My Sister Sarah makes Kempton raid worthwhile

It is rare for Willie Mullins to send a runner from Ireland to the British mainland on a Monday, much less to Kempton Park.

So punters duly noted My Sister Sarah, who produced a faultless display in the hands of Nico de Boinville to land the feature on the card, the five-runner Listed Racing TV Mares’ Hurdle Race.

The 10-11 favourite was much too good, sealing the deal with a superb leap at the last to score by seven lengths from Dragon Bones (6-4) after taking it up approaching the penultimate fence.

Tenth in the Irish Cesarewitch last time, the seven-year-old relished the dry conditions.

Willie Mullins was on the mark at Kempton
Willie Mullins was on the mark at Kempton (Niall Carson/PA)

“She gained her confidence throughout the race. She was a slightly classier horse,” said the winning rider.

Mullins added from his Closutton base: “We’ll try to keep her to mares’ races over that kind of trip and perhaps we’ll look to Leopardstown at Christmas next while keeping an eye on the English programme as well.

“I’d imagine the Mares’ Hurdle (at Cheltenham) will be her main target in the spring at this stage.”

Fergal O’Brien is in fine form and the yard had a four-timer on the day, including a Kempton double with Gortroe Joe and Timberman, both ridden by 3lb claimer Liam Harrison.

Gortroe Joe (11-4) put a frustrating run of near misses behind him when landing the Handicap Chase.

Patient tactics appeared to work, although Harrison needed to wake the nine-year-old up with a circuit to run. Gortroe Joe eventually warmed to the task and the partnership were in command at the final fence, with a decent leap helping secure an 11-length success from Broken Quest.

Harrison said: “He was a bit cold on me today and usually he is very enthusiastic, but they went off a very good gallop and the lack of jumping wouldn’t have helped him.

“They went a very good gallop and he went to sleep on me a little bit and I had to give him a wake-up call. He is a joy to ride and he wears his heart on his sleeve every time.”

Harrison then closed out the O’Brien double when Timberman (2-1 favourite) benefited from a truly-run Join Racing TV Now Conditional Jockey’s Handicap Hurdle.

The pace was strong in the two-mile heat and the field were well strung out at the end, with the winner having five lengths to spare over Paso Doble.

Harrison said: “Fergal has had a four-timer and that tells you all you need to know – he is a fantastic trainer and I am lucky to be riding for him.

“We went a very good gallop and Donald McCain’s horse (See The Sea) has been tearing up track records, and a race run like that suited him as he was able to pick up the pieces. I was impressed. He wasn’t stopping at the line.

“He is maybe quirky and needs things to fall his way, but Fergus Gregory gave him a lovely ride at Cheltenham last time to set him up for today.”

The Ben Pauling yard is in good form and Not At Present added to the haul when taking the Wise Betting Handicap Hurdle in the hands of 5lb claimer Luca Morgan.

The 9-2 chance’s three-quarters-of-a-length success from Vaziani was his third success in four starts and Pauling is hopeful the six-year-old will soon go chasing.

He said: “I keep threatening to go chasing with him. He doesn’t really respect the hurdles. He will be a better chaser. He has been busy enough now and at some point he will have to have a break and come back in the spring.

“This was the plan. I suppose we may try to find somewhere a bit better. He is not short of speed, but I’m not sure he will get in something like the Lanzarote Hurdle.”

Call Of The Wild (1-3 favourite) showed plenty of guts to get the better of Petrossian in the three-runner EBF Stallions ‘National Hunt’ Novices’ Hurdle in the hands of Tom Cannon.

The only four-year-old in the field, he was forced to make the running and despite being headed over the last, stayed on nicely to break his hurdling duck at the second attempt.

None of the trio wanted to make the running and they took an age to get into a canter, and while far from fluent at a couple of hurdles, Call Of The Wild made the best of his way home to score by two and a quarter lengths.

Cannon said: “Before the race I was hoping the (Paul) Nicholls horse (Petrossian) would make the running, but I spoke to Harry (Cobden) and it wasn’t, and then I thought Tom Scudamore and Hartnoll Hero might go on, but he wasn’t, either.

“We had a bit of experience, and he was actually fine making the running in front. He got the job done at the end of the day and hopefully he can go on for that.”

There was more drama in the other three-runner race on the card, the Racing TV Novices’ Steeple Chase, when Sebastopol and jockey Aidan Coleman, who was upsides at the last, suffered a crashing fall. Fortunately, both eventually got to their feet.

The Dan Skelton-trained Rockstar Ronnie (13-8 joint-favourite) and jockey Bridget Andrews were the beneficiaries, going on to beat Atholl Street by 13 lengths.

Andrews said: “No one likes to see that, but we got lucky. It was a shame that a few fences were taken out because of the shadows as jumping is an asset to him, but he jumped fantastic.

“He was not as fresh today. We know we need to give him a bit longer between runs, but he is a brilliant jumper and needs quick ground. He may have a little break now when the rain comes.”

Monday Musings: Skeltonham

The 2021-22 jumps season – in a sort of foreplay since the end of April – began on Friday with three days’ intense action at Cheltenham, writes Tony Stafford.

The top five protagonists for the jump trainers’ championship, always supposing that Messrs Mullins, Elliott and De Bromhead do not intrude on a private domestic issue, have positioned themselves nicely for imminent take-off.
At this stage Fergal O’Brien leads the way with 72 wins and £622,548. Paul Nicholls is second on £561,628 from 60 winners.

Dan Skelton, boosted by the weekend, is on £531,752 from a modest 39 wins to date; Donald McCain has £466,295 from 65 and Nicky Henderson, well up to scratch with 50 wins, is lagging a little with £397,633 in prizes.

A couple of seasons ago, Dan and Harry Skelton, emboldened by the lavish support of their father Nick, Olympic show jumping gold medallist and icon of his primary sport for the best part of half a century, would have been the numerical summer pacesetters in the title race.

The trio knew that having a base in Warwickshire worthy of housing the best of bloodstock, would need a trigger to attract owners in a sport where they were accustomed to turning to Nicky Henderson or Paul Nicholls if they wanted their horses trained in the UK. The Skeltons needed numbers and the summer, with the best horses out at grass, was the time to put them on the board.

Even some of those two perennial champions’ owners had already gravitated to the better prizemoney and overwhelming superiority, talent- and numerical-wise of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott over in Ireland. It appears that the latter’s gauche blunder in being seen grinning and brandishing his phone to the camera astride a fallen horse on his gallops has been forgiven if not forgotten. Memories are long – practicalities are instantaneous.

The Skelton team has now clearly made it to the big league as their principal five challengers over the weekend emphasised. Meanwhile the mid-summer void has been comfortably filled by Fergal O’Brien, formerly assistant to Nigel Twiston-Davies and more recently a tenant of his.

The building of a new yard a few miles away enabled the breakaway from Twiston-Davies and was the catalyst for a major step forward last season when he broke 100 winners for the first time.

After two 60’s in a row, the next two campaigns realised 49 and 63 before 104 at 18% and £796k prizemoney in 2020-21.
Such has been the forward momentum that as we enter winter, O’Brien leads both winner and money categories. That reflects a 60k cushion, but Nicholls, Skelton and Henderson all have more obvious candidates for the very big pots which always define the season’s champions.

Fergal’s stable strength has been nicely augmented by the addition of around 60 horses that the BHA’s favoured barrister, Graeme McPherson QC, has bequeathed (not exactly, but you know what I mean!) to them. McPherson was more the money man than the day-to-day trainer, and graceful withdrawal from the licensee position in favour of giving it official satellite yard status is bound to have beneficial results.

Already several former McPherson horses have shown improved form since the merger and if Fergal intends maintaining his fast pace – 11 wins in the last fortnight – he needs the extra ammunition.

He stepped in with the Listed bumper winner Bonttay on the Saturday of the meeting and as she and stable-companion Leading Theatre led a big field up the hill you could imagine both being high-class jumpers further down the line, an opinion the trainer upheld with a snatched comment: “two lovely fillies” as he walked by. The stable seems to have a bigger proportion of fillies than any of their main rivals, but that merely confirms assistant and partner Sally Randell’s assertion that “they are cheaper to buy”.

Success attracts owners, as the Skeltons illustrate, and now new owners are flocking to the softly spoken Fergal. They had a new owner with them at the sale after racing on Friday and he came away with lot 1, Poetic Music, a debut winner of a Market Rasen bumper for John Butler, at £60,000. “She was our number one at the sale too. I’m delighted we got her”, Sally said.

Two-horse races rarely capture the attention of the racegoer, but Friday’s two-and-a-half mile novice chase in which fencing newcomer My Drogo, a brilliant unbeaten hurdler last winter for Dan Skelton, was meeting Henry de Bromhead’s four-time chase winner Gin On Lime.

The younger Gin On Lime, a mare, had penalties which should have ensured My Drogo’s favouritism and so it proved, the home runner 4-9 with 7-4 against Gin On Lime.

Then at the second-last fence, when Skelton was manoeuvring his mount to challenge on the stands side, he hit the fence hard and could not maintain the partnership. Meanwhile on the inside, Gin On Lime also blundered but as she started to sink to the floor Rachael Blackmore did a passable impression of all those rodeo tricks she must have seen in cowboy films and simply stayed glued to the saddle.

The mare recovered her equilibrium with Blackmore soon back in charge and they set off to the final obstacle which Gin On Line crossed with no further problems. Blackmore had been the darling of the last spectator-limited Cheltenham Festival and here, with the aid of her main supporter De Bromhead, was revealing a new sphere of excellence.

If day one was a major setback for the brothers Skelton, on Saturday the wheel of fortune turned with another spectacular run by Third Time Lucki, the first domestic candidate for the Arkle Chase and a welcome one with all that talent waiting to reveal itself on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Maybe it was a job only half done, but two exaggerated celebrations of Harry Skelton as he crossed the line in front twice in succession yesterday showed how much it all means to win at the home of steeplechasing. First he was in splendid isolation on the always-talented Nube Negra in the Schloer Chase and then the long-time absentee West Cork got the better of Adagio and No Ordinary Joe after a battle up the hill in a high-standard Greatwood Hurdle.

Winning big handicap hurdles with horses after a layoff has been part of the Dan Skelton DNA for some time and West Cork was a prime candidate for such a project. Absent since his second in the Dovecote Hurdle in February last year behind Highway One O Two, he had been dropped 5lb for that Grade 2 second place from the 139 he had earned by his easy defeat of a Nicky Henderson 1/3 shot at Huntingdon.

That generosity by the handicapper was the final piece in the puzzle for the stable whereas top-weight Adagio, only a four-year-old, had been assessed to the hilt on his form of last winter. The third horse No Ordinary Joe pulled hard from the outset yet was still there with a big shout starting up the hill. If Nicky can get this unexposed type to settle better there is no limit to the potential of J P McManus’ gelding.

Nube Negra’s victory, emphatically pegging back one previous Queen Mother Chase winner in Politologue and ending the hitherto unbeaten course record of Put The Kettle On, the reigning champion but one who was never going yesterday, was deeply impressive.

It certainly was not lost on the bookmakers, who promoted him to near the top of this season’s market on the two-mile championship, nor on the younger Skelton, who not satisfied merely with standing in the saddle and pointing to the crowd as they crossed the line, then sated his elation with a rapid-fire first pump. He might find it harder to peg back Brian Hughes this winter, but as he says, he has some great horses to ride.

Some jockeys win a championship and simply want more. Harry Skelton will take another one if it comes, but he’s not going to do the running around riding out and touting for rides on other people’s horses. Why would he with animals of the ability of those Cheltenham mounts?
- TS

Taipan strikes fences gold at Ludlow

Fergal O’Brien was delighted to see Golden Taipan put a frustrating run of results behind him by claiming a first victory over fences at Ludlow.

A three-times winner over hurdles a couple of years ago, the seven-year-old had proved expensive to follow since having his attentions turned to the larger obstacles – finishing second on four occasions.

Turning out just over a fortnight after placing third at the Shropshire venue, Golden Taipan was the 7-5 favourite for the Lord Ffrench Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase.

Paddy Brennan’s mount took the lead before jumping the fourth fence from home – and while he was untidy at the last, he had plenty in hand and passed the post six and a half lengths ahead of Raya Time.

O’Brien, who is looking forward to saddling several runners at Cheltenham over the next couple of days, said: “I’m delighted for the owners and the horse.

“He’d bumped into Dr Newland’s good horse (Captain Tom Cat) and Donald McCain’s good horse (Presentandcounting), so he hasn’t had the luckiest time and it’s great he’s got his head in front.

“It’s good to get that done and keep the winners flowing. There’s nothing like winners to give you confidence and the horses are running well, so long may that last.”

The father-son combination of Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies landed the opening Ludlow Brewery Novices’ Hurdle with 8-1 shot Key To The Moon.

Key To The Moon jumps the final flight clear at Ludlow
Key To The Moon jumps the final flight clear at Ludlow (David Davies/PA)

The five-year-old had failed to get competitive in two bumper outings, but raised his game significantly on his jumping bow to defeat 8-13 favourite Full Of Light by two and a half lengths.

“We always thought he was nice,” said the winning trainer.

“He had to settle, which he did and he’s won, so it’s great.

“We’ll try to find another small race with a penalty.”

Sinndarella won at prohibitive odds
Sinndarella won at prohibitive odds (David Davies/PA)

Jockey Alan Johns was banned for 10 days (November 4-13 inclusive) after the stewards found he had failed “to take all reasonable and permissible measures” to ensure his unplaced mount, Yambocharlie, was given opportunity to obtain the best possible placing.

Odds-on backers had better luck in the following KLF Insurance Ltd Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, with Sarah Hollinshead’s 2-5 shot Sinndarella readily accounting for her two rivals under Richard Patrick.

The John O’Shea-trained Just The Man was a 9-2 winner of the Vera Davies Handicap Hurdle in the hands of Adam Wedge, while Gina Andrews was seen to good effect aboard John Groucott’s Happy News (9-1) in the Ludlow Racecourse Supporting Racing Welfare Week Amateur Jockeys’ Handicap Chase.

Imphal sent favourite backers home happy – striking gold as the 2-1 market leader in the concluding Butcher Woods Ltd. Novices’ Handicap Hurdle for Gary and Jamie Moore.

Fern O’Brien makes winning start at Carlisle

Fergal O’Brien was left brimming with pride after his daughter Fern made a winning start to her riding career at Carlisle.

A card confined to professional and amateur female jockeys gave the recently-turned 16-year-old the perfect opportunity to make her competitive debut aboard her father’s 25-1 shot Lord P in the VL Aesthetics Honours Shona Cunningham Handicap.

A winner at Kempton last year when trained by Richard Hannon, the four-year-old had disappointed on his first outing over hurdles and twice on the Flat since switching stables.

But having undergone a wind operation since his latest appearance at Newbury in early July, Lord P appeared much improved, travelling strongly before comfortably kicking three and a quarter lengths clear of Singe Anglais.

Connections of Lord P in the Carlisle winner's enclosure
Connections of Lord P in the Carlisle winner’s enclosure (PA)

The jubilant jockey said: “It was a bit of a steering job to be honest! He’s very good and it was just very easy, I didn’t need to do much more than push the button.

“I did my pony amateur course back in June so I was all ready to go the second I turned 16. I had my last pony race four days ago, turned 16 two days ago and now I’m here. I had five winners on the pony circuit, they all came on the same pony who’s for sale if you’re watching!

“We got very lucky with her and I’m even luckier now with my first ride.”

She added: “A lot of people said to me before that it would be over before I know it, but it wasn’t really. Maybe pony racing helped with that because it’s flat out from the start in that.

“I was lucky with the draw in that I was in quite late and only sat in (the stalls) for a maximum of 30 seconds and it was very easy after that. From halfway I was thinking he was still travelling very well and I found a bit of a gap which opened up for me, he went through that and just stayed on all the way to the line.

“I got in a bit of trouble last week in pony racing because I didn’t ride out to the line, so all I had in my head was to get over the line as soon as possible and I wasn’t worrying about what was going on behind me.

“Horse racing is the long-term goal for me, but I’m staying on for A Levels at my school now so that if racing goes wrong I’ve got something to fall back on.

“I’ve been broken up from school since the end of May and I’ve been riding out since then. We’ve been working flat out, but it’s been really good.

“I’m so lucky, my dad, my mum and Sally (Randell) are all horsey so I’ve grown up around it all my life and it’s worked out so well.”

O’Brien senior – who has had three winners on the level – said: “It’s amazing really, for a little girl who started off riding ponies – this has been her dream. Every day I watch her fulfilling her dream.

“It’s unbelievable, for her to come up here on her first ride, on a not overly-fancied horse. Sally gave her some great instructions and she followed them through.

“When I watched how she was going two out and pull her stick through I thought she was feeling confident, so I did look away. All week I’ve been really excited, then at the weekend I started to get a bit nervous. (But) it all went really well.

“I’m unbelievably proud of her.”

O’Brien team reaping the rewards after embracing coaching scheme

After only a year, trainer Fergal O’Brien has already seen a vast improvement in the riding skills of those who have embraced the jockey coaching programme.

Since Sally Randell, O’Brien’s assistant and partner, successfully completed the jockey-coach course, the 25 full-time staff and part-time workers at Ravenswell Farm near Cheltenham have wasted no time in improving their efforts in the saddle.

June 7 to 13 is UK coaching week, highlighting one of the many training activities and modules available through the Racing2Learn platform for staff throughout all sectors of the industry. Thanks to funding from the Racing Foundation, there is something for anybody looking to enhance their career prospects.

“It’s been hugely important to us in the yard having young people coming through and trying to train them up, so they come in one side and are able to go out the other fully trained and able to do a job in other yards or other parts of the industry,” said O’Brien.

“The jockey coaching has been great because it’s a great sounding board for them as well.

“It’s also good for the part-timers who are either at college or university in the area.

“Their day-to-day job is mucking out and riding and stuff, but some of them have never worked in racing before so for them to come into a racing yard, it’s great to have the simulator in the British Racing School lorry.

“It teaches them about position and Sally can video them on the gallops. It helps us to improve their position on a horse and all the rest of it.”

Randell, a former successful amateur rider herself, said: “It’s a civilian sports coaching certificate and a proper qualification. It’s really nicely run by the racing industry.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily important for you to have race-ridden in this role because it’s experience you need within racing, not necessarily as a jockey, but I do think that definitely helped. I’ve always helped bringing young people through when I was a smaller trainer and helping them get their first point-to-point rides.”

Tia Harrison has been with O’Brien for two and a half years and has found learning to school horses over hurdles and fences a boost.

“We did a theory lesson first and then we did some lessons in a school to get us used to schooling, then we were able to go out on a schooling strip and now we can school when we’re able to,” she said.

“It was really helpful to learn the basics of how to school safely and properly before we were allowed to actually school all the racehorses.

“I schooled a few months ago and we’ve able to school a few times since. Me and Zoe (Peake, stable hand) did it with two others from Kim Bailey’s yard. It was great to do it in small groups.”

O’Brien has seen the advantages of having stable staff learn to help with schooling.

“Most yards, especially our size with 80-plus horses, general stable staff would not do a lot of schooling. They would leave it to the jockeys who ride on the race track. It’s nice to be able to get everyone involved and gives everyone a better understanding of the job going forward.

“The riding courses help us as trainers, but it’s also great for the people who are learning as well.”

Randell has seen the benefits it brings to other yards.

“From going the round the yards where I’ve been helping in the Lambourn and Cotswolds areas, you notice which yards are taking on this opportunity,” she said.

“Daniel and Claire Kubler in Lambourn are really into it. They have got a rider coach in their yard and you can see how far ahead their staff are just by getting the regular coaching to yards that don’t do it. There are a lot of people that need more help.

“If we can get the rider coaches into as many yards as possible, with the experienced people and experienced riders without needing the racing school lorry going everywhere, you can help your staff in house. We’re going to keep people in racing and keep them improving.

“I think it’s been massive. Tia and Zoe got to do the introduction to schooling which was great, but we’ve also had a few people join our yard from the eventing background and just a general riding background.

“We’ve got a lad called Jake (Mann) who had never ridden a racehorse when he came to work for us and I did some work with him only two weeks ago and the improvement in him in a week, just work riding, was really noticeable.

“That sort of thing, it gets everyone to a level. No one is falling back, everyone is getting an opportunity and the people you see who don’t quite grasp the work-riding structure, they only need a lesson to understand it all and they jump up to scratch.

“Then you are keeping all your staff up to a level and getting the horses trained well, so it’s really important.”

O’Brien said: “It’s nice to have everyone on board and the aim is when people come here to work for us, we don’t lock the gates and keep them here.

“What we want to do is make them better individuals and when they do leave, they leave with more skills than when they arrived – whether they were with us for one year or three years.

“The important thing for us is they learn while they are here and it can help them go forward.”

With the yard hitting 100 winners for the first time last season and the tally for this term already into the 20s, the O’Brien stable is not standing still.

Fergal O’Brien celebrating maiden century of winners

Fergal O’Brien already has his mind set on a second century of winners next season, after reaching the three-figure landmark for the first time in the final week of the jumps campaign.

Fittingly, it was Oscar Rose who gave O’Brien that all-important 100th winner at Kempton on Monday evening, as the mare had opened O’Brien’s account from his new base at Ravenswell Farm, near Cheltenham, at Southwell in October 2019.

“One hundred winners in any season is pretty phenomenal, so the fact we lost two months (due to Covid-19 pandeminc) early doors as well makes it all the more special,” he said.

“It’s a great achievement by everyone in the yard. You need everyone to be pulling in the right direction and the last year and a half since we’ve been at Ravenswell we’ve had great people there.

“I put it all down to Ravenswell because it’s a fantastic place to train and we were very lucky to find it.

“It was a big gamble by my landlords Rupert and Nicki Lowe. They invested a lot of money in the facilities, but it’s paid dividends. It’s working very well. It’s a fantastic place to train and everyone likes being here.”

O’Brien recalled the day he bought Oscar Rose for £14,000 as a four-year-old at Doncaster in May 2015.

“We bought her as a store horse,” he went on.

“She was our very first runner out of Ravenswell Farm and our first winner from there. We followed the builders in. There were 10 stables up and she went there at the end of that August from a pre-training yard and then she ran at Southwell. Brief Ambition won the same day and he was our second runner.

Oscar Rose has been a star for Fergal O'Brien
Oscar Rose has been a star for Fergal O’Brien (Richard Sellers/PA)

“We hit the ground running and, touch wood, we’ve kept going forward ever since.

“We’ve just got to keep going on and reproduce next year. We have to do it the same again. We’re looking forward to that challenge.

“We’ve got to go back to the sales and buy some new horses and replace some of the ones that have done their job and need to move on to new homes. You can’t stand still in this job.

“We’re very privileged to be able to do what we do and I feel so lucky to be involved in jump racing.”

Tom Lacey sights set on Festival first with Adrimel

Adrimel will bid to provide his upwardly mobile trainer Tom Lacey with a breakthrough first Cheltenham Festival victory in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

Lacey is consolidating his rise through the training ranks from his Herefordshire base – and Adrimel is his leading light this season, having already registered a first Grade Two success for the yard in January’s Leamington Novices’ Hurdle at Warwick.

As well as the exploits of Adrimel and his big Grand National hope Kimberlite Candy under rules, Lacey’s name is associated with a string of potential stars – such as Willie Mullins’ top-class Energumene – who have graduated from the nurture of his wife Sophie’s point-to-point string.

Among Adrimel’s stern opposition on Friday, Mullins supplies the well-fancied Stattler from his Closutton powerhouse – one of three Irish challengers near the top of the market, alongside Denise Foster’s Fakiera and Torygraph.

Top British trainers are inevitably to the fore too, with both Paul Nicholls (Barbados Buck’s and Threeunderthrufive) and Fergal O’Brien (Alaphilippe and Ask A Honey Bee) double-handed.

Adrimel will therefore need a clear career-best if he is to succeed Mullins’ mighty Monkfish as the latest winner of Friday’s Grade One novice stamina test – but after his improvement when moved up in trip to two miles and five furlongs for the first time, hopes can be high.

Lacey also put cheekpieces on the six-year-old for the first time then, and is in no doubt they were a huge help.

He said: “The cheekpieces had a huge effect on him last time, because they sharpened up his jumping so much it made life much easier for Richard Johnson and himself.

“It is one of the finer decisions I’ve made.

“I was nervous putting them on such a young horse, but I had to do something to make him more professional in his races.”

Lacey hopes former winning Irish point-to-pointer Adrimel will be well-served by his clean jumping and adaptability too.

“At Warwick he was incredibly accurate – and if he had winged the last he would have won more impressively – but he just keeps digging,” he added.

“He doesn’t have to make it either.

“When he won his bumper at Doncaster, he was dropped in that day. I would much rather have him dropped in the second or third row at Cheltenham.”

Among Adrimel’s rivals, Nicholls is confident stamina will be a huge asset for both his hopefuls.

Barbados Buck’s has been a prolific winner since moving up to this trip

“He’s been really progressive this year – he’s rated 143, and his form just keeps getting better,” said the multiple champion trainer.

“He’s won his last three – the last day at Kempton, he carried a 10lb penalty, he was strong from the back of the last and won nicely.

“He’s a proper staying horse. You need something here that will stay forever, and he’d be right in that. I think he’s so laid-back he will be absolutely fine (stepping up in class).”

Threeunderthrufive must do likewise, having won three times for owners the McNeill Family – who also have Olly Murphy’s Champagnesuperover in the 17-strong field.

Nicholls said: “He’s unbeaten over hurdles, and you wouldn’t know what’s in the locker with him.

“He just does enough and goes along with his ears pricked. He jumps well and will get every bit of the trip – he’s another one with a nice chance.

“This is a nice horse, and they’re very much on a par with each other.”

Alaphilippe has only been beaten once over hurdles and was last seen winning a Grade Two trial for this race at Haydock.

O’Brien said: “Alaphilippe obviously hasn’t done anything wrong.

“He’s four from five. We’d love it if the ground was softer, but it’s not soft. That’s just the way it goes – you can’t do anything about it.

“We would have won, no question (when Young Buck fell at Haydock last time) – Paul (Nicholls) conceded that.

“The margin was a bit bigger, but we still would have won that day, and we’re very happy with Alaphilippe.”

He added of Ask A Honey Bee: “He needs to bounce back from that disappointing run at Doncaster.

“He went into that race as favourite, and the first three or four in the betting all pulled up.

“It was a funny race – I just think they went very quick early on and paid the price for it in the end, and the winner came from behind.

“I just think it was very, very testing ground that day – drying out and very holding – so I think that’s what did us in the end really.

“He ran well in the (Champion) bumper there on nice ground – so it will definitely suit him a bit more.”

Trainer Ben Pauling would prefer the ground to be softer for The Cob, who confirmed his place in the line-up with a nine-length victory in the Grade Two River Don Novices’ Hurdle at Doncaster.

“He seems well. The drying ground wouldn’t be in his favour, but they should go a gallop and he stays well, so we’ll see how we get on,” said Pauling.

Karl Philippe seeking to extend O’Brien’s fine season

Karl Philippe bids to provide Fergal O’Brien with another big-race victory in the EBF Final at Sandown.

The Gloucestershire-based trainer is enjoying an excellent campaign, highlighted by the Grade Two triumphs of Hurricane Harvey, Silver Hallmark and Alaphilippe.

Before saddling likely Pertemps Final favourite Imperial Alcazar at next week’s Cheltenham Festival, O’Brien is first out to strike Grade Three gold on Saturday with Karl Philippe – who made it third time lucky over hurdles with a 10-length success at Exeter last month.

O’Brien said: “I hope he goes there with a good chance. He’s in good form.

“He was placed in his first two hurdles over two miles – and as soon as we stepped him up in trip and rode him a bit more forward, he proved the shorter trip was the problem.

“We’re looking forward to running him on Saturday and seeing how he gets on.

“It’s very competitive, but we’ll go there and take our chance.”

David Pipe saddles top-weight Martinhal, who beat Karl Philippe by half a length in January and followed up last time.

“He’s won his last two, and the step up in trip should suit,” said the Pond House trainer.

“Like a lot of these horses, all his form has been on softer ground.

“It’s difficult to win a race like this off top-weight, but we’re hoping he has an each-way chance.”

Nicky Henderson has two contenders Captain Morgs and Patroclus, while Colin Tizzard’s Striking A Pose and Sam Barton from Emma Lavelle’s yard also feature.

The Paul Nicholls-trained Rainyday Woman sets the standard in the first of two Listed races on the card – the British Stallion Studs EBF Mares’ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race.

The daughter of Kayf Tara bolted up on her debut for the Ditcheat handler at Stratford in November, before following up in Listed company at Huntingdon the following month.

“She has done nothing but please since she joined us in the summer, winning stylishly at Stratford before following up in a Listed mares’ bumper at Huntingdon just before Christmas,” Nicholls told Betfair.

“Rainyday Woman has a 4lb penalty in a hot looking race, and any further rain at Sandown would be in her favour.”

Rainyday Woman is re-opposed by Kim Bailey’s Huntingdon runner-up Flirtatious Girl, while the dangers include Henderson’s Tweed Skirt.

Listed honours are also up for grabs in the Paddy’s Rewards Club Novices’ Handicap Chase – a race which has been switched to Sandown from the Cheltenham Festival.

High Up In The Air has won his last five races for Gary Moore, who said: “This is a massive jump up in class.

“He just needed that first run over fences at the start of the season, while he loves soft ground and was well handicapped.

“He is a very good jumper, and that has helped him. He has won here before, but that was over shorter, and I think the extra few furlongs will suit him.”

Evan Williams is looking forward to saddling Annsam, who was slapped with a 12lb rise for a 42-length win at Ludlow in December.

“He’s a raw horse. The handicapper absolutely hoofed him up for winning a bad race last time, (but) I’d be pretty keen to give it a crack,” said the Welsh trainer.

“He went up 12lb for winning what in effect was a ‘nothing’ race, having a school round.

“The handicapper is right 99 per cent of the time, so I hope he is right.

“Annsam is a nice horse, (but) he’s a raw horse.”

Sherwood confident Sevarano can sparkle in Reynoldstown

Oliver Sherwood is optimistic about the chances of Sevarano in the Bateaux London Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase at Ascot.

With ante-post principals The Big Breakaway and If The Cap Fits notable defectors at Thursday’s declaration stage, Sherwood believes his representative has a “favourite’s chance” of landing Saturday’s Grade Two contest.

“I’m guessing one or two maybe didn’t want to run and leave their Cheltenham behind, whereas our horse isn’t even entered at Cheltenham and purposely wasn’t going to go there,” said the Lambourn-based trainer.

A talented hurdler last season, Sevarano looks likely to scale even greater heights over fences, having won two of his first three starts this season.

He could finish only fourth on his latest appearance at Newbury in December, but Sherwood has a valid excuse.

He added: “It was unfortunate what happened at Newbury. He slipped into the first fence, and it unnerved him, but he schooled super on Thursday morning and is in a really good place.

“This is the time to step up in trip – I’ve been dying to do it – and he handled this sort of ground over hurdles last year. He’s a big, strong boy now as an eight-year-old – and I’m sure he’ll handle it.

“I’m very happy with him, and he doesn’t get a penalty for his two wins this season because they were handicaps.

“I think he’s going there with a favourite’s chance.”

A six-strong field is headed by the Fergal O’Brien-trained Hurricane Harvey, who must shoulder a 5lb penalty for winning the Grade Two December Novices’ Chase at Doncaster last time out.

“He’s having to carry a penalty, which isn’t ideal, but there aren’t many options for him,” said O’Brien.

“There was a novice handicap at Doncaster next week, but again he’d be giving weight away.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It was great to win a Grade Two with him, but it makes the rest of the season tougher. Having said that, you’d take a Grade Two every time.

“It’s a rich man’s problem, as they say.”

David Pipe’s Remastered faces a step up in class after winning his first two starts over fences at Carlisle and Wetherby.

Trainer David Pipe saddles Remastered on the Reynoldstown
Trainer David Pipe saddles Remastered on the Reynoldstown (David Davies/PA)

Pipe said: “He’s got a bit to find on official ratings, but he likes soft ground, three miles around Ascot will be ideal – and he jumps well.

“It was a decent enough race that he won first time over fences at Carlisle, and then it was just a two-horse race he won at Wetherby, but he deserves to take his chance and has conditions to suit.”

Full Back is in a similar boat after winning at Plumpton and Exeter for Gary Moore, who said: “Hopefully he goes very well. He wouldn’t want too much more rain, he just doesn’t like it too heavy. I know he won in heavier ground, but he’s got away with it a bit.

“He’s in a good place, and this has always been the target, so hopefully he can give a good account of himself.”

Demachine (Kerry Lee) and Kalooki (Philip Hobbs) complete the line-up.

Imperial Alcazar stays fresh for Festival

Fergal O’Brien will chart a direct course to the Cheltenham Festival with Imperial Alcazar.

The seven-year-old ran out a comfortable two-and-a-quarter-length winner of a Pertemps qualifier at Warwick last month, and is as low as 8-1 with some firms for the Final at Cheltenham on March 18.

While Imperial Alcazar is also entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle on the same day, O’Brien is looking towards the big handicap instead.

He said: “He’s in good form and goes for the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham now, all being well.

“He runs well fresh, so he’ll go straight there without another run in between.”

Harvey heads for Towton

Hurricane Harvey features among 14 possibles for the William Hill Towton Novices’ Chase at Wetherby.

The Fergal O’Brien-trained seven-year-old has won two of his three chasing starts to date, kicking off with victory over the well-regarded Emitom at Uttoxeter back in October.

He then found Ga Law too good in the “Rising Stars” Novices’ Chase at Wincanton, beaten 22 lengths when conceding 8lb, but bounced back to victorious form when lifting the Grade December Novices’ Chase at Doncaster before Christmas.

O’Brien has entered Hurricane Harvey for the Virgin Bet Heroes Handicap Hurdle at Sandown as well, also on Saturday, but Wetherby remains the aim.

He said: “Wetherby is definitely his first preference. We’ve entered him in the hurdle at Sandown, just in case – but that might not be going ahead, it seems, and Wetherby would be the preferred option.

“We were delighted with him last time and we have been delighted with him all year, from his first win at Uttoxeter.

“It was good to get a nice win on the board with him the last day, and he’s a great horse for his owners.”

While Hurricane Harvey holds an entry for the National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Novices’ Chase at next month’s Cheltenham Festival, his trainer is far from certain he will line up there.

O’Brien added: “He’s in the old four-miler at Cheltenham because, when the entries were made, it wasn’t clear if the Irish horses would be coming across or what the situation is going to be with amateur riders. It was more a precautionary entry really.

“We’ll discuss it all after Wetherby hopefully, but we may just look to Aintree or Punchestown with him – those flatter tracks might just suit him a bit better.”

O’Brien also has Good And Hardy entered in Wetherby’s Grade Two feature.

Nick Mitchell’s Milanford finished a length and a quarter behind Hurricane Harvey at Doncaster, and he is another in the mix –  along with the Nicky Henderson-trained Dame De Compagnie, who hacked up on her chasing bow at Ayr last month.

Colin Tizzard has entered his Kauto Star Novices’ Chase runner-up The Big Breakaway – with others of note including Sevarano, Full Back, Kiltealy Briggs and Port Of Mars.

Silver signals bright future with polished display at Haydock

Fergal O’Brien believes the future is bright for Silver Hallmark following an impressive all-the-way victory in the Read Nicky Henderson’s Unibet Blog Novices’ Chase at Haydock.

A field of four runners went to post for the opener on Merseyside, with Henderson’s Allart the 10-11 favourite to double his Grade Two tally after a striking chasing debut at Ascot last month.

Silver Hallmark (2-1), narrowly beaten by Fiddlerontheroof on his first attempt over fences at Exeter in November, was sent straight to the lead on his first start since – and jumped well in the hands of Adam Wedge for much of the two-and-a-half-mile journey.

His task was undoubtedly made easier when Allart crashed out racing down the back straight – but O’Brien’s charge can still be expected to go on to bigger and better things, judged on the way he powered through the testing conditions to score by four and a half lengths.

O’Brien did not make the trip to the north west, but said: “I’m delighted with him – he’s been very well at home.

“He came back from Exeter with a little nick, which took a bit of time to come right, but he’s been in great form.

“Adam gave him a lovely ride. It was only his second run over fences and only the sixth run of his life, including his point-to-point. Haydock takes a bit of jumping, and I’m delighted with how it’s worked out.”

Silver Hallmark has not been entered for any of the novice chases at the Cheltenham Festival, with O’Brien instead eyeing a possible appearance at Aintree’s Grand National meeting.

He added: “We were in a quandary whether to stick over hurdles or go chasing with him, but Mr and Mrs Rucker (owners) said he was bought as a chaser – and I thought it was worth having a crack at a Grade Two today, and if he lost his novice status, so be it.

“I didn’t put him in any of the novice chases at Cheltenham, because I just felt he was lacking a bit of experience.

“Ground is important to him. I don’t think he wants it as bad as today, but soft ground would be important, so if it came up soft at Aintree then we’d definitely have a look at something like that.”

Faivoir lunged late to claim a last-gasp victory in the Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle.

Dan Skelton’s six-year-old faced a significant step up in class for this Grade Two test – and looked booked for minor honours jumping the final flight, with Donald McCain’s Minella Drama seemingly in control.

However, Faivoir ate into his lead on the run-in and got up in the dying strides to prevail by a neck at 7-1.

Winning jockey Bridget Andrews was emotional after the race as she reflected on the recent death of stable favourite Mohaayed, who was fatally injured at Market Rasen last Saturday.

Andrews had previously partnered Mohaayed to win the 2018 County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Faivoir winning at Cheltenham earlier this season
Faivoir winning at Cheltenham earlier this season (David Davies/PA)

“Last week was tough – Mohaayed played a big part in my career,” she said.

“I’m delighted for this horse today, and delighted for his owners. He’s actually been brilliant for me, because I’m four from four on him now.

“I think that trip (two miles) is fine for him on this ground. He’s still quite green and has a bit of an awkward way of going. He lugged in behind a little bit – but once I pulled him out and got upsides, I was away then.

“I don’t know what Dan’s plans are going to be. We tried him in a handicap at Sandown, and he didn’t really like the hustle and bustle.”

Following an inquiry, the Haydock stewards handed a four-day suspension to Andrews for careless riding, having edged left on the bend entering the straight and failed to “leave sufficient racing room for the two runners on her inside”.

Imperial rule delights Fergal O’Brien

Imperial Alcazar could have his sights raised to Grade One company after opening his account for the season in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle at Warwick.

Making just his second start of the campaign, the Fergal O’Brien-trained seven-year-old, who holds an entry in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, took a giant step forwards in running out a convincing winner.

Steering clear of the late drama, which saw Flemcara, Espion and Ardlethen all come down at the last, the 5-1 victor galloped on relentlessly to score by two and a quarter lengths.

O’Brien said: “We’ve been talking the horse up to the owners for a long time. He has not had many runs and we kept him in bumpers for a long time. It is only his second run of the season and we have been very patient, but they have been rewarded today.

“We think he is a very nice horse and hopefully he will keep progressing.”

The Ravenswell Farm handler will let the dust settle before deciding which route to take with Imperial Alcazar, who has both the Stayers’ Hurdle and Pertemps Final as options at the Festival.

He added: “Definitely we would (treat him as a Stayers’ Hurdle type). We will have a look nearer the time who goes where. Whether things change with Covid as to who comes over from Ireland, so that is why we put him in the Stayers’. It’s a lovely problem to have.”

Although Flemcara escaped injury following the incident at the final flight, there was a sad postscript to the race, which caused around a five-minute delay to the concluding bumper, as both Ardlethen and Espion suffered fatal injuries.

Clerk of the course Jane Hedley said: “Sadly we have lost both Espion and Ardlethen. They had fatal injuries. We gave them every chance, but we had no option in the end and they have been humanely euthanized. Flemcara galloped off which was a good sign.

“Everything was in control behind the screens which allowed us to carry on, which we did. The veterinary teams did their very best as ever, but unfortunately we couldn’t save them. The connections were there and were very upset, but they were philosophical.”

Gold Bullion is a name to note
Gold Bullion is a name to note (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Gold Bullion made a winning debut in the delayed bumper to complete doubles for trainer Paul Nicholls, jockey Harry Cobden and owner Malcolm Denmark.

Having secured Grade Two glory with Next Destination in the Hampton Novices’ Chase, the trio combined again with the five-year-old, who ran out a clear-cut four-and-a-half-length winner as the even-money favourite.

Assistant trainer Harry Derham said: “That was no surprise as he has been lovely the whole way through. He is a gorgeous horse that is so relaxed.

“He was green coming past the stands, that’s why Harry didn’t want to go too soon, but when he gave him a reminder he took off. He will be a serious novice hurdler over two and half miles.”

Sky Pirate looks to have a bright future
Sky Pirate looks to have a bright future (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Elsewhere on the card, Sky Pirate opened the door to bigger and better targets after continuing his progression over fences with victory in the Edward Courage Cup.

The Jonjo O’Neill-trained eight-year-old defied an 11lb hike in the weights following victory at Cheltenham to make it two wins from as many starts since being dropped back to two miles.

Moving past long-time leader Generous Day approaching the second-last, the 13-8 favourite pulled out plenty to defeat Amoola Gold by two and a quarter lengths in the hands of Jonjo O’Neill junior.

The winning rider said: “He is a bit of an enigma, as he has never shown at home that he wants two miles.

“But we had been meaning to try it and it worked out well at Cheltenham and it has worked out well again today. He is an improver at this trip.

“I think people have been getting him slightly wrong as I’m just not sure he gets the two and a half we were aiming him at, but I think he stays two miles strongly.”

Following the race Sky Pirate was cut from 7-1 into 6-1 favourite for the Grand Annual at the Cheltenham Festival by Paddy Power – a race which O’Neill junior believes could be a suitable aim.

He added: “He would (be a horse for a Grand Annual). He has won off 145 and won quite nicely. He is still a novice so we would have to have a look, but he will be entered up in everything I’d imagine.”

Will Sting strikes under Aidan Coleman
Will Sting strikes under Aidan Coleman (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Will Sting (7-2) made the most of a drop back to two miles when giving weight all round to claim the Pertemps Network Novices’ Handicap Hurdle by nine and a half lengths.

Jockey Aidan Coleman said of the Lucy Wadham-trained winner: “The drop back in trip helped him. They went quite quick on that ground and they probably stopped a bit in front.

“He’S a nice-moving horse. I’d not sat on him before, but that ground didn’t seem an issue even though it was different to what he won on around Huntingdon.”

O’Brien celebrates new milestone as Hurricane delivers in December prize

Fergal O’Brien reached a personal best of 64 winners in a season when Hurricane Harvey took the Grade Two bet365 December Novices’ Chase at Doncaster.

The Cheltenham-based handler was at the South Yorkshire venue to enjoy the moment rather than attend his local track.

“To get to 64 winners at this time of year is fantastic,” he said.

Hurricane Harvey (5-2) got the better of long-time leader Milanford to land the spoils by a length and a quarter in the hands of Paddy Brennan.

House Island was third with the favourite Ofalltheginjoints tailed off to be a disappointing last of four after never travelling or jumping well.

O’Brien said: “We are starting to grow up a bit because for the last few years we’d have probably ended up at Cheltenham trying to take on better horses there, but this was the right race to go for with him and it’s paid dividends.

“Connor (Brace) gave him a great ride first time and Paddy gave him a lovely ride the second. We got beat by a very good four-year-old (Ga Law) at Wincanton, so we’re delighted.

“He’s won his Grade Two and it’s great for connections. They have been great supporters of mine.

“I’d be lying if I said he was a natural. He takes a bit of work. I’m grateful to Martin Keighley who has a line of five fences. He’s let us go there and we do plenty of jumping with him at home.

“He’s a very honest horse and gets on with the job.”

O’Brien will give Hurricane Harvey’s next race some thought.

“He’ll go on any ground. We did think possibly about Kempton for the Kauto Star, but that just might come a bit soon, so we might put back on the backburner,” he added.

“We’ll enjoy today. There aren’t any people here, but it’s great to come here and we’re grateful.”

Brennan said: “It was his first time over three miles. It’s lovely to come here. He was in at Cheltenham, but three miles on a flat track is right for him and he is only going to improve.

“He’s done us proud. He’s won a Grade Two. We can’t ask for any more.”

Day to remember for Tom Buckley at Kempton

Conditional jockey Tom Buckley had more than one reason to celebrate the wide-margin success of Breffniboy at Kempton.

Not only did victory aboard the Johnny Farrelly-trained six-year-old in the Like Racing TV On Facebook Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle complete the first double of his career, but it also saw him ride out his 7lb claim.

Having travelled well throughout, the 7-4 favourite put the race to bed in a matter of strides once sent on by Buckley before cruising home to victory by 13 lengths.

Buckley said: “It’s my first double. I’m very thankful to a lot of people. It’s a great day.

“I knew this one had a good chance. His race last time was run on ground he didn’t like.

“I’m speechless. It’s my best day ever. I’ve had two brilliant rides for two brilliant trainers. You can’t ask for much more. Hopefully it’s onwards and upwards.”

Storm Goddess (centre) before going on to win the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle (David Davies/PA)
Storm Goddess (centre) before going on to win the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle (David Davies/PA)

Storm Goddess denied Younevercall a third win in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle when getting up late on under Buckley to prevail by a nose – much to the surprise – and delight – of trainer Charlie Longsdon.

The Chipping Norton handler said: “I thought we were beat. I thought one more stride we would have won and I thought they had held on.

“If she had winged the last she would have won comfortably. She needs three miles now.

“Any Pertemps qualifier is good to win.”

Jack Quinlan got in on the double act, highlighted by a third course success for Mercian Prince (11-2), who jumped his rivals into submission to land the Every Race Live On Racing TV Handicap Chase by 12 lengths.

Winning trainer Amy Murphy said: “It is through no fault of his own that he has had a few wind issues. Some days it catches him out and on days like today, when he gets into a good breathing rhythm, he never misses a beat and shows all of his old exuberance.

“We put the visor on to keep him focused and that is the Mercian Prince we all know. It was fab to see him and he is Jack’s best mate and favourite horse in the yard by a mile.

“We gave him a little spin over hurdles with our 10lb conditional which has obviously done the trick.”

Mick Quinn scored plenty of hat-tricks during his time as a footballer and Pink Sheets completed one of her own to get the ball rolling for Quinlan with a tenacious victory in the Bet At Novices’ Hurdle.

The Newmarket handler said of the 85-40 winner: “ I love her to bits and we got her to have a bit of fun with.

“I thought she would be in the first three if not better, but I was a little bit apprehensive about taking on the geldings.

“She needs the better ground and it was either here or Huntingdon and we decided to go for this race and it has paid dividends. ”

Oscar Rose on her way to landing the Weatherbys TBA Mares' Handicap Chase (David Davies/PA)
Oscar Rose on her way to landing the Weatherbys TBA Mares’ Handicap Chase (David Davies/PA)

Fergal O’Brien moved to within two winners of reaching a half-century for the season after Oscar Rose put in an exemplary round of jumping in the Weatherbys TBA Mares’ Handicap Chase.

O’Brien said of the 9-4 favourite: “She was very good and I could not fault her there. Liam (Harrison) gave her a lovely ride.

“She was a bit keen over hurdles, but fences just help her as she backs off them a bit and gives herself a chance.”