the right decision, as he ran-out an impressive winner at his fourth festival.

His next outing, though ending in defeat, was arguably one of his best. He again locked horns with the greatest chaser of his generation, as the pair clashed in Aintree’s Melling Chase. Many remember the race for the way Henderson’s fella performed, but Cue Card was awesome that day. He finished just four lengths adrift of one of chasing’s all-time greats, with the rest of the field out of sight.

A stunning victory in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase later that year, saw him arrive for the King George of 2013 as joint-favourite. A certain winner two fences from home, became a three-length defeat at the line, with Cue Card appearing to run-out of gas. Injury prevented him from attempting to retain his Ryanair crown, and when he returned to action, his 2014-15 campaign proved disappointing.

A wind-op prior to his return in late-2015 turned his career around, and the nine-year-old Cue Card became unstoppable. With the Charlie Hall and Betfair Chase in the bag, he headed to the King George, and a shot at redemption. In a thrilling renewal, he mugged Vautour in the shadow of the post for a sensational victory. He may have added a Gold Cup to the CV but for a fall three-out, though Don Cossack was a terrific winner. He then hammered a strong field in last year’s Bowl, before a tired looking finale at Punchestown.

This season has again proved profitable, thanks to Grade 1 victories at Haydock and Ascot. He was runner-up to his talented stablemate Thistlecrack in the King George, and again came down at the third-last in the Gold Cup.
He retains tons of ability, and is the short-priced favourite for Thursday’s showpiece. But with £1,340,230 in the bank, it’s possible that we may be witnessing the final chapter in Cue Card’s incredible National Hunt story. A victory this week at Aintree would without doubt, be one of the season’s highlights. Loved by all, it would surely prove a fitting finale to the career of a jumping legend.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup – Trust in Tizzard’s Rampant River

Battered and bruised as stars of past and present fell by the wayside, nevertheless, the Gold Cup remains the most prestigious event of the Cheltenham Festival, and there’s every chance we could still be treated to an absolute thriller.

Willie Mullins continues his quest for a first victory, and surely has a great chance with twice runner-up Djakadam. And Colin Tizzard, despite the loss of budding superstar Thistlecrack, has a ready-made replacement in Native River, along with one of the most popular horses in training searching for redemption in Cue Card.

The trio are vying for top spot in the betting, and if recent trends are anything to go by, they’ll be battling out the finish. Fancied runners have won nine of the last 10, with only Lord Windermere bucking the trend when winning at 20s in 2014. Five favourites have been successful in that time, including last year’s winner Don Cossack, who was chased home by a pair of 9/2 shots in Djakadam and Don Poli. Cue Card had been sent-off the 5/2 second favourite, and would surely have been in the mix, but for his third-last blunder.

Don number one, took a tumble in the King George prior to Cheltenham glory, and Kempton’s Christmas Cracker has proved to be a decent pointer for the ‘big one’ in March. Many of the best staying chasers take in this valuable and prestigious event, and it’s therefore no surprise that Gold Cup winners have lined-up here. However, the two courses provide very different tests for a racehorse, and Cue Card fans should not be too despondent that he was swept aside so easily by stable companion Thistlecrack in December’s renewal.

The Hennessy Gold Cup and Denman Chase have also been stop-off points for future Gold Cup winners in recent years. Native River captured both, along with the Welsh National for good measure. The win at Chepstow proved his versatility with regards to track. Tizzard himself had hinted that the horse was better suited to a flat course, but the win in Wales was arguably his most impressive performance to date.

Ireland’s Lexus Chase has been slightly less influential as a Gold Cup guide, though Denman and Synchronised both won en route to Cheltenham glory. Lord Windermere had finished down the field prior to his shock win at Prestbury Park. Djakadam was somewhat disappointing in finishing third behind Outlander and Don Poli in the Leopardstown showpiece this time, but Mullins appears happy with the progress his chaser has made since that run.

Of the leading three contenders, you’d have to say that Native River has been the most impressive throughout the winter. He looks be improving at a rate of knots, though it’s somewhat surprising to see that Kauto Star was the last seven-year-old to win the Gold Cup, back in 2007. Long Run was only six when winning in 2011, but in recent times eight and nine-year-olds have proved dominant. A plus maybe for eight-year-old Djakadam.

What A Myth was the last horse over the age of 10 to capture Cheltenham’s showpiece, which is bad news for Cue Card fans.

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Away from the leading trio, the markets have Sizing John next best. He stepped from the shadows of Douvan to win the Kinloch Brae Chase, and improved again when winning the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He’s an impressive looking beast, who looks sure to jump and travel beautifully for much of the race at Cheltenham. The question is whether he will last out the trip, in what is likely to be a strongly run affair. He wasn’t stopping at Leopardstown last time, though the field hardly hot-footed it around the track.

If Sizing John has stamina doubts, then the same can probably be said of Lexus winner Outlander. Visually at least, he looked to be powering away from his rivals at the finish over Christmas, though trainer Gordon Elliott has recently sounded less confident that the 3m2f trip will prove ideal. Now a nine-year-old, the horse looks to be Elliott’s best hope of landing back-to-back victories. His course form fails to fill you with confidence, though the same could have been said of Don Cossack prior to last year’s romp.

Henry De Bromhead’s Champagne West comes next in the betting. He appears to have improved immensely since his move to Ireland, though I’d be stunned if he’s good enough to win this. His jumping can be patchy at best, and he’s likely to be pressured into errors from the onset. Soft ground will help his cause, though not enough.

Bristol De Mai is another that will need heavy ground to have any chance. He seems to cruise through the mud whilst others flounder, but he’s another that probably comes-up just short at this level. He could run into a place, if conditions become severely testing.

Of the remainder, only Minella Rocco appears to hold any hope of an upset. He has that vital Festival form, having won the four-miler last year, beating Native River into second place. That however, has been his only success over fences, and he’s spent most of this campaign on the floor. There’s no doubting he’s a talented one, and at 25/1 he’s probably worth a small each-way flutter.

I’ve watched that four-miler on numerous occasions over recent months, and it has continually put doubts in my mind as to whether Native River can win the Gold Cup. He was horribly outpaced coming down the hill 12 months ago, before then storming up the famous final climb. I worry that the same may happen again, especially with several pacey types in opposition. Many say he has the look of Denman about him, but for me it’s Synchronised that he best resembles.

Nevertheless, Native River has done no wrong this winter, and because of that, he has my vote. I’ll also have a few quid on Outlander, as the more I watch his Lexus victory, the more I’m impressed. Let’s hope it’s a cracker, and the best of luck to all those having a punt.

Kempton Course Key to Saint BetBright Bid

Attention turns to Kempton and Newcastle on Saturday, with the former hosting an exciting card, including the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle, the Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle and the BetBright Chase.

All eyes will be on Nicky Henderson’s young hurdler Charli Parcs in the juvenile, as he looks to add to his course success in December, and bolster his already lofty reputation. The Seven Barrows team also have a leading contender in the Dovecote, in the form of two-time Ludlow winner River Wylde. He faces stiff opposition, including Team Ditcheat’s Capitaine, and course winner Elgin, trained by Alan King. I like the latter, especially if the ground remains good.

The BetBright Chase is as competitive as ever. First run in 1949, it has a classy looking roll of honour. Crisp and Pendil were successful in the 1970s, whilst Rhyme ‘n’ Reason and Rough Quest took this before winning the Grand National. Desert Orchid loved Kempton, and won this race as an 11-year-old in 1990. Last year’s renewal went to Colin Tizzard’s Theatre Guide, and he returns in an attempt to emulate Pendil and Docklands Express, by winning in successive seasons.

It’s a tough task for Tizzard’s 10-year-old, as he’s a stone higher in the handicap this time around. Nevertheless, this race has been won by numerous runners lumping top-weight around the track, and he clearly likes the place. He’ll appreciate the sounder surface, and the trip looks ideal. I’m anticipating a bold bid.

Aso looked a progressive sort, until disappointing at Cheltenham last time. Though only a seven-year-old, there’s a chance he’s already in the grip of the handicapper. He also lacks experience over this trip, and is possibly a better horse with a little more juice in the ground. His age suggests there’s more to come, but it may not come tomorrow.

Three Musketeers is another seven-year-old, stepping up in trip. His pedigree at least suggests that the three miles should suit, and he arrives here off the back of a strong performance at Market Rasen. Dan Skelton has always thought plenty of him, and he does look a horse with untapped potential. I can see him running a huge race, though I’m not sure I trust him enough to throw money his way.

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Similar can be said of Double Shuffle, who won over course and distance in December. He wore a hood last time, and was having his first run at three miles. He’s another that cannot be discounted, though I’m not sure his form stacks up with some of these. He’s another that can throw in the odd stinker.

Paul Nicholls has won two of the last 10 renewals, and goes with Irish Saint this time. He’s a horse I like, and looked to be returning to something like his best when going well for a long way at Sandown last time. He missed a whole season due to injury, having looked a classy novice chaser prior to the absence. I fancy this trip stretches him a little, though he certainly enjoys Kempton, being three from three at the track. Indeed, his six career wins have all come when going right-handed. I fancy he’ll go close.

The trends suggest that horses of any age can win this event, and Nicky Henderson’s only previous winner was the 12-year-old Marlborough. He has a pair entered this time, with the one that interests me being Triolo D’Alene. The 10-year-old has proved hard to keep right, but on his day, with ground in his favour, is an extremely talented gelding. This ground will suit, and his handicap mark has dropped to its lowest since 2013. His odds of 20/1 are very tempting.

Finally, I need to mention the Twiston-Davies trained Ballykan, who came fourth in the race last year. He has a bit to find if he is to get the better of Theatre Guide, but there’s every chance that he’s strengthened from six to seven, and he carries the now familiar, and very successful colours of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. He’s on a mark that makes him very competitive, and he could go very close.

In a race that I’m finding tough to read, I have finally sided with Irish Saint, and will have a little each-way on Triolo D’Alene. There are several others that I fear, and I’m certainly not as confident as I’ve been in recent weeks. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

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.

River Romp for Newbury Native

Native River proved far too classy for his rivals in the Denman Chase, and heads to Cheltenham as a leading contender for the Gold Cup. Regular pilot Richard Johnson, was struck down with the flu, but ‘supersub’ Aidan Coleman followed the pre-race plan to perfection, and Tizzard’s young chaser controlled the race from start to finish.

In both the Hennessy and the Welsh National, Native River was ‘hanging-on’ a little at the finish, hence a slightly more conservative approach was tested, with Coleman stepping on the gas later in the race. Native River responded stylishly, scooting clear of Le Mercurey, and the slightly disappointing Bristol De Mai.

Colin Tizzard said of the winner: “I only think he (Coleman) asked him coming down to the second last. He just nursed him along. It showed he was a bit classier. In his last two races, he went a few lengths clear four out and just held on. We wanted to ride him a little differently and have that finishing spurt at the end and it's worked brilliantly. He's gone away at the line.”

Bristol De Mai was ridden patiently by Daryl Jacob, but the tactic appeared to backfire when he was unable to match the finishing kick of the winner. He’s likely to be made more use of when getting to Cheltenham, which in-turn may well help his jumping. It’s possible of-course, that he is simply not quite good enough when up against elite stayers. Nigel Twiston-Davies wasn’t giving up hope, when saying: “He was never at the races. We've got five weeks to get him ready for the Gold Cup and, all being well, that will be long enough to get him back shining.”

The trainer’s day improved considerably, with Ballyandy landing the valuable Betfair Hurdle in a thrilling finish. The race turned into a head-to-head with Movewiththetimes, and as the pair pulled clear heading for the last both jockeys waited for the moment to strike. And it was Sam Twiston-Davies that came off best, as his partner had a little more zip than Barry Geraghty’s.

“He's been unlucky and hasn't won any of the races we thought he would. What a consolation!” said the winning trainer. “He'll go to Cheltenham now. He's in the Supreme and the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and we'll see how both races are panning out. I don't think he'll have any problem with the trip of the Neptune, so we've got that option if we want it.”

The winning jockey praised his willing equine partner: “I had a smooth passage. He didn't jump as well as I might have liked down the back, but in the straight he came alive. I got there sooner than I would have liked, but with his cruising speed it just happened and he has a good turn of foot.”

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It’s impossible to review Newbury without mentioning Nicky Henderson’s latest star, Altior. He took on more experienced chasers in the Game Spirit, and duly demolished them. Allowed to stride-out in front by Nico De Boinville, the young chaser was scintillating at his fences, and powered clear down the home straight. The finishing time was impressive, and it’s hard to imagine anything getting close when he heads for the Arkle at Cheltenham. Fox Norton ran with great credit on his return from injury, and may be the one to give Douvan a race in the Champion Chase next month.

Yesterday at Leopardstown, Sizing John stepped out from the shadows of Douvan, to capture the Irish Gold Cup. Up in trip, he travelled like a dream and stayed on powerfully to stave off a pair of Gigginstown chasers, and probably book his place in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. “He was brilliant,” said a thrilled Jess Harrington.

“It's fantastic to have a horse like that for Alan and Ann (Potts, the owners), who has finished so close to Douvan on many occasions. That was his first time over three miles and he jumped, travelled and did everything we had hoped he would. Once he went past two and a half miles we knew he was into unknown territory, but we fully expected he would stay three miles and he did.

“I'd say we'll be going for the Gold Cup. I don't know, as I haven't spoken to Alan and Ann yet,” Harrington added.

The likely clash with Tizzard’s trio will no doubt prove an interesting and probably amusing talking point, for connections and trainers as the ‘big day’ approaches, with the Potts’ now such high-profile patrons at the Dorset stable.

Harry Cobden’s Blog: 10th February 2017

Hello again, nearly the middle of February and Betfair weekend at Newbury, doesn't time fly?

Since I last blogged, I've ridden a couple more winners, the most recent being the most significant. Diego Du Charmil's victory in the Scottish County Hurdle was my 75th overall, which means I can no longer claim a conditional's allowance. It took me 23 months and 377 rides, and I'm told that's a strike rate of 19.9%, which is pretty good I guess!

Of course, I have to be thankful to many people, most importantly all the owners who have continued to support me, and also especially Paul Nicholls, Anthony Honeyball, Michael Blake, Ron Hodges and Colin Tizzard, all of whom have had enough faith to leg me up on their stable charges. Thank you!

Back to Diego du Charmil, the Fred Winter winner at last year's Festivaal, and it was a really nice performance in a good race. He loves top of the ground but has gone up to 149 now, which might just anchor him for a while. Still, it would be no surprise to see him make another trip north, to Ayr for Scottish Champion Hurdle in April.

A couple of weeks earlier - has it really been that long? - Virak ran well in defeat in the Peter Marsh Chase on very soft ground at Haydock. He's been dropped another five pounds to 147, which is almost a stone lower than when he ran second in the same race last year, and he must be getting well handicapped now. Soft ground and three miles plus is what he needs.

Anthony Honeyball's Cresswell Breeze is a tough little mare that I rode to finish second in a Listed Chase towards the end of January. She was beaten far enough by Desert Queen, a very smart horse on her day, but nicely clear of some decent mares in behind. This was probably a career best effort for her, and she is entered at Catterick for a Grand National trial on Monday.

At a lower level, Madame Lafite was surely going to win when brought down by the only horse in front of her two out. Johnny Portman's five year old is an ex-flat racer who was having her first start in a handicap: she's a nice genuine mare who will win races if her confidence is not affected by this spill.

Ibis du Rheu is another Festival handicap winner I steered since I last wrote. He won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' race, and ran a big race here when third in a quality Cheltenham novices' handicap chase. The race is normally a good pointer to the Festival handicaps, and my lad got hampered at a crucial stage.

I wasn't overly hard on him once his chance had gone but he ran on well. He'll have Festival targets off this same mark, 146, so with slightly better ground likely, he goes with a fighting chance just seven pounds higher than last year's win at the big meeting.

One who was perhaps a little disappointing on Trials Day is Old Guard. He showed a little bit in midfield behind Unowhatimeanharry in the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle, but was beaten 18 lengths by the line. He could conceivably be one for something like the Coral Cup on better ground, though 150 is high enough in the weights. He has to prove he's the same horse that won the Greatwood and International Hurdles in the early part of last season.

I'm developing a soft spot for doughty stayer, Royal Salute. Since picking up the ride two starts back, which has coincided with the horse going up in trip and tackling softer groun, he's won both times. He ran possibly his best race yet when comfortably winning a Plumpton marathon on heavy. He's been nudged up five to 119, which seems fair enough, and he could still be progressing when faced with stamina-sapping conditions. His trainer has half an eye on the Eider Chase, over four miles at Newcastle! Sadly, he's unlikely to make the cut.

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At the top level of race riding, where I aspire to be, it's about getting your head down, working hard, and making as few mistakes as possible. But we're all human, and I have to admit that my ride on Sweeping Beauty was not my finest hour. I got trapped wide and far enough back, but she was game enough to run on into third on the Lingfield all weather track. She was a touch better than the bare finishing position, and sold cheaply for just £12,000 at last week's Tattersall's mixed sale, which should turn out to be an absolute bargain.

 

FUTURE ENTRIES

Looking forward, today I ride Bears Rails for Colin Tizzard. He stayed on well over an extended three miles last time and I'd be more worried about the eight pound hike in the handicap than the half mile step up in trip. Also, I can't claim the three I had when he won last time now, so he's effectively up eleven, but on the positive side, he's still a relatively lightly raced seven year old so may have more to offer. I'll probably be front rank, but there are a few others who can race handily, so we'll play it by ear. I'd be no more than hopeful in what will be a gruelling race.

 

Looking to the weekend and I have been jocked up on a couple of nice horses at Warwick tomorrow. I still don't know if they'll run yet, so we'll have to see. Frodon is a smart horse but whether the two miles of the Kingmaker is enough of a test for him I'm not sure. Half an hour later, Vibrato Valtat may attempt to defy top weight in a handicap chase. He's two from two at Warwick, including when winning the 2015 Kingmaker, but has yet to prevail over this half mile longer trip despite running well in defeat on a number of occasions.

On Monday, I'm down to ride Dragoon Guard for one of the geegeez.co.uk syndicates. He's been a hard horse to win with, but I understand he's had a wind operation since his last run. He shouldn't mind any ease in the ground - he has a quite pronounced knee action - so if his wind is reasonably sound he'll hopefully be in the mix.

SEASONAL SCORES

I'm up to 43 winners now for the season. Jamie Bargary and Dave Noonan are both on 29, and there are roughly 11 weeks left of the season. My first - and only real - target is to try to win the conditional jockeys' title, but I'd really love to get the seven winners I need for 50 in my first full season riding. I'm just about on track, but things change fast in this game so I'll keep kicking!

Until next time...

- Harry 

Festival Markets In Motion

There’s likely to be a fair amount of movement in the Gold Cup and Ryanair markets over the weekend, with top-class action on either side of the Irish Sea.

At Newbury on Saturday we have the Grade 2 Denman Chase. Run at a shade under three miles, the race was established in 2000 and won by the Paul Nicholls trained See More Business. He was then a 10-year-old and had already captured the Gold Cup and the King George (twice). Nicholls has a fabulous record in the event, having won half of the 16 contested.

His winners in 2006 and 2007 are modern day greats of the sport, in Denman and Kauto Star. Both went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup a month after victory here. Kauto was of course famed for his incredible record in the King George, whilst Denman became a Newbury hero, winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in 2007 and 2009.

A theme of Gold Cup and King George winners capturing this event has carried on in recent years, with Long Run, Silviniaco Conti and Coneygree adding their names to a stunning roll of honour.

A small field is likely to assemble for Saturday’s renewal, with a clash of rising stars eagerly anticipated. Native River certainly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when winning the Hennessy in November. He also won a novice chase over course and distance in 2016, and is currently second-favourite for the Gold Cup in March.

Richard Johnson has partnered the seven-year-old during this successful period, and his aggressive riding style has proved ideal on a horse that finds plenty for pressure. Earlier in the week, the champion jockey said: “What he’s done this year in the Hennessy and Welsh National has been fantastic - he’s been a really dour stayer but a class act at same time. Hopefully, it’s a stepping stone to the Gold Cup.”

The main threat on Saturday appears to be the recent Peter Marsh winner Bristol De Mai. That devastating success at Haydock prompted Twiston-Davies to target the Gold Cup, and he will hope to build on that stunning display at Newbury. Testing ground brings out the best in the six-year-old, and he is likely to have his optimum conditions this weekend.

Daryl Jacob believes that Saturday’s race will show whether the talented grey is truly Gold Cup calibre. Speaking to Racing UK, the jockey said of his mount: “We’ve been quietly excited by this horse for a long time now and I think Saturday will tell us exactly where we are with him. He was a very, very good at Haydock. I went into the race quite confident he could put up that performance. He beat some really good handicappers and you’ve seen what Otago Trail has since done at Sandown.”

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Speaking of the main challenger, Jacob said: “It’s a tough order against Native River; what he’s done so far this year has been exceptional. I thought his performance in the Welsh National was top drawer - going out there with top weight and basically grinding them into submission. For him to go out there and do it the way he did makes him one of the main dangers in the Gold Cup. If we are going to be a live contender we’ve got to be getting close to him.”

Paul Nicholls will hope that he can add to his incredible haul, with the French-bred seven-year-old Le Mercurey. He’s always looked a horse capable of a huge performance, though so far over fences has fallen just short of the best in the division. He chased home Many Clouds at Aintree back in December, and cannot be discounted, though the market leaders certainly appear a cut-above.

There’s four Grade 1s at Leopardstown on Sunday, with the Irish Gold Cup Chase the feature. A prestigious event in its own right, the race is often used by those testing Gold Cup credentials. Jodami and Imperial Call won this before heading to victory at Prestbury Park. Florida Pearl and Beef Or Salmon were prolific winners of the Leopardstown feature, but both failed in attempts to capture the main prize at Cheltenham. The latter came fourth to Best Mate in 2004, whilst Florida Pearl came closer when runner-up to Looks Like Trouble in 2000.

Carlingford Lough has won the last two renewals, but has proved disappointing at Cheltenham. He’s back to defend his crown, though is likely to face stiff opposition from several less exposed types. Don Poli looked rejuvenated when second in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and Gordon Elliott will be hoping for more of the same. Third in last year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham, the target appears to be the Grand National, though a strong run here would likely see him head to the Cotswolds in March.

Minella Rocco and Sizing John are two progressive types, and could yet become serious Cheltenham Festival contenders. This race has been the target for Minella Rocco for some time, and it is hoped that it will prove a springboard towards a tilt at the Gold Cup in March. Last week, Frank Berry, the racing manager to owner JP McManus, said of Jonjo’s chaser: “The Gold Cup is wide open but it's still a hard race. He's going to Leopardstown and we'll learn a lot more from that. That'll be a big day for him. If he puts up a good performance, it'll make it easier to decide if he goes for the Gold Cup or the National.”

Sizing John looked likely to head for the Ryanair at Cheltenham, but plans are fluid, and Jess Harrington is taking a leap into the unknown with her young chaser. He certainly wasn’t stopping when winning the Kinloch Brae last time at two and a half miles. A race Don Cossack won before his successful trip to Prestbury Park 12 months ago. Clearly tired of chasing Douvan around the circuit, the step-up in trip was inevitable. “He's been good, I'm very happy with him. As for Cheltenham, we'll just have to see. The logical race would be the Ryanair, but we'll just see what happens on Sunday, and leave our options open for the rest of the season.”

Dark Clouds Cast Shadow Over Cheltenham

Jubilation turned to despair, as Many Clouds fought like a lion to defeat the mighty Thistlecrack, before collapsing and dying on Cheltenham’s hallowed turf.

In a pulsating finish up the famous hill, Oliver Sherwood’s Grand National winner went toe-to-toe with the young pretender, overhauling the Gold Cup favourite in the shadow of the post to win Saturday’s Cotswold Chase. Smad Place had set the fractions, with Many Clouds taking up the running approaching the third last. Turning for home Tizzard’s star joined the older warrior, and the two tussled all the way to the line. It was a thriller, and yet no sooner had the result of the photo-finish been announced, a tragic twist saw the winner fall to the ground.

Sherwood gave a moving tribute to an outstanding racehorse: “We've got to look forward and not look back. He's been the horse of a lifetime and I always said he would die for you and he's died for me and the team today doing what he does best. He wanted to win that race, he was beaten and then fought back in the last 50 yards to win.

“We've got to be philosophical and celebrate the Hennessy and National wins and that was almost a career-best performance. I thought, hand on heart, having had a wind op that he might have been struggling for oxygen and hence the reason we did it. He was better on his first run back at Aintree this season. The public get to know the horses, especially horses that try for you, they appreciated what he had done and he captured your imagination, really. Leighton is in bits and has gone home.”

Colin Tizzard summed up the mood when saying: “Poor old Many Clouds. My initial thought when we got beat was that I was disappointed but it's as sad as can be, he was a lovely horse and he beat us on the day. We ran our race, we're not making any excuses - today, on winter ground, we were beaten by a better horse, no question. They had a battle and it's just a tragic end to the race. This is what happens in our sport occasionally and you've got to face up to it.”

Despite the sad end to the race, thoughts inevitably turn to the result itself, and the shock defeat of Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack.

His jumping throughout was solid rather than spectacular. He got in close at the fourth last, and found himself several lengths adrift coming down the hill. Despite the error, he was back alongside Many Clouds at the second last and we waited for him to stretch clear. But when Tom Scudamore asked the favourite to find another gear, the response was probably as surprising to him, as it was to the thousands watching from the stands.

Thistlecrack has not been asked a serious question for the best part of a season and a half. We’ve become accustomed to seeing him gallop clear of opponents with his head in his chest. But on soft ground at Cheltenham, with that stiff uphill finish, at the end of a truly run three-mile plus graded chase, and against experienced battle-hardened opposition, it’s fair to say that he failed his toughest test to date.

Better ground may well have brought about a different result. Conditions appeared to favour Many Clouds, putting an emphasis on stamina rather than speed. Thistlecrack’s major weapon is his ability to tank-along at speed, gradually burning off the opposition. That asset was wonderfully displayed at Kempton in the King George, but there now has to be a concern as to whether he can apply the same pressure over such a demanding trip, at a track that serves up such a unique test.

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Though Thistlecrack somewhat fluffed his lines, giving hope to those likely to take him on in March, the season’s best three-mile hurdler proved less charitable.

The Harry Fry trained Unowhatimeanharry maintained his phenomenal run of success, in winning the Cleeve Hurdle. He travelled powerfully throughout, and saw off a rejuvenated Cole Harden, with Tizzard’s talented novice, West Approach, back in third. It will take a good one to lower his colours in March, though a sounder surface at the Festival could leave this gutsy galloper vulnerable to a speedier sort.

Another huge performance from West Approach, coupled with another victory for Wholestone in the latest Neptune Novices’ trial, serves to reaffirm the lofty standing of this pair. The latter has twice finished ahead of the former during the winter, though both were beaten by Peregrine Run at Cheltenham on decent ground in November. I fancy that all three will perform well at the Festival in March, though their targets are yet to be confirmed. I’d imagine both Wholestone and West Approach will line up in the Albert Bartlett, whilst Peregrine Run has the speed for the Neptune.

Un De Sceaux put in another polished performance in taking the re-routed Clarence House Chase for Willie Mullins. He proved five-lengths the better of Alan King’s returning Ryanair hero Uxizandre. It would come as no surprise to see both in the Ryanair come March, and a reversal in positions is a distinct possibility. I’d be amazed if either were to tackle Douvan in the Champion Chase.

Mullins will have been buoyed by the success of Un De Sceaux and of Vroum Vroum Mag at Doncaster, though the mare failed to impress. Sadly, both Faugheen and Min missed Leopardstown yesterday, after suffering minor setbacks. Both are expected to be fighting fit in no time, though Faugheen may now need to head straight to Cheltenham for the Champion Hurdle. Heading there without a prep-run is far from ideal, and it’s worth remembering that his only defeat came off the back of a break when sunk by Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle of 2015.

In his absence, Petit Mouchoir took a sub-standard looking Irish Champion Hurdle. It was another bold, front-running display from the six-year-old, though Footpad got to within a length of him at the line. You’d have to think that a fit Faugheen would chew these up and spit them out.

And so, a weekend that promised so much, turned out to be truly dramatic for so many reasons. Glory and tragedy ride side by side in this wonderful sport. Participants put everything on the line in search of the former, yet the latter occasionally steals the show.

‘Power Failure’ latest blow for Mullins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twiston-Davies aims high with De Mai

Bristol De Mai romped to victory in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock on Saturday.

The three-mile trip proved well within his compass, as he sauntered clear of the field to record a 22-length success. Otago Trail did his best to make a race of it, but was brushed aside from three out. The winner is undoubtedly at his best in testing ground, and put in an exhibition round of jumping.

Nigel Twiston-Davies said of the impressive winner: “We'd been a bit disappointed with him this season, until today. But he seemed in really good form at home and we were hopeful. We'd had this race planned-out for a bit of time and he's settling better than he used to. He stays, he settles and he's a proper racehorse.”

Of Festival targets the trainer added: “We don't need to make our minds up yet but there are two races for him and it's nice to have options. I'd lean towards the Gold Cup. It looks like he's a stayer now. But whether we are quite of the class of Thistlecrack will be seen to be believed. Jump racing is about dreams, so we can dream at the minute.”

Darryl Jacob was the lucky jockey given the armchair ride, and he was clearly impressed when saying: “He's an accurate jumper and has got scope as well. That was nearly back to one of his best performances. He's a six-year-old so I'm hoping he's going to keep improving. We're still some way off Graded level, but he's an exciting horse and a beautiful one to ride.”

Bristol De Mai had been outpaced on better ground in the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham last March. Whether connections go Ryanair or the Gold Cup, his chances will be greatly enhanced should the ground turn soft, or even better, heavy. He’s as low as 10s for the Ryanair, but the trainer certainly gave the impression that the Gold Cup was the preferred target. He can still be backed at 20s for the ‘Blue Riband’.

Much of the pre-race chat had centred on the Tizzard trained Alary. He looked a picture in the parade ring, and appeared to warm to the task after a couple of sticky jumps early-doors. But he started to falter turning for home, and Aidan Coleman was quick to pull him up once any chance of placing had gone. Races in France are often run at a more sedate pace, and it’s likely that this British debut came as something of a shock for the young chaser. He’s a gorgeous looking horse, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t improve a ton for the experience.

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It proved a successful day for Twiston-Davies, with The New One completing a hat-trick of victories in the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial. It was yet another gutsy success for the yard’s outstanding hurdler. It appears that the Festival target is still up for debate, with the trainer edging towards another run in the Champion Hurdle, whilst his son Sam would love a crack at the Stayers’. “I think he'd be running around in second gear, and if he had anything left at the last he'd go close,” was the jockey’s assessment.

Sam may well be right. A third or fourth place finish in the Champion Hurdle may satisfy the trainer, but surely it’s worth a crack at the Stayers’. The step-up in trip worked for Solwhit a few years’ back, and it appears that Jess Harrington will be making a similar switch with Jezki.

Arguably the most impressive performance at Haydock came in the Supreme Trial, when Harry Fry’s Neon Wolf demolished a decent looking field. Conditions certainly suited the stoutly bred hurdler, with the emphasis very much on stamina rather than speed. This six-year-old is bred to stay a lot further, and should he head to Cheltenham will surely go for the Neptune or indeed the Albert Bartlett.

He's a tank of a horse, and Fry clearly sees his future over fences. He spoke yesterday of the various options: “He's come out of the race in good order and it was a very exciting performance, not just on the day, but for what it means for the future for him. He's got a lot of options open to him, obviously the Cheltenham novice races and at the same time he's going to be chasing in the autumn. It's a case of doing right by him.”

Fry went on: “The Masterson Family (owners) like Cheltenham and they also like going to Punchestown. He's a big unit of a horse, a tank of a horse really, so he wouldn't want quickish ground.”

The weather will play a vital role in the Cheltenham prospects of both Neon Wolf and Bristol De Mai. Soft, heavy in places may be a necessity if either are to land a valuable prize. For the former, the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle is surely the most likely target. For the latter, a shot at Thistlecrack now looks more than just a dream.