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The Shunter still thriving as Manifesto test awaits

The Shunter continues to thrive and surprise trainer Emmet Mullins as he nears his next big-race assignment at Aintree.

The prolific eight-year-old steps into Grade One company in Thursday’s SSS Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase, having already landed a huge pot for connections in last month’s Paddy Power Plate Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Shunter bagged a £100,000 bonus with that victory, which came after he had put himself in line for it when taking Kelso’s Morebattle Hurdle 12 days earlier.

He had already won a big prize at Cheltenham in November, in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle, after moving to Mullins’ County Carlow yard last summer from previous trainer John Clifford.

As The Shunter prepares for his next major challenge in Britain, Mullins reports him to be taking his exertions remarkably well.

“Yes, you wouldn’t know at home (he’s been so busy),” he said.

“He’s thriving at the moment – he looks in great order, and heavier than he did going to Kelso before the journey started.”

The Shunter has proved hugely adaptable as well as durable – winning over both hurdles and fences, at trips varying between two miles and two miles and five furlongs and on both soft and good ground.

“We haven’t come across anything like him (before) – nor did we think (to start with) he was as good as he is,” added Mullins.

The Shunter and Jordan Gainford clear the last at Cheltenham
The Shunter and Jordan Gainford clear the last at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“He just keeps improving. I would argue his most impressive performance was his last run at Cheltenham.

“Hurdles or fences – either is not too much of an issue. Arguably he could be a bit better over hurdles.

“But I’d say his ideal conditions are two and half miles on nice ground – and after that hurdles or fences, we don’t really mind.

“He just seems to be in such a rich vein of form.”

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The Shunter has improved three stones in nine months for Mullins, and must therefore venture out of handicap company to take on a field of Britain’s top novices.

Mullins added: “He doesn’t show a whole lot at home – and he doesn’t actually do a whole lot of work at home.

“So, I’m only seeing what everyone else is seeing on the track – and I’m happy enough to do that.

“I’m not going to force his hand at home. If he doesn’t want to show it to me, that’s OK.

“I can wait like everyone else to see him (do it on the track). Once he keeps winning, I’m happy.

“We’ve got our big handicap pots out of him – and he’s kind of gone up too far up in the handicap to be flying that route (any more).

“He keeps surprising us. Our handicap mark says we should be there – we’re probably stretching a bit going straight into Grade One company.

“But he owes us nothing – and whatever he can do is a bonus from here.”

Nicky Henderson is expecting a big run out of Fusil Raffles
Nicky Henderson is expecting a big run out of Fusil Raffles (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Leading the home defence against The Shunter is the Nicky Henderson-trained Fusil Raffles, second to stablemate Chantry House in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.

Henderson said: “This is his trip, I’m pretty sure.

“He ran a great race at Cheltenham. Envoi Allen helped us a fair bit by declining to come round all the way, and did leave the door open, but you’ve got to be there to take your chance when you’re offered it.

“Chantry House beat Fusil Raffles, but ‘Fusil’ is very good in his own right – and over two and a half, this is the place for him.”

Paul Nicholls is equally hopeful about the chance of Hitman, who arrives on Merseyside a fresh horse after missing Cheltenham.

The Ditcheat trainer said in his Betfair blog: “He’s a proper young chaser who was still travelling strongly when he came down in the Grade One Scilly Isles at Sandown and then enjoyed a nice, confidence-boosting victory at Newbury early in March.

“As he’s only just five and lacks experience, we decided to bypass Cheltenham and wait for this race over a trip of two and a half miles – which is ideal.”

Umbrigado (left) gets up on the line at Newbury
Umbrigado (left) gets up on the line at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The David Pipe-trained Umbrigado has won the last three of his four outings over fences, most recently the Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury.

Pipe said: “He was very good the last day at Newbury – and although this will be different, with a small but select field, the track and trip should suit him, and he definitely deserves to go there.

“He ran well the time before last at Wetherby and he showed that he stays two and a half miles last time at Newbury on better ground. He seems to be much better over a fence.

“We decided not to go to Cheltenham with him, because it was close enough after Newbury. His owners (John White and Anne Underhill) have had great success at both Cheltenham and Aintree, but we opted for Aintree because he ran well enough there before.

“He has always been a horse we thought a lot of, and the last two performances have demonstrated that. He is going to have to improve again, but he seems to be on an upward curve.”

Adagio has been a star for David Pipe this season
Adagio has been a star for David Pipe this season (David Davies/PA)

Pipe also has a leading contender for Grade One honours in the shape of Triumph Hurdle runner-up Adagio.

Already a winner at the top level in Chepstow’s Finale Hurdle, the four-year-old proved best of the British runners in the juvenile championship – and faces five rivals in the Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle.

Pipe said: “He was perhaps a little bit of a forgotten horse in the Triumph, but he ran an absolute cracker.

“He has won around Cheltenham, and a quick track like Warwick, so I think he is versatile regarding ground and track.

“I wasn’t sure at the start whether he would be good enough to be up to Triumph Hurdle standard, but he has proved me wrong by the performances at Chepstow and at Cheltenham.”

The one to beat, however, could be Monmiral – who like Hitman did not run at Cheltenham.

Monmiral has been saved for Aintree
Monmiral has been saved for Aintree (David Davies/PA)

The French import is unbeaten in three starts for Nicholls, who said: “He’s a good example of my belief that everything in the season shouldn’t revolve around Cheltenham. We don’t buy and train horses just for the Festival.

“We don’t have to take horses there – we were not tempted by the Triumph Hurdle, and it was always the plan that Monmiral would head instead to Aintree after he won impressively on both starts for us.

“The form of his latest success at Haydock has been well and truly franked by the second and the third. While he has only ever raced on soft ground, I feel that good to soft on Thursday will be fine for him.”

Hitman on target at Newbury

Hitman has his sights set on Aintree rather than Cheltenham following a bloodless triumph for Paul Nicholls and Bryony Frost in the BetVictor Novices’ Chase at Newbury.

The Ditcheat handler was quick to name the Manifesto Novices’ Chase on Merseyside as the next port of call for the 1-7 winner, who overcame a minor mistake at the first in the home straight, four out, to score by nine and a half lengths from Captain Cuckoo.

Nicholls said: “I didn’t think he necessarily had enough experience for Cheltenham and he’ll go to Aintree for the Grade One over two and a half miles.

“Today he’s put in a clear round, which was beautiful to watch. The only way it might change is if the ground was very testing, when I wouldn’t be afraid to switch him back to two miles.”

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Sir Ivan put in an immaculate round of measured jumping to gain a deserved first success of the season in the BetVictor Veterans’ Handicap Chase.

Harry Fry’s 11-year-old had placed in his last three starts and then been prevented by the weather and unsuitable ground conditions from taking up further engagements.

But after gaining ground at the majority of the obstacles here, the 8-1 shot targeted long time leader Valadom in the straight, overhauled that rival at the last and kept on under pressure for Lorcan Murtagh to score by a length and a half.

Fry praised the consistency of his winner, saying: “He has run well in veterans’ chases and keeps running to his mark, and I thought Lorcan got a great tune out of him.

“He was due to go to Exeter which was called off, then he was in over hurdles at Huntingdon, but when I got there the ground was bottomless and I took him out, and decided to wait for this.”

Tom Buckley and Always Resolute (left) in action at Newbury
Tom Buckley and Always Resolute (left) in action at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Tom Buckley enjoyed a winning first ride at Newbury aboard Always Resolute (6-1) in the BetVictor Seniors’ Handicap Hurdle.

The Ian Williams-trained gelding picked off his rivals in the long home straight, staying on strongly to beat Eaton Hill two and three-quarter lengths.

Buckley, who is attached to the Charlie Longsdon stable, said: “He’s run around Cheltenham which is a stayers’ course and also over two and a half miles at Wetherby. He was very slick with his jumping and put his head down when he saw the gaps.”

Iron Heart was one of two winners for David Pipe
Iron Heart was one of two winners for David Pipe (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

After bagging the featured Greatwood Gold Cup with Umbrigado, David Pipe completed a double when Iron Heart resisted the late surge of Java Point in the BetVictor Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.

The bottom-weighted 9-2 joint-favourite was confidently handled by Fergus Gillard, but after going clear lasted home by just a neck.

The Irish Thoroughbred Marketing-sponsored bumper went to 14-1 shot Charlie’s Glance, who scored by five and a half lengths under Harrison Beswick from Our Jester and Silent Revolution for trainer Andrew Martin.

The Alex Hales-trained Millers Bank (7-1) took the BetVictor Handicap Hurdle, keeping on too well under Harry Bannister for Highway One O Two and Hasanabad.

Nicholls favouring Aintree date for Hitman

Paul Nicholls reports Hitman to be none the worse after falling in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown on Saturday.

Hugely impressive on his British debut at Ffos Las in November, the French recruit subsequently chased home Dan Skelton’s Allmankind when stepped up to Grade One level for the first time in Sandown’s Henry VIII Novices’ Chase the following month.

The five-year-old returned to the Esher venue for another top-level assignment last weekend – and was still travelling strongly when coming to grief at the first of the Railway Fences.

Speaking on a call hosted by Great British Racing, Nicholls said: “It was very frustrating – I don’t think I’ve seen Harry (Cobden, jockey) that frustrated after a race for a long time.

“He was travelling extremely well and jumped impeccably. He was just a bit unlucky he landed a little bit steep.

“He’s come out of the race fine and we’ve just got to make a plan as to what we’re going to do with him going forward.”

Hitman holds entries in the Arkle Trophy and the Marsh Novices’ Chase at next month’s Cheltenham Festival, but could sidestep the showpiece meeting in the Cotswolds entirely.

Nicholls added: “I wouldn’t mind saving him for Aintree. He’s a horse who doesn’t want a lot of racing this year. He’s only just turned five and he’s going to improve physically for another summer.

“You wouldn’t do Cheltenham and Aintree and Cheltenham might come a bit quick off the back of a fall.

“I wouldn’t mind getting a clear round in somewhere on a small track and then go to Aintree.”

Hitman has Scilly Isles in his sights

Hitman will step up in trip for a crack at the Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown on February 6.

Hugely impressive on his British debut for Paul Nicholls at Ffos Las, he was far from disgraced behind leading Arkle contender Allmankind in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown last time out.

Nicholls is now keen to step him up in trip and he was entered for the rearranged Grade Two Dipper Novices’ Chase run at Wincanton on Saturday but he was not declared.

“I didn’t run him in the Dipper as the same owners were keen to run Protektorat (eventual second) which was fair enough but it was pointless them running against each other,” said Nicholls.

“He will go – I suspect – to the Scilly Isles where he would take on Dan’s (Skelton) horse Shan Blue. There is Grade Two race at Haydock on January 23 (Altcar Novices’ Chase) and I might possibly have a look at that but I’m quite excited about running him in another Grade One at Sandown.

“The step up in trip will be the making of him. He is a lovely horse that just wants plenty of time.

“It was a good run in the Henry VIII as he was a bit inexperienced and it was only his fifth ever run and second time over fences.

“He jumped the Railway Fences well and he stayed on strong and Dan’s horse (Allmankind) is a very smart horse. You may or may not see him at Cheltenham but I can’t see it this season.”