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Jonjo O’Neill relishing National buzz with Cloth Cap

Jonjo O’Neill has achieved almost everything in racing, but there is still one race above all others that gives him a buzz – the Randox Grand National.

O’Neill famously won the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup on Dawn Run, trained a Gold Cup winner in Synchronised and provided Sir Anthony McCoy with a previously elusive National win with Don’t Push It.

It can therefore be said the hugely popular trainer has been there and done that – as well as fighting and beating cancer – but the thrill of preparing a favourite for the most famous race of them all still gets his juices flowing.

“We’ve got everything crossed now,” said O’Neill.

“He’s basically done everything right this year – and it’s just a case of whether he can carry on doing that, I suppose. We obviously hope he can.”

Cloth Cap always looked like a stereotypical National horse – and being owned by Trevor Hemmings, who is seeking a record fourth win in the race, it has always been his aim.

Having finished fourth in the Scottish National as a novice in 2019, the 2020 event at Aintree was immediately on his radar. But even before Covid wiped the meeting out, Cloth Cap would not have been there, because he was not rated high enough.

This season, on good ground, he has gone to another level – finishing third to King George winner Frodon before winning the Ladbrokes Trophy impressively and following up at Kelso. If the handicapper had his time again he would give Cloth Cap another 14lb to carry, and his odds have continued to tumble.

Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore in full flight at Newbury
Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore in full flight at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“He was impressive at Newbury, but I suppose you could say he was well handicapped there,” said O’Neill.

“At Kelso he looked good again, but I don’t know if those behind him ran up to their marks.

“Whether he was as good as he looked that day or not, you still had to be delighted with his performance, whatever went on behind.

“He got into such a lovely rhythm up there. Whether he can on Saturday we’ll see. Can you make all over four and a quarter miles? We’ll find out. He doesn’t have to make all, but he does like to be prominent – when he cocks that jaw it’s hard to bring him back.

“Given the forecast, the ground won’t be soft, which is a relief. They’ll put plenty of water on to make sure it’s safe. But I’m expecting it to be good to soft, good in places, something like that, and then you couldn’t have any complaints.

“All I’ve been bothered about for the last few weeks is to get him there safe and sound. He did his last piece of work on Tuesday morning and went well – and after that it’s just been a countdown. After that there’s no more I can do.”

After a relatively quiet spell for the last couple of years by his standards, which has nevertheless seen his son Jonjo jnr emerge as a rising star of the weighing room, O’Neill cannot help but let himself get a little carried away.

He said: “It’s still the magic race, it’s like no other. You could run it 100 times and get a different winner each time. Look at Fairyhouse on Monday, a 150-1 winner. The National is the National.

“It’s always a great thrill to be involved – and despite all the pressure, you’d rather be going with a 4-1 chance than one at 40-1.”

For his two impressive wins Tom Scudamore has been on board, and connections have stuck with him.

“I was just in the right place at the right time,” said Scudamore.

“Richie (McLernon) usually rode him, but had to ride something else in the Ladbrokes Trophy. I was going to be at Newbury and could do the weight.

“Newbury was a great thrill. It meant a lot to me and it looked a great spare to pick up. It’s actually turned into a great ride to get.

“He’s had a fantastic season so far – so let’s hope he can continue in that vein.

“You can’t allow yourself to think about winning. I won’t be thinking that until we’ve crossed the line – you’ve got to go and get it done, there’s no point thinking about it.

“At Kelso he jumped and galloped, and obviously he’s been over four miles at Ayr. We can keep talking about it, but he’s still got to go and do it.”

Tom Scudamore is on the cusp of National glory
Tom Scudamore is on the cusp of National glory (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

With former champion jockey Richard Johnson’s recent retirement Scudamore is now among the elder statesmen in the weighing room – but he insists there is plenty of life left in him.

“There are still a couple older than me, although they won’t like to admit it!” he said.

“Obviously Richard had the most amazing career, but there’s a few years left in me yet.

“It would be nice to win it, though, given he never managed it.”

Cloth Cap headlines Grand National confirmations

Ante-post favourite Cloth Cap is among 68 confirmations for Saturday’s Randox Grand National at Aintree.

Following several withdrawals at the five-day stage, Evan Williams’ Welsh National hero Secret Reprieve is 43rd on the list, on the same weight as Some Neck who is 42nd. The maximum field size is 40, with four reserves eligible if there any defectors from the declared runners before 1pm on Friday.

There were never any concerns of not making the cut for Jonjo O’Neill’s Cloth Cap, impressive winner of the Ladbrokes Trophy and Kelso’s Premier Chase.

He will be ridden by Tom Scudamore, who told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast: “It looks like he’s the ideal horse and it’s the old cliche that I wouldn’t swap him for anything. If I was riding something else Cloth Cap would be the one I’d want to ride.

Tom Scudamore is relishing his Grand National chance
Tom Scudamore is relishing his Grand National chance (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“He stayed four miles plus in the Scottish National, he’s put up some great performances this year and he’s a stone well-in. That all points to him having a great chance, but he’s got to go and actually do it – we’ve seen it time and time again before, you can talk as much as you like, but you’ve got to go and do it.

“It’s nice to talk about it, it’s a lovely position to be in, but we’ve got to go and do it.”

While the race has seen many modifications to the famous fences in recent years, Scudamore feels if anything it takes even more winning than in the past.

“The National has always been fantastic to ride in and since the modifications it is still a test, you mustn’t underestimate the fences,” he said.

Cloth Cap has been all the rage for the National
Cloth Cap has been all the rage for the National (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“The relentlessness of the race has changed, it used to be a mad dash to Becher’s Brook but once you made your way to the Canal Turn and headed towards The Chair (you could get a breather) – it does seem more relentless now.

“That can put more of an emphasis on stamina, it’s a long time since they said it but they used to say you needed a good two-and-a-half-miler for the National. I don’t think that’s the case now.

“I’ve had some fantastic rides in it, my best is sixth on Vieux Lion Rouge. I tend to be in contention across Melling Road but not quite get home, the likes of Soll, Vieux Lion Rouge, The Package, Blowing Wind were great rides but didn’t manage to make it all the way.”

Any Second Now is well fancied for Ted Walsh
Any Second Now is well fancied for Ted Walsh (Paul Harding/PA)

There is a strong Irish contingent with the likes of Ted Walsh’s Any Second Now, Henry de Bromhead’s Minella Times, the expected mount of Rachael Blackmore, and Willie Mullins’ Burrows Saint.

Bristol De Mai is set to carry top-weight for Nigel Twiston-Davies, who is chasing a third win in the race with Yala Enki set to be the ride of Bryony Frost.

Kimberlite Candy, Takingrisks, Potters Corner, Lord Du Mesnil and Discorama were all left in.

Among those taken out were Beware The Bear, Pym, The Jam Man, Class Conti and those that had already been scratched, like Santini and Achille.

Scudamore not feeling the weight of National history

Tom Scudamore feels little pressure but maintains complete respect for his forefathers as he aims to emulate their Randox Grand National success aboard Cloth Cap.

Hot favourite and extremely ‘well in’ racing off a stone lower than his current mark, the Jonjo O’Neill-trained nine-year-old staked his claim with victory in the Ladbrokes Trophy before following up with ease at Kelso.

Scudamore was in the saddle on both occasions, and he will be reunited with his mount on April 10 when the race is run behind closed doors for the first time in its history.

The jockey has ridden in the world’s most famous steeplechase 18 times already – but victory has evaded him so far, with a seventh-placed finish aboard Vieux Lion Rogue in 2017 his best result to date.

Scudamore is a rider uniquely placed to understand the significance of it all, though, owing to the exploits of both his father and grandfather in the National.

Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore clear the last to win the Ladbrokes Trophy
Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore clear the last to win the Ladbrokes Trophy (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

His grandfather Michael was a winner in 1959 when steering Oxo to victory, and still holds the record for the most consecutive National rides – having lined up at Aintree every season for 16 years.

That victory has become something of a legend in the Scudamore household, with Tom well versed on the varying fortunes of his family over the famed National fences.

“Grandad won it in 1959, and it’s something the whole family is very proud of,” he said.

“Throughout all that myself and my dad have achieved, wherever we went he was always ‘Michael Scudamore – who won the Grand National’.

“We’d talk about it over Sunday lunches when I was a kid, we’d devote hours to talking about Grand Nationals.

“Grandad rode in 16 consecutive races, which I still think is a record; dad rode in it 13 or 14 times.

“I listened to the story of every single ride. I could tell you about every single ride dad had in it, and every single ride grandad had in it, and their characteristics and how they got on – it was an enormous part of my childhood.”

Michael’s son, Tom’s father Peter, was never able to win the big race throughout an illustrious career which saw him crowned champion jockey eight times and enjoy success in numerous other coveted contests.

Tom Scudamore's grandfather, Michael
Tom Scudamore’s grandfather, Michael (PA)

Michael and Peter then teamed up upon the latter’s retirement from the saddle and bought a bay gelding named Earth Summit, who was later sold and trained by Nigel-Twiston Davies, to whom Peter acted as assistant trainer and business partner.

After winning the Scottish and Welsh versions of the Grand National and also taking the Peter Marsh Chase, Earth Summit was an 11-length winner of the 1998 Aintree contest and provided a teenage Tom Scudamore with his first experience of what National success means.

“Growing up, dad was obviously associated with Nigel Twiston-Davies – and before that I’d go year after year and watch dad in the National, which would ultimately end up in disappointment,” he said.

“The year Earth Summit won it, I just remember that being absolute bedlam.

“That was my first realisation – I was always aware of what a great race the National was. But to go and win it, and witness everything that follows, that just absolutely blew my mind.

“I’d have been 13 or 14 at the time, and just the whole jamboree was not like anything I could have imagined, particularly after seeing all of the disappointment that we’d gone through.

“Seeing Earth Summit win it, grandad and dad having bought him and obviously played a massive part in his training, that was a fantastic memory.”

Peter then enjoyed further success in the race in 2017 when he and his partner Lucinda Russell, to whom he is assistant trainer, struck gold with 14-1 chance One For Arthur in 2017.

Earth Summit en route to victory in the 1998 Grand National
Earth Summit en route to victory in the 1998 Grand National (Rui Vieira/PA)

Despite being the next of the Scudamore dynasty to take up the mantle, Tom does not feel unduly pressured by the success of his family – nor is he troubled by the expectations which come with partnering the favourite for the race.

“The only pressure is the pressure I put on myself. I obviously want to win, but there’s lots of races I want to win,” he said.

“I don’t feel any pressure in that respect.

“I’d much rather be on the favourite than go under the radar on one of the outsiders.

“He’s the favourite for a reason, and it’s a very good reason. Hopefully he can justify that.

“It’s a lovely position to be in – it’s a great privilege.”

Cloth Cap’s owner, Trevor Hemmings, is as well acquainted with the race as the Scudamore family – having enjoyed three Grand National successes with Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015).

Trevor Hemmings (right) celebrates after victory in the Grand National with Many Clouds
Trevor Hemmings (right) celebrates after victory in the Grand National with Many Clouds (Mike Egerton/PA)

Those three victories make Hemmings one of the most successful owners in the race, with another win set to distinguish him from the likes of Red Rum’s owner Noel Le Mare and Gigginstown House Stud – whose silks were carried to victory once by Rule The World and twice by Tiger Roll.

“Mr Hemmings is no stranger to National glory, and he (Cloth Cap) was probably bought with Aintree in mind,” added Scudamore.

“It goes without saying what a tremendous supporter of National Hunt racing he’s been.

“He deserves every success, and it would be an honour to follow in those footsteps and try to win it for him for a fourth time.”

Hemmings is an owner who has clearly always cherished the Grand National, an estimation Scudamore shares with regards to his own career accomplishments.

“It would be the pinnacle of my career up to that point,” he said.

“It’s the race I’ve always wanted to be involved with, and growing up it’s the race I’ve always wanted to win the most.

Tom Scudamore aboard Vieux Lion Rouge (left) in the 2017 Grand National
Tom Scudamore aboard Vieux Lion Rouge (left) in the 2017 Grand National (David Davies/PA)

“It doesn’t add any more pressure on, but it’s a race I’ve spent my whole career trying to win – it would be the pinnacle as far as I’m concerned.”

Although Cloth Cap will be encountering the Aintree track for the first time, Scudamore is more familiar than most with the challenges posed by the Canal Turn and Becher’s Brook, and hopes to draw on that experience as he tackles the course once more aboard a horse that would be a hugely popular winner.

“I learnt plenty off Vieux Lion Rouge, who is a real National expert and who has jumped more National fences than just about any other horse in history,” he said.

“I haven’t been in a position to really crack it yet, but I’ve had a few good rides. Hopefully, I’m due an even better one.

“There are plenty of dangers. You have got to be very respectful of Kimberlite Candy, who seems to have been campaigned with this race in mind, Ted Walsh’s horse (Any Second Now) was very impressive in Ireland the other day and there will be plenty of horses with a chance, but I’ll be focusing on Cloth Cap.

“If the handicapper could have his say again we would be 14lb higher, so that is a lovely position to be in. It is such a high quality race that you have to respect any horse that meets the criteria and gets a run.”

Time gets up for Midlands National glory

Time To Get Up lived up to his name as he challenged late to grab victory in the Marston’s 61 Deep Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter.

The 3-1 favourite was still more than a length behind Mighty Thunder at the 24th and final fence in the marathon contest.

But jockey Jonjo O’Neill junior, riding for his father’s yard and owner JP McManus, had timed his telling challenge to perfection as the eight-year-old did get up on the run-in for a length success.

Behind Mighty Thunder, who had taken over at the first in the straight from long-time leader The Two Amigos, was Final Nudge in third and sole Irish challenger Screaming Colours fourth – beaten a further two and a half lengths and length and a half respectively.

The winning rider said: “He’s a huge horse. He was obviously in the Kim Muir, but we just thought a big, flat, galloping track would suit him. He’s a pleasure to ride.

“We’re delighted, this wasn’t necessarily the plan, but he won last time and we just thought, as he’d gone up a bit in the weights, that it looked a nice target for him.

“He’s a gorgeous horse and he had some nice hurdle form back in the day, so he was entitled to take his chance.”

The winning trainer admitted he was not certain his runner would see out the four-mile-two-furlong distance.

He said: “We weren’t sure whether he’d stay, but you don’t know until you try it. The ground was grand, everything was grand – it all came together.

“I’d say, for the trip, the ground was probably better drying out a bit. You don’t want it bog-deep when you’re going a long way and trying to get four miles, but everything went according to plan. He gave him a grand spin and it all went to plan.”

O’Neill trains the favourite for this year’s Randox Grand National in Cloth Cap, and Aintree could be a consideration for this horse next year.

He added: “I would think about the National, maybe next year. He’s a good old jumper and now we know he gets the trip.

“Whether he’ll have the pace for the National I don’t know, the National now is a fairly pacey race. We’ll see how we go.

“That was the plan, and it all sounds so easy when it works out.”

O’Neill was particularly thrilled to give his son a big-race winner.

He said: “It’s great, really. That’s what you dream of, isn’t it? When it all goes according to plan it’s even better.”

As for Time To Get Up, he added: “He’s a lovely looking horse and a grand character – he’s great to do anything with. He jumps very well – and now we know he stays too, so we’re delighted.

Time To Get Up is lightly-raced, but one previous performance on his CV already stood out – when an 11-length second to dual Cheltenham Festival winner Monkfish in a maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse in December 2019, on his last start before joining O’Neill from Joseph O’Brien’s yard.

O’Neill said: “The Monkfish form isn’t too bad! I don’t know how he got that close to him, but he did.

“He’s had leg trouble but has done the job today, and he’s the type of horse that gradually progresses. We’re very happy with him, and hopefully he might be a National horse down the road. He has what is required for Aintree.

Cloth Cap is favourite for this year's Randox Grand National
Cloth Cap is favourite for this year’s Randox Grand National (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“He’s in the Irish National, but that might come too soon. He’s one to look forward to next year.”

O’Neill is due to be strongly represented at Aintree next month by Cloth Cap, whose preparation continues to go well.

He said: “I might take him to Lambourn for a school over the National fences, but he’s in good order and if we can keep him that way for the next couple of weeks that will do me.

“It’s a great time for the yard.”

Soaring Glory Supreme plan yet to be confirmed

Soaring Glory is still not a definite runner at the Cheltenham Festival.

Jonjo O’Neill’s six-year-old was an impressive winner of the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury last time out, and is fourth favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle which opens the meeting on Tuesday.

However, O’Neill and owner Pat Hickey have still to have the definitive conversation which will decide whether or not he makes the short journey to Prestbury Park from the trainer’s Jackdaws Castle base.

“I need to speak to Pat. He wasn’t mad keen on going (to Cheltenham), and I’m lukewarm about it,” said O’Neill.

“We just haven’t discussed it. We’ll probably leave him in and have a look, so that’s about as much as I can say really.

“There’s no real reason as such, other than Pat’s not a big fan. He loves Cheltenham, but he’d love to be able to go with a runner and enjoy it (in person).”

Soaring Glory’s Betfair win propelled him near to the top of the Supreme market, but O’Neill hopes he will be a star of the future as well as present.

“He’s a grand horse, but there’s plenty of time with him really,” he added.

“If he goes then great, but if he doesn’t then we’ll wait for another day.

“That’s what we were saying before Newbury, and we never really discussed it since, so we’ll just see.”

O’Neill savouring Cloth Cap’s National opportunity

Jonjo O’Neill concedes Cloth Cap will never have a better opportunity to win the Randox Grand National after the handicapper hit him with a 14lb rise for his easy Kelso win.

The nine-year-old, who had put up a similarly impressive display to win the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November, finds himself 26lb higher than for that success just two runs ago.

However, as the National weights have already been announced, Cloth Cap can run off his old mark of 148 rather than his new perch of 162 – which would put him on the verge of Gold Cup class.

Not surprisingly Cloth Cap is the clear 6-1 favourite for Aintree.

“He’s come out of the race grand, which is nice,” said O’Neill.

“He’s looked a better horse all year at home to be fair – it hasn’t just been the ground.

“You can argue all you like with the handicapper and say the older horses (Definitly Red and Lake View Lad) didn’t perform, Kim’s (Bailey) horse (Two For Gold) didn’t perform – but he still won by seven lengths, so you’re only kidding yourself.

“This year you’d have to love the enthusiasm he has shown. He jumps, he stays and if he keeps doing that it would be lovely.”

O’Neill has already won the National when providing Sir Anthony McCoy with a famous victory on Don’t Push It in 2010 – while Cloth Cap’s owner Trevor Hemmings has been lucky enough to see his colours carried to victory three times by Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015).

“We’ve got to get him there first – everything needs to go 100 per cent right before we can start getting excited,” said O’Neill.

“He’ll never have the same weight again, that is for sure, so this is his opportunity.

“It’s nice to be in this position if we can get him there safe and sound.”

National favourite Cloth Cap cruises to Kelso success

Cloth Cap cemented his place as ante-post favourite for the Randox Grand National with a dominant front-running display in the bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso.

Making his first appearance since landing the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November, Jonjo O’Neill’s charge was sent off at 100-30 in the hands of Tom Scudamore – and could hardly have been more impressive.

Sent straight to the lead, Cloth Cap jumped accurately throughout and had his four rivals on the stretch before turning for home.

A bold leap at the final obstacle sealed his seven-and-a-half-length success over Aso, prompting his odds to tumble for next month’s Aintree spectacular.

“I was very pleased with him. He travelled away nicely and jumped well,” O’Neill told Racing TV.

“He always jumps a little bit left, that’s his make-up. So long as he comes home safe and sound now, we’ll be happy.

“He’s just in great old form at home – he’s a happy horse. He’s a bit of an old character, but he’s a year older and a bit stronger and things are going right for him at the moment. Fingers crossed it will stay that way for a bit longer.

“He jumps well and he stays well, which are two good things to have when you’re going for a National.

“The plan was to go and win the National last year. We don’t mind if it’s a year late!”

Owner Trevor Hemmings has already won the Grand National three times
Owner Trevor Hemmings has already won the Grand National three times (David Davies/PA)

O’Neill, who famously provided Sir Anthony McCoy with an elusive Grand National success through Don’t Push It in 2010, is hoping Cloth Cap can secure owner Trevor Hemmings a fourth, following the previous triumphs of Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015).

He added: “It would be special to win the National for him (Hemmings). He’s just told me off, because the horse will be too short a price now and he won’t be able to back him!”

An appearance at Aintree is also on the agenda for My Drogo after extending his unbeaten record over obstacles to three with a facile success in the bet365 Premier Novices’ Hurdle.

Trained by Dan Skelton and ridden by his brother Harry, the six-year-old was the 2-1 favourite to complete his hat-trick following previous wins in a maiden hurdle at Newbury and a Grade Two Ascot.

Carrying a penalty for that latest win, My Drogo was forced to concede weight all round in his bid to double his Grade Two tally.

However, he proved more than up the task, pulling clear in the straight for a nine-and-a-half-length victory over Do Your Job.

Dan Skelton, making his first visit to Kelso, said of My Drogo: “He’s very good and every question you ask of him he answers.

“He’s got all the ingredients. He’s tough and jumps nicely and has that pace I think all good horses need.

“I’m really impressed with how his season has progressed. He’s a very genuine horse and always a willing partner.

“We’ll step up in grade now and go to Aintree, hopefully. Next year he’s going chasing, so he’s got it all mapped out ahead of him.”

The Shunter (right) won the Morebattle Hurdle
The Shunter (right) won the Morebattle Hurdle (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Irish raider The Shunter won the most valuable race of the afternoon, the bet365 Morebattle Hurdle.

The Emmet Mullins-trained gelding won the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham in November, before reverting to fences to finish third in a handicap chase at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival.

Switching back to the the smaller obstacles for this £75,000 contest, The Shunter dug deep in the hands of Alain Cawley to see off Night Edition and Faivoir in a driving finish.

Mullins was at Navan, where he completed an across-the-card double with Noble Yeats in a maiden hurdle.

He said of The Shunter’s victory: “That was marvellous. It’s brilliant for Paul (Byrne, owner) as he’s put plenty of money into it and he has two nice horses there to look forward to.

“They went a ferocious gallop at Kelso and the pace collapsed halfway through. It turned into a war of attrition and ‘Squeaky’ (Cawley) was good and was strong on him.

“Anything we’ve asked the horse to do, he keeps coming up trumps for us. He’s a real star.

“Fingers crossed he’ll go to Cheltenham now. There is a huge bonus and it’s great to have a chance at it.

“I’d say we’ll have to take our chance once the horse is OK. He had a tough race there today, we’ll give him every chance to get over it and try to find one of the races in Cheltenham for him.

“He’s in plenty of them and we’ll keep all options open.”

Premier prep for Grand National favourite Cloth Cap

Randox Grand National favourite Cloth Cap warms up for next month’s Aintree spectacular in the bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso on Saturday.

A small but select field of six runners line up for the £45,000 contest, with the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Cloth Cap making his first competitive appearance since landing the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November.

The nine-year-old is the 14-1 market leader to provide owner Trevor Hemmings with a fourth Grand National success on April 10, following the previous triumphs of Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015).

O’Neill said: “He’s in grand form and it looks like the ground is drying out for him.

“He’s not chucked in the race – he’s not well-in (at the weights). We’re going there for the ground more than anything else.

“He has his little issues, but he’s fine at the minute and everything is going according to plan.”

Tom Scudamore rides Cloth Cap
Tom Scudamore rides Cloth Cap (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Tom Scudamore, who steered Cloth Cap to big-race success at Newbury, is once again on board with a view to keeping the ride at Aintree.

“I hope that’s what will happen, as long as everything goes according to plan,” O’Neill added.

“I don’t want to ride him, anyway. I don’t think I’d do the weight, so he (Scudamore) won’t have a lot of competition!

“We’ve only got one plan in mind, which we’ve had for the last two years.”

The Hemmings colours are also set to be carried this weekend and at Aintree by Nick Alexander’s stable star Lake View Lad.

Lake View Lad winning the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree
Lake View Lad winning the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree (Tim Goode/PA)

The grey beat Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders Santini and Native River when landing the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December, but finished a long way behind that pair in the rescheduled Cotswold Chase at Sandown on his latest outing.

“It’s a proper race and I’m pleased it’s a really good race. Kelso have put on some great prize-money and it looks like the number one meeting on the day,” said Alexander.

“It’s a slight step down in grade for Lake View Lad – this is more his grade than the Cotswolds Chase was, so hopefully he can run well.

“This has always been the plan. It’s a nice prize and a nice race.

“He’s not particularly well in at the weights – if everyone performs to their mark he’s going to be third or fourth, but hopefully he’ll run very well before heading back to Aintree.”

Definitly Red is bidding for back-to-back wins in the Premier Chase
Definitly Red is bidding for back-to-back wins in the Premier Chase (Julian Herbert/PA)

Last year’s winner Definitly Red is back to defend his crown for Brian Ellison, but does have something to prove, after finishing well-beaten in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby before falling in the Rehearsal at Newcastle.

Ellison said: “This his prep run for the National, hopefully.

“Everything has been fine since the Rehearsal. He went to Wetherby last week for a hack round and we’ve just been waiting for this race.

“He’s in good fettle.”

Two For Gold (Kim Bailey), Aso (Venetia Williams) and Cool Mix (Iain Jardine) complete the sextet.

Soaring Glory scales new heights in Betfair Hurdle

Jonjo O’Neill illustrated his knack for laying out a horse for a big handicap when Soaring Glory swooped to conquer in the Betfair Handicap Hurdle.

Under the trainer’s son Jonjo Jr, the 17-2 shot looked to be travelling by far the best approaching the final flight and when given the signal, he accelerated away on the run to the line.

Soaring Glory pulled three lengths clear of Fifty Ball, with Edwardstone a length and a half back in third and Annual Invictus fourth.

Buzz in fifth was the best of Nicky Henderson’s three runners as Mister Coffey ruined his chance by hanging in the closing stages, while 11-2 favourite Cadzand failed to menace.

O’Neill admitted he thought he had a good horse on his hands when Soaring Glory won at Chepstow on his seasonal bow.

The Jackdaws Castle handler said: “After Chepstow, he fell when going too easily in a bad race at Wetherby. He was not a natural jumper and Yogi Breisner did a lot of work on him.

Jonjo O'Neill was delighted with Soaring Glory
Jonjo O’Neill was delighted with Soaring Glory (David Davies/PA)

“It’s great to win a race like this and we thought ‘let’s have a go’ as novices often do well in it.”

O’Neill will almost certainly look at the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, for which Paddy Power cut Soaring Glory to 10-1 from 25s.

He added: “He’s entitled to run in it and Jonjo is riding with loads of confidence. He’s super cool and he does the job right.”

Annie Mc books Festival ticket with Warwick success

Annie Mc had her connections dreaming of Cheltenham success after powering home in the Lady Protectress Mares’ Chase at Warwick.

The 13-8 favourite clinched a double worth more than 100-1 for Jonjo O’Neill and Jonjo O’Neill Jr – and now heads for the newly-inaugurated Mares’ Chase at the Festival next month.

Annie Mc is owned by the Coral Champions Club, which includes reality TV star Chris Hughes, and O’Neill said: “I thought the handicapper had got her, but the soft ground bailed her out.

“She’s honest and she jumps, and has earned her corn to go to the mares’ chase at Cheltenham. She seems to be a decent mare on the soft.”

Annie Mc (left) gets the better of Zambella
Annie Mc (left) gets the better of Zambella (Alan Crowhirst/PA)

The Jackdaws Castle trainer admitted he thought she was in trouble at one stage, and added: “She fumbled a bit (on the ground) turning in, but I was delighted with her performance. She’s my best chance of a winner at the Festival, that’s for sure.

“The lads get a great kick out of her.”

Forcing tactics paid off for Cabot Cliffs in the Join Racing TV Now Juvenile Hurdle.

The 4-1 shot kept on strongly for Harry Skelton to dispatch market rivals Sage Advice and Goodbye Stranger by a length and a half and a nose.

Tom Messenger, assistant to trainer Dan Skelton, said: “He was in at the deep end on his previous start and that was a lot more like it. He dictated under a great ride and had plenty left.”

The Skeltons completed a double when Supremely Lucky outstayed Undersupervision in the Visit racingtv.com Handicap Hurdle.

Callum Bewley made the journey from Carlisle to partner Overworkdunderpaid to a hard-fought success over Definite Dilemma in the South West Syndicate Novices’ Handicap Chase.

On only his second visit to the course, Bewley pounced on Definite Dilemma on the run-in, the combination scoring by half a length.

The 7-2 favourite’s trainer Laura Morgan said: “He takes time to warm to the task and needed something to aim at, having got there too soon last time.

“He’s in at Musselburgh on Sunday and Market Rasen next week, and all being well will be out again.”

Uptown Lady posted a 40-1 shock in the Racing TV Mares’ ‘National Hunt’ Novices’ Hurdle, taking advantage of the last-flight fall of Fantastic Lady.

O’Neill explained that the six-year-old has not been straightforward and said: “She’s had two wind ops and might have been lucky to win. With a mare like that it’s just great to get a win into her.”

Ben Jones and Volcano in full flight
Ben Jones and Volcano in full flight (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The almost-white Volcano galloped and jumped his rivals into submission in the Watch On Racing TV Handicap Chase under Ben Jones.

His trainer Sheila Lewis said: “He’s neat and nimble, and Ben said he’s one of the best jumpers he’s ever sat on.”

There was a big upset in the Willougby De Broke Open Hunters’ Chase when 40-1 chance Latenightpass held the rally of Highway Jewel by three-quarters of a length under Bridget Andrews. The Worlds End went off the 5-4 favourite, but was another length back in third.

Annie Mc aiming for further Listed honours at Warwick

Annie Mc seeks to back up her Listed victory at Doncaster with another big run at the same level in the Lady Protectress Mares’ Chase at Warwick on Wednesday.

The Jonjo O’Neill-trained seven-year-old opened her account for the season in tremendous style on Town Moor at the end of the year, after taking on geldings in even better company on her three previous starts.

“In her first two races she was just run out of them against open company which is always harder for mares, but as you know they have good days and bad days,” said the Jackdaws Castle trainer. 

“She likes her work and is always up for going on the gallops. She is a straightforward, sound mare.

“She is in great form. I thought this season it would be tough going for her, but she pulled one out of the bag at Doncaster.
 
“I think that soft ground definitely helped her there as she stayed better than everybody else on that occasion. I was delighted with the performance.

“It should be as soft at Warwick, as when you are up in this sort of class you need everything right for you really. 

One person who will be keeping a close eye on the race away from the track is Annie Mc’s biggest fan – reality television star Chris Hughes, who made his name on the 2017 edition of hit ITV2 show Love Island.

O’Neill added: “She really is Chris Hughes’ pal and when he comes in he always goes to see her. He has ridden her out before, not for a while as he has been busy, but when he does get on board her he is a capable rider.

“She is a grand mare and has been a real superstar for us, the owners and everybody involved with her.”

Harry Fry’s Momella steps up in class after winning her last two races over fences.

With conditions and the distance set to suit Momella, Fry is optimistic the nine-year-old can extend her winning run.

“We dropped her back in trip at Exeter, but it was on a stiff track on slow ground. She followed up quite quickly under a penalty on Boxing Day at Wincanton on testing conditions,” said the Dorset handler. 

“The ground will hold no fear for her and hopefully the track at Warwick will be fine for her. She has a bit to find on ratings, but she gets some weight from a few of the principals. 

“She goes there in great order and hopefully she will run a good race.”

The field is completed by 2019 winner Happy Diva from the yard of Kerry Lee, the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Zambella and Destinee Royale, who represents Venetia Williams.

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.”

Sky Pirate plunders Warwick spoils

Sky Pirate opened the door to bigger and better targets after continuing his progression over fences with victory in the Edward Courage Cup at Warwick.

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’Neill sights set on Grand National outing for Cloth Cap

Jonjo O’Neill plans to give Ladbrokes Trophy winner Cloth Cap one run ahead of an outing in the Randox Health Grand National.

The Jackdaws Castle handler will work back from the Aintree marathon on April 10, for which the nine-year-old is a general 20-1 chance.

Cloth Cap entered the Grand National picture when ending a two-year drought with an impressive front-running success in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November.

O’Neill said: “The plan remains to go for the Grand National and hopefully we can get a race into him before then.

“He has been put up 11lb, but he won well in the Ladbrokes Trophy and jumped great. He only had 10st that day and everything was right for him.

“Trevor (Hemmings, owner) is keen to go for the National as it was the plan last year, but it obviously didn’t happen.”

O’Neill has no doubts about Cloth Cap, who finished third in the 2019 Scottish National, getting the extended four-and-a-quarter-mile trip, although he fears the ground may go against his new stable star.

He said: “He is a National horse as we know he stays and he jumps well normally, so those boxes are ticked.

“I wouldn’t be worried about him not staying, but the ground is very important to him.

“The only problem with the Grand National is that he might not get the ground as quick as it was in the Ladbrokes Trophy.”

Annie Mc in charge at Doncaster

Annie Mc made the most of racing against her own sex again as she ran out a convincing winner of the Yorkshire Silver Vase Mares’ Chase at Doncaster.

Since completing a hat-trick at Bangor in February, Annie Mc has been highly-tried in the Marsh Chase, the Old Roan Chase and the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup.

But trainer Jonjo O’Neill spotted an opportunity on Town Moor for the six-year-old, who duly obliged to pick up the Listed prize in the hands of Richie McLernon.

Casablanca Mix was the early pace-setter, with My Old Gold and Annie Mc close up.

McLernon made his move on Annie Mc as the field turned into the straight, with four fences left to jump.

Cut The Mustard came from last place to challenge Annie Mc, but the 11-4 favourite was too strong and pulled away to score by 16 lengths. Midnightreferendum was eight and a half lengths away in third place.

Speaking from Newbury, O’Neill said: “She made or one or two little mistakes, but she jumped well on the whole.

“She is a great little mare, and they’ve had great fun with her. We went there a little bit tongue in cheek really, but it worked out well. I wish I could have few more like her.

“Her first two runs were fine, but I would say that the ground played into her hands today because it was quite soft around there – so I’m glad they raced (after two morning inspections)!

“That always helps running back against the mares. She has been brilliant for the (owners’) group (Coral Champions Group), though.”

While Annie Mc’s long-term future is as a broodmare, O’Neill sees no reason to retire her just yet.

“We will have to see what there is for but we will have a bit of fun with her because she will be long enough breeding,” said the Jackdaws Castle handler.

“I hadn’t planned on it being her last season. She wants to race – and while she is in good form, we will drive on.

“You would have to think about the new mares’ race at Cheltenham as a target now if the ground was right.”