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Anxious wait as Some Neck camp hope for National run

John McConnell faces an anxious wait to discover if Some Neck is guaranteed a run in the Randox Grand National at Aintree.

Some Neck is number 42 in the handicap and needs two horses above him to come out at the 48-hour final declaration stage at 10am on Thursday if he is to make the top 40.

The next four in the handicap for Saturday’s big race will be named as reserves, to replace any non-runners announced by 1pm on Friday.

Blaklion is currently number 41 in the list following the five-day confirmation stage, with Welsh Grand National winner Secret Reprieve 43 and Kauto Riko 44.

McConnell is listening out intently for all the latest indications as to any last-minute absentees.

Some Neck was third to Tiger Roll in the cross-country chase at Cheltenham on his latest start, and his County Meath trainer reports the 10-year-old to have taken the race very well.

“We’re delighted with him,” said McConnell.

“He came out of Cheltenham very well, so we’re looking forward to it if we do get in.

“Simon Torrens rides him. He rides a lot for me and he’s schooled him. He’s a very good jockey, and it would be his first National mount.”

Streets Of Doyen limbering up for Cheltenham

Streets Of Doyen prepares for a trip to the Cheltenham Festival with a first competitive appearance since October at Naas on Sunday.

John McConnell’s charged rattled off a four-timer in the space of a month last autumn, with handicap wins at Roscommon and Gowran Park followed by successive victories in novice company at Cork and Cheltenham.

With a return to the Cotswolds for the Albert Bartlett in less than three weeks’ time on the agenda, Streets Of Doyen first faces a Grade Two assignment in the Paddy Power Betting Shop Novice Hurdle.

McConnell admits this weekend’s two-mile trip will be on the short side for Streets Of Doyen, but expects the race to serve a purpose.

He said: “We were tempted to go straight to Cheltenham as I didn’t want to give him a gruelling race over three miles within six or eight weeks of the Festival.

“This two-mile race came up and it looked like there wasn’t a big entry, so I stuck him in it and we decided we’d run.

“It will certainly put him spot on for Cheltenham. I’m not expecting him to win on Sunday, but it should sharpen up his jumping and wherever he finishes is fine.

“It would be great if he could be competitive, but I’m not too worried about that.”

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Streets Of Doyen will be fitted with cheekpieces for the first time, with his trainer keen to learn whether they have the desired effect ahead of the Festival.

McConnell added: “He’s lazy and lairy and if the cheekpieces looked like they helped this weekend, we might consider leaving them on for Cheltenham.

“This is a good way of trying them out, rather than trying first time in Cheltenham and running the risk of them backfiring.

“It will be a good learning exercise.”

Streets Of Doyen’s six rivals include Joseph O’Brien’s Desir Du Large – who has been off the track since winning a Fairyhouse bumper in December 2018 – and the Willie Mullins-trained mare Echoes In Rain.

Cilaos Emery returns to action for Willie Mullins
Cilaos Emery returns to action for Willie Mullins (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mullins saddles the likely favourite for the other graded race on the card, the opening WhatOddsPaddy? Chase.

Cilaos Emery has raced just once since finishing fourth in last year’s Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, finishing runner-up to popular stablemate Bachasson in the Clonmel Oil Chase in November.

Despite having to concede weight, the nine-year-old will be widely expected to dispatch of his three opponents before potentially returning to Cheltenham for either the Queen Mother Champion Chase or the Ryanair.

Cilaos Emery is taken on by Daly Tiger (Noel Meade), Kildorrey (Ted Walsh) and Cafe Con Leche (Denis Hogan).

The most valuable race of the day is the 40,000 Paddy Power “From The Horse’s Mouth” Podcast Novice Handicap Chase, for which seven runners are set to go to post.

Gordon Elliott has high hopes for Defi Bleu, who makes his handicap debut over fences.

“He has run respectably in a few beginners’ chases this season and should certainly be good enough to win one, but this is a decent pot so I thought it might be worth giving him a go,” Elliott told Betfair.

“He is a horse who stays further, but he should be comfortable at this distance, as he showed when running well in the Martin Pipe at Cheltenham a couple of years ago.

“The form of his last beginners’ chase at Navan reads well enough as he finished eight lengths behind The Big Dog, who won a good handicap next time. That run alone would give him prospects of getting involved.”

Ciaran Murphy’s hat-trick seeker Enjoy D’allen and Meade’s School Boy Hours also feature.

Perhaps the most interesting Elliott-trained runner on the card is Gerri Colombe, who contests the Paddy Power (Pro/Am) INH Flat Race.

A £240,000 purchase after winning his sole start in the Irish point-to-point field, the five-year-old made a big impression when winning by 24 lengths on his bumper debut at Fairyhouse.

Elliott added: “Gerri Colombe is a lovely staying horse for the future. He won his point like a very nice horse last season and he was very good in his bumper at Fairyhouse last month.

“I was hoping he’d go close to winning at Fairyhouse, but I really liked the way he went to the line over the last couple of furlongs and his finishing effort there suggested that he could be quite exciting.

“We won’t see the best of him until he goes jumping, but I’d like to think he is the one to beat here.”

Make Good ruled out for season

Make Good, an impressive winner of a Grade Two event at Cheltenham last month, has been ruled out for the rest of the season.

Trainer John McConnell had been aiming the five-year-old at the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle back at Prestbury Park after he won a trial for that race.

In Make Good’s absence, his main hope for the three-miler in March is Streets Of Doyen, who has won his last four – including a five-length verdict over subsequent Grade One hero Flooring Porter in October.

“Unfortunately Make Good has a leg and will be out for at least six months,” said McConnell.

“It’s very frustrating, because he was the soundest horse in the yard and took his races really well.

“I think it must have happened at Cheltenham. We gave him a quiet week after coming home, and it seemed to have settled down, but it then flared up again.

“We were aiming him at the Albert Bartlett, and Streets Of Doyen is now our big hope for that race.

“He wants good ground and will probably go straight to Cheltenham. He’s progressed really well, and I think there is more to come from him.”

Festival return on agenda for Make Good

Make Good appears to have booked his ticket to the Cheltenham Festival after claiming a Grade Two victory at Prestbury Park.

A runaway winner of a two-mile novice handicap hurdle at Gowran Park on his previous start, John McConnell’s charge faced a significant step up in class and distance for Saturday’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

However, he proved his stamina for the three-mile trip with a seven-length success under Richard Johnson – and the Albert Bartlett in March is likely to be top of his agenda.

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McConnell said: “We were thrilled with him. On ratings he had a chance and he’s really a two-mile Flat horse, so we were hopeful he’d stay three miles over hurdles and maybe even improve for it. It looked like that was the case on Saturday.

“He’s always been a little bit underrated, by us and everyone, because he’s not the biggest horse and looks more like a Flat horse in terms of physique, but he’s got a big set of lungs and a big heart – and that counts for a lot.

“He’s fully entitled to go for the Albert Bartlett at the Festival, and there’s a very good chance he will. I don’t know what route we’ll take along the way. Whether we put him away and just have one race beforehand, or whether we’ll try and cherry pick a few races, we’ll see.

“He likes to be busy, so he might even turn up somewhere at Christmas here in Ireland. All options are open to us.”

Streets Of Doyen is another exciting prospect for John McConnell
Streets Of Doyen is another exciting prospect for John McConnell (David Davies/PA)

Make Good could well be joined in the Albert Bartlett by stable companion Streets Of Doyen, who has not been seen in competitive action since completing a four-timer at Cheltenham in October.

Having also landed last Friday’s cross-country race with Some Neck, McConnell has saddled three winners from just four runners at Cheltenham this season.

Of Streets Of Doyen, he added: “He had a break because he had four wins in five weeks. We’re about to bring him in and start riding him again, and he doesn’t take that long to get fit.

“He might be Albert Bartlett-bound as well. He probably likes better ground than Make Good – the ground he won on in Cheltenham last time would be as soft as he’d want it.

“The Albert Bartlett is open to him – or if he doesn’t run there, there’s Aintree and the other spring Festivals.”

Some Neck swoops late for Glenfarclas glory

Irish raider Some Neck got up in the shadow of the post to land a thrilling Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.

Formerly a useful performer for Willie Mullins, the grey was tailed off on his first start for John McConnell in last month’s Lismullen Hurdle at Navan, but shaped significantly better when third on his cross-country debut at Punchestown on his latest outing.

With amateur rider Ben Harvey keeping the mount, the 18-1 shot always appeared to be enjoying himself in the Cotswolds, but looked booked for minor honours rounding the home turn, with the bold-jumping Defi Des Carres in a clear lead jumping the final obstacle.

However, Some Neck began to close the deficit racing up the hill and lunged late at the end of three and three-quarter miles to win the day by a short head, with well-backed favourite De Forgotten One back in third.

There was a sting in the tail for Harvey, who was suspended for 11 days and fined £400 for using his whip above the permitted level from approaching the final fence.

McConnell did not make the trip to Cheltenham and instead watched the race at Dundalk ahead of saddling several runners at the track.

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He said: “I just watched the race here in the stable yard at Dundalk and my voice is a bit hoarse from all the shouting – it was brilliant.

“It’s great for the owners – this is their first winner.

“We took a risk buying him out of Willie Mullins’. He’s always been a horse with a big engine, but he can throw in two or three mistakes, certainly over the conventional fences. He just seems to be a little bit more concentrated going cross-country racing.

“We bought him before he was due to go through the ring at Doncaster. I pushed for him as he always caught my eye as a horse that ran well, even though he maybe wasn’t foot perfect.

“We were going to go down the hurdling route with him, but we decided to school him over the cross-country fences and he seemed to love it, so we said we’d have a go at Punchestown. He ran very well there and we knew he’d improve.

“We did think we’d run well today, but you never expect to win at Cheltenham, so it’s fantastic.”

Asked whether Some Neck is likely to return to Cheltenham for the Festival in March, the trainer added: “I’m sure he will – he’s entitled to after today.

“Obviously the big guns are going to be back out then, but I think the Cheltenham hill is made for him, so it’s certainly something we’ll look at.

“He can go for some of those big, staying chases as well. We’ll enjoy it and have a good look at the programme book.”

Twenty-year-old Harvey was similarly thrilled.

Runners in the cross-country race at Cheltenham
Runners in the cross-country race at Cheltenham (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

He added: That was brilliant – it was the ultimate for me. Winning a cross-country race around here is brilliant.

“I had a willing partner underneath me, which always helps. All he does is gallop and he is tough and really genuine.

“Cheekpieces gave me a hand today to help ride a race on him. I thought I was going to have to settle for second to be honest, but he just kept finding for me.

“It’s my first visit here and first winner, it’s brilliant.”