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Green and Gold – A dependable route to Grand National Profit

The hugely competitive nature off the Grand National ensures that no single trainer or owner can boast an outstanding record in the race.

Nigel Twiston-Davies is the only handler to have captured more than a single Grand National victory in the past 30 years. In the same period jockeys Carl Llewellyn, Ruby Walsh and Leighton Aspell landed a pair apiece.

As far as successful owners are concerned, there’s no doubting that Trevor Hemmings stands alone at the head of the field. Finding Grand National contenders has become a serious hobby for the wealthy businessman. And he’s proved particularly adept, with an impressive three victories in the past 13 years. Hedgehunter, Ballabriggs and Many Clouds were the successful trio and he’ll be looking for a fourth on Saturday.

Irish racehorse owner JP McManus stands at just one victory in the world’s greatest steeplechase, though his recent record suggests that he is the one to keep onside if you’re looking to have a punt on Saturday.

Cause Of Causes was the latest to carry those famous green and gold silks to a prominent finish, when runner-up to One For Arthur last year. It was announced yesterday that the Gordon Elliott-trained chaser has been retired due to a recent injury picked up at Prestbury Park. Though not the biggest, the gutsy stayer was at his best on spring ground, adapting well to the unique national fences. He was also talented enough to land a hat-trick of victories at the Cheltenham Festival.

In 2016 the McManus colours were carried to fourth-place by the Enda Bolger-trained Gilgamboa. A year earlier Shutthefrontdoor managed a fifth-place finish, whilst in 2014 Double Seven came close to giving AP McCoy another win, before fading to third after the elbow.

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Neptune Collonges landed a dramatic victory in the Grand National of 2012, chinning the McManus owned Sunnyhillboy on the line. It was a heart-breaking day all-round for the Irishman, as not only did he miss out on victory by a nose, but he saw his Gold Cup hero, Synchronised, fatally injured just a month after that glorious success at Cheltenham.

In 2010 the McManus/McCoy combination had one of their greatest days, with the Grand National victory of Don’t Push It. The 10-year-old travelled beautifully throughout and cruised into contention two fences from home. When McCoy asked for an effort the horse gave an emphatic response. The pair returned a year later and ran a cracker off top-weight to finish third behind Ballabriggs.

Anibale Fly and Minella Rocco appear to be JP’s leading contenders for Saturday’s renewal. Both have placed in a Gold Cup, though will be asked to carry plenty of weight as a consequence. There’s a doubt, as the rain continues to fall, of Minella Rocco making the start-line. Jonjo O’Neill has remained adamant that his chaser needs decent ground, and that certainly won’t be the case at Aintree this weekend. Nevertheless, the eight-year-old has undergone a wind operation and connections may decide to take their chance.

Anibale Fly stayed on strongly to finish third in last month’s Gold Cup. That run suggested that a marathon trip such as the national would prove ideal. Tony Martin’s eight-year-old is by French stallion Assessor, and ought to therefore cope admirably with testing conditions. The concern is, of course, the 11-7 that he’ll need to haul over the 30 fences, though there’s no doubting his class.

Anthony Honeyball has had an outstanding season and has a decent contender in Regal Encore. Sporting the famous green and gold, this fella finished a respectable eighth in the race 12 months ago and ran a cracker when a staying-on third in the Ladbroke Trophy (formerly the Hennessy). He arrives here off the same handicap mark as 12 months ago and at 33s looks to have a great each-way chance.

A couple of weeks back I wrote of the potential contenders for Trevor Hemmings. He has a cracking national record and though the weather may rule out the Paul Nicholls-trained Vicente, he still has a pair of decent each-way propositions in Vintage Clouds and Warriors Tale. Both will appreciate testing ground, and in Sean Bowen, the latter has a jockey that excels in these marathon events.

This pair of wealthy businessmen share a common passion for our wonderful sport. And their continued success in the world’s most famous race, gives hope to punters, as they search for potential winners in this ultra-competitive event.

The Lanzarote Hurdle – Nicky to nick-it from Nicholls

Kempton’s Lanzarote Hurdle was established in 1978 and originally run over two miles. In 2007 the race was extended to its current trip of 2m5f.

In the 10 renewals since the change in trip, just three winners have carried more than 11 stone to victory. Paul Nicholls and Nick Williams have landed three apiece in that period, with Modus winning for team Ditcheat 12 months ago.

Six-year-olds have been dominant in recent times, with the race tending to favour a progressive type with few hurdling miles on the clock. Three of the past 10 winners had only run three times over hurdles, prior to landing this valuable event. Despite the race usually attracting a fair-sized field, shocks have proved rare. Of the past nine renewals, Micheal Flips at 9/1 was the biggest price winner.

Nicky Henderson is responsible for the front two in the betting for tomorrow’s renewal. Diese Des Bieffes is only a five-year-old, and has had just three outings over hurdles. He was runner-up to classy novice If The Cap Fits last time at Kempton. Outpaced during that two-mile contest, he stayed on strongly in the home straight, and it would be a surprise if this extended trip didn’t prove ideal. He’s by popular French stallion Martaline, responsible for classy types including Dynaste, Disko and Agrapart. Leading juvenile hurdler We Have A Dream is also among his progeny. Henderson’s youngster is set to carry 11-2, though 5lb claimer Mitchell Bastyan appears booked for the ride. This fella looks to have a huge chance.

William Henry will carry top-weight and is challenging his stablemate at the top of the market. He came down on chase debut and has reverted to hurdles. A classy novice last term, he was runner-up to Wholestone at Cheltenham last January, with Poetic Rhythm five-lengths back in third. The strength of that form has been well advertised this winter, and of those at the top of the handicap, he looks the class act.

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Bags Groove joins him at the top of the pile. Harry Fry’s seven-year-old won a Pertemps Qualifier at Kempton in November, but is raised 5lbs for that effort. This looks more competitive, and I’m far from sure that he has enough improvement left to win off this latest mark.

Paul Nicholls has enjoyed plenty of success in the race, and has another leading contender in Topofthegame. The six-year-old is lightly raced, with just four starts under rules, and is another reverting to hurdles after falling on his only chase outing. He was some way behind William Henry in the race at Cheltenham, though was a huge raw baby at the time. There’s every chance that he can turn that form on its head, especially as he gets 6lb from that rival. He’s by Flemensfirth, and as such should have no problem with conditions. He should go close.

Nick Williams has a couple lurking at the bottom end of the handicap. With such an outstanding record in the race, the Devon trainer cannot be dismissed. Dentley De Mee looks the one to keep an eye on. The five-year-old has had just three outings over hurdles, and though he’ll need to improve plenty to be competitive here, there’s every chance that he could do exactly that. He gets the best part of a stone or more from the leading protagonists, and it would be no surprise to see him sneak into a place.

Owner JP McManus captured last year’s event, and has one of the favourites this time in the Alan King-trained River Frost. He was fifth in a strong renewal of the Silver Trophy at Chepstow in October, and that form certainly gives him a chance here. He too is lumbered with top-weight, and will be ably assisted by Barry Geraghty; twice a winner of this race in the last five years. This six-year-old is clearly a player, but I’m not convinced he’s quite good enough.

Siding with Paul Nicholls or Nicky Henderson is often a sensible decision, and I think the pair have this race between them. I’m just favouring Diese Des Bieffes over Topofthegame, though I fancy it’ll be close.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

Up and at ’em – Irish Jumpers catch the eye

As National Hunt fans make their first pilgrimage to Cheltenham on Friday, we can be sure that the Jumps season is now well underway.

Sceau Royal, Yanworth, Finian’s Oscar and The New One have already opened their accounts and got our pulses racing. Tizzard, Henderson and Nicholls will be taking the wraps off their stable stars in the coming weeks, as Wetherby, Aintree, Haydock and Newbury all play host to exciting and prestigious meets.

But it’s to Ireland we will go for today’s piece, focusing on several eye-catchers that have already shown ‘star quality’ at this early stage of the campaign.

Petit Mouchoir is hardly a selection from leftfield, indeed he’s already favourite for the Arkle Chase at Cheltenham next March. Nevertheless, it would be remiss of me not to mention his stunning debut over fences at Punchestown last week. This fella was high-class over hurdles, finishing third in the Champion Hurdle and rated in the low 160s. His transition to the larger obstacles was seamless. Slick and virtually foot-perfect throughout, he was never asked a question by Davy Russell as he pulled effortlessly clear of a talented and ‘match-fit’ Brelade, to win by seven-lengths. He has a high cruising speed and makes a lovely shape over his fences. I thought he looked a potential star.

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Another Gigginstown inmate who looks sure to have a productive winter is Road To Respect. Trained by Noel Meade, this six-year-old continues on a steep upward curve, and won the Irish Daily Star Chase at Punchestown last week, despite jumping out to his left throughout. Stepping up in trip for the 3m1f contest, he defeated plenty of useful staying chasers including Sub Lieutenant and Minella Rocco. He finished the race powerfully and as a relative youngster, should have a fair amount of improvement to come. It’s always tough to judge just how ‘tuned-up’ these stayers are for their seasonal bow, but nevertheless, this was an impressive performance, and he’s sure to prove more effective going left-handed.

Death Duty is yet another exciting Gigginstown six-year-old, and has already landed a couple of novice chase events despite us only being in October. He had a terrific campaign over hurdles, though ultimately came up just shy of the best. However, he always looked likely to improve when sent chasing and that appears the case. I felt his debut at Tipperary was a scrappy affair, and he looked awkward at several obstacles. However, his second effort at Punchestown was much better, as he tanked along jumping impeccably throughout. That win came at 2m2f, which appears a little short, though he’s a free going sort who loves to get on with things. Two and a half miles may be as far as he needs at this point of his career.

Connections also look to have a very exciting young hurdler in the undefeated five-year-old Samcro. He’s one of the latter crop of youngsters from the National Hunt Stallion Germany (died 2013, also responsible for Faugheen), out of a Saddler’s Hall mare. Yet another trained by Gordon Elliott, he’s a powerful traveller and a beautiful mover. He’s very much in the mould of Faugheen and could prove to be top class. He won his hurdles debut with the minimum of fuss, tanking along throughout, before cruising clear to win by 15 lengths. He looks a beast.

Another youngster that made an eye-catching debut over hurdles was the juvenile Espoir D’Allen. By Voix Du Nord (yet another cracking NH Stallion no longer with us), he’s owned by JP McManus and trained by Gavin Cromwell. The same connections have had a great time with Jer’s Girl, and this ex-French inmate looks another useful recruit. A little untidy at times over his obstacles, he remained full of running through the line and looks to have a bright future. JP McManus farms high-class hurdlers, so this fella needs to be watched.

Finally, a mention for Gordon Elliott’s talented young filly Fayonagh, who tragically lost her life on the gallops yesterday. The Champion Bumper winner had won five of her six career starts, including a pair at Grade One level. Just a couple of weeks back she won her hurdling debut and all looked set for a thrilling campaign. Elliott and his team will be gutted.

Punchestown – The Brits Are Back For More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning National Heroes

We are now little more than a week away from one of the World’s most famous sporting events, the Grand National at Aintree.

It’s a race that has produced legends of the sport, both equine and human. A double-act that stand head and shoulders above the rest, are of course Ginger McCain and Red Rum. McCain was a no-nonsense Southport car-dealer, who took over training duties for a horse that was to become the greatest in Grand National history. Red Rum dominated the marathon event like no other. In a five-year stretch from 1973 until 1977, he was victorious three times and runner-up twice.

The horse became a national treasure, opening fairground rides at Blackpool, and even switching on the illuminations. An injury forced an end to his racing career prior to the 1978 renewal, and he enjoyed a long retirement before dying at the age of 30 in 1995. It was only right and proper that he should be buried near the winning post at Aintree, the perfect resting place for the National hero.

Returning successfully year after year, in a race that puts a horse to the test like no other, was a truly remarkable achievement. Many have multiple attempts at the Aintree showpiece, though few manage to land a blow on second and third appearances. Some, however, did manage to make their mark in the toughest race of them all, and it’s a period in the mid-2000s that I wish to take a closer look at in today’s piece.

Hedgehunter had all the physical attributes to become a terrific staying chaser, and so it proved. Carrying the famous silks of Trevor Hemmings, the classy gelding was trained by Willie Mullins. A fourth-place finish in the Hennessy at Newbury; third in the Welsh National and then winner of the Thyestes Chase at Gowran, appeared the perfect preparation for his assault at the Grand National of 2004.

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Among the favourites for the race, the eight-year-old jumped and travelled like a dream throughout, and looked the likely winner turning for home. However, stamina quickly evaporated, and he crumpled on landing over the last, leaving Clan Royal and Amberleigh House to fight out the finish. The former almost took the wrong course, having to be dragged back on track nearing the elbow. The latter, trained by non-other than Ginger McCain, took his opportunity, getting up late for a famous victory.

If Hedgehunter proved frail in 2004, it was certainly not the case a year later, when he returned with a devastating performance to capture the great race. This time he’d prepped with a win in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse, and under a super-cool ride from Ruby Walsh, he sauntered to a stunning success, hitting the line 14 lengths clear. Clan Royal had looked a serious challenger, but was carried out by loose horses at Becher’s Brook when still five lengths clear. Hedgehunter took over in front, and looked the likely winner from then on. Ruby remained motionless until the elbow. It was a colossal performance.

He almost won the Gold Cup a year later, losing out to War Of Attrition at Cheltenham. Though lumbered with top-weight, he was still sent-off joint favourite at Aintree, as he attempted to win for the second year in a row. Once again, the JP McManus owned Clan Royal proved a major threat, as the pair jostled for the lead late-on. But heading to the elbow it was an Irish challenger, Numbersixvalverde, that proved the biggest threat. Hedgehunter was unable to withstand the late charge, and came off second best, though lost little in defeat. Clan Royal battled on bravely for third.

Hedgehunter’s Aintree story continued in 2007 and 2008, as he attempted to land the prize for the second time. Burdened with top-weight each time, he ran with great promise on both occasions before fading late-on, coming home ninth behind Silver Birch, and then thirteenth to Comply Or Die. That final effort came at the age of 12, and soon after the race connections took the sensible decision to retire the classy warrior.

Hedgehunter had amassed prize money of more than three quarters of a million pounds. His Grand National achievements are some way short of the mighty Red Rum, yet many would argue that his Aintree challenge came in a very different era. The history of the great race is littered with heroic efforts from horses that returned year on year. Next week’s renewal will prove no different, with The Last Samuri, looking to go one better than 12 months ago. Kim Bailey’s nine-year-old has the look of a Grand National regular, and another mighty challenge can be expected.

The Champion Hurdle – He Who D’Airs Wins

The showpiece on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is the Champion Hurdle.

Established in the late-1920s, it has possibly the most glittering roll of honour of all National Hunt races. The 1970s was a truly golden period for the race, with equine legends such as Comedy of Errors, Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon, battling for the coveted crown of Champion Hurdler.

The Nicky Henderson trained See You Then, won three-in-a-row during the 1980s, and the JP McManus owned Istabraq repeated the feat at the end of the 90s. In recent times, Henderson and Mullins have proved the dominant forces, often with horses carrying the famous green and gold silks of McManus, or the pink and green of Rich and Susannah Ricci.

It should come as little surprise then, to see those same connections and trainers prominent in this year’s betting for the race. Despite a particularly tough winter for Willie Mullins and the Ricci’s, with previous winners Faugheen and Annie Power both ruled out through injury, they still have a likely contender towards the head of the market, in Limini. JP McManus has the front two in the market with Henderson’s Buveur D’Air and the Alan King trained Yanworth.

I don’t wish to focus much on those that are missing from the line-up. That’s horse racing for you, and we must now look forward to an enthralling and ultra-competitive renewal, with a field that still contains horses with huge potential.

Last year’s Supreme Novices’ third and the Neptune runner-up are currently vying for top spot in the betting. Both carrying the famous green and gold, Buveur D’Air was switched from his short spell over fences, and proved a comfortable winner of the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown last month. That was his third run of the winter, and he’ll arrive at Cheltenham fit and ready to go. His Supreme Novices’ third, coupled with his victory over Petit Mouchoir at Aintree last April (a race that saw Limini nine lengths back in third), leaves Henderson’s six-year-old rightly in my books, at the head of the betting.

That Aintree success showed that he has the necessary battling qualities, along with the ability to travel powerfully though a race.

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Yanworth proved no match for Yorkhill in last year’s Neptune, but at the minimum trip over hurdles is yet to be defeated. He’s a tough one to judge, and it’s understandable that some have been left underwhelmed by his performances this winter. He struggled to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller at Ascot in November, and then was the first under pressure ion the Christmas Hurdle, before staying on best to win. His run in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton hardly sent shockwaves through the division, yet he continues to win, and will undoubtedly be doing his best work late-on when it matters at Prestbury Park.

The worry for Yanworth, is whether he’ll have the basic speed to keep tabs on the leaders, enabling him to land a telling blow up the final hill. He resembles The New One, and like him could find himself having to make up too much ground at a crucial stage.

Petit Mouchoir is next in the betting, and has been impressive through the winter. He’s looked the best of the Irish, thanks to victories in the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion, both at Leopardstown. Ridden boldly from the front, it’s likely that the tactics will continue at Cheltenham, and it will take a good one to pass him. The Irish have a terrific record in the race, having won five of the last six. He’s without doubt a leading contender.

Limini is yet to be supplemented by Team Mullins, though it looks likely after her stunning success on seasonal debut at Punchestown. The stable did the same with Annie Power last year, though I’m pretty sure that Limini is some way shy of Annie P. She certainly has a turn of foot, but at Aintree in April was unable to go with Buveur D’Air and Petit Mouchoir, when the guys put in a sustained effort along the length of the straight.

Nicky Henderson has another contender for the crown in Brain Power. Though he’s been winning handicaps this winter, he announced himself as a horse of substance when third as a novice in the Grade 1 at Punchestown last April, when four lengths adrift of Don’t Touch It and Petit Mouchoir. A strong traveller, he now appears to have matured both physically and mentally, and looks capable of a big performance on the main stage. He needs decent ground to be at his best. If he gets it, he could go very close.

Of the older brigade, you’d have to believe that My Tent Or Yours and The New One have had their chance, and despite several stars being missing, they will still find a few of these a bit too hot to handle. This is a race where six and seven-year-olds have the upper hand, and both look held by Yanworth on the Christmas Hurdle run.

At a price, Ch’Tibello may be the one to take each-way. He’s been running consistently well throughout the winter, seemingly putting in his best effort in the Kingwell last time. I’d be stunned if he won, but Dan Skelton’s six-year-old is a progressive sort, and it’s surprising that he’s 40/1 in places.

Favourites have won four of the last six Champion Hurdles, and I fancy the betting has it about right. Petit Mouchoir is likely to have them stretched at some point, and he’ll take some passing. But I feel this will be Nicky Henderson’s year, and in Buveur D’Air and Brain Power he has two mighty contenders. I’m favouring the former to have both the class and the grit to prevail. Expect Yanworth and Ch’Tibello to be flying late-on as they battle for minor places. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Monday Musings: Being AP

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

Funnily enough, I never really fancied seeing “Being AP”, the documentary film about the period leading up to the 2015 retirement of Sir Anthony McCoy, which had its limited cinema opening and DVD release later that year, but was screened late last night on BBC2, writes Tony Stafford.

It was rather inconveniently placed if you were caught up with the competing snooker final on Eurosport which ended halfway through the McCoy film, but I compromised and saw the bulk of what proved compelling watching.

We knew for many years all about the almost manic drive which characterised 20 consecutive jump jockey championships, but saw here first-hand his total unwillingness to allow such trifles as injury to prevent it happening for the final time.

The domestic trappings of success and his high-level income as J P McManus’ retained jockey were evident as he forced himself through the various periods of rehabilitation onto yet another 200-plus seasonal tally.

This was the season (2014-15) of his fastest ever first 50 winners, designed, as he graphically says: “to sicken everyone else” and make them see the inevitability of the eventual outcome.

But McCoy admits to a glass half-empty mentality. Dave Roberts, his equally-driven agent, who slipped out of the shadows for a rare public appearance throughout the piece, tells him that it will be impossible for anyone to match his 4,000 winners.

“To get 2,000”, says Roberts, “Someone will need to get 100 winners for 20 years.” McCoy has doubled that, yet his slant on that is “yes, I have had more winners than anyone else, but more losers and more falls.” Always, for Sir Anthony, it has been a case of fearing not becoming champion. In this final season, the early dominance led to hopes of a first-ever 300-winner campaign, but when injury ruled that out, the eventual decision was to announce imminent retirement on reaching 200, as he did on Mr Mole on February 7 2015 at Newbury.

Roberts was on hand to escort him back to the paddock, presumably to make sure he would stick by the planned announcement, and sure enough, as Rishi Persad moved in, microphone pushed into the rider’s face for the first interview, remarking on “yet another 200”, AP said: “That’s the last one, I’m retiring at the end of the season”.

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For once the press corps was stunned. It was a big enough event – Betfair Hurdle Day – for the bulk of the media to be on hand, and the news was self-perpetuating, with wife Chanelle later fielding umpteen messages from friends as the couple drove home.

Clearly, Lady McCoy has had a serious challenge to compete with her husband’s riding and admitted selfishness – you have to be selfish as a sportsman, he maintains - but she has come through as an equally strong character.

Many of the nicest images are the way in which she supported him as he rode in races. “Come on Honey” was the usual exhortation from the missus as she watched races like the last Grand National on fourth-placed Shutthefrontdoor. On the day he received his 20th championship title at Sandown, she had both their children with her. In the midst of great emotion all around, the lasting image for me was her ginger-haired infant son Archie oblivious to it all in his mother’s arms, nonchalantly munching endless soft sweets.

Naturally JP McManus and Jonjo O’Neill were equal participants in this unique story and I expect they both approved of the outcome of what could have ended up an embarrassing sequence of wins and self-satisfaction. Sir Anthony McCoy’s character meant that could never be the case, and indeed the fact he was so worried about what retirement would mean for him also proves he does have some human frailties.

There were plenty of JP stars around over the weekend, with Yanworth not exactly stressing his almost-favourite status for the Champion Hurdle with a narrow win in Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle, but eight years ago Punjabi failed to win that race before beating Celestial Halo and McCoy on Binocular at Cheltenham.

Maybe more worrying for the owner was Jezki’s odds-on defeat by Tombstone at Gowran Park, the latter horse overturning previous form between the pair. Still, Forthefonofit, Dream Berry and Sutton Place, the last-named in a Grade 2 at Navan, kept the green and yellow colours to the fore. Maybe Jezki should try the three miles of the Sun Bets Stayers’ (ex-World) Hurdle, worth a highly acceptable £170,000 to the winner this year.

At nine, Jezki still retains most of his ability, but until Saturday, Zarkandar, another probable for the Stayers’ race, was looking an habitual non-winner, having gone almost four years since his last triumph in the UK. Paul Nicholls’ 10-year-old did win a French Grade 1, easily beating the talented if enigmatic Gemix at Auteuil more than two years ago, but his Haydock win on Saturday offers hope for one more big Festival effort. Winner of the 2011 Triumph Hurdle, Zarkandar appeared at the fixture for the next four years but was absent in 2016.

It must be hard for a smaller trainer to eschew running a decent horse at Cheltenham, but Tom Symonds, 32 today, who escorted Punjabi back to the winner’s enclosure in 2009 when joint assistant trainer at Nicky Henderson’s with Ben Pauling, will not be sending Don Bersy there.

The French-bred, another notable find for Claude Charlet and his France-based ally Joffret Huet, made it three wins in a row for Tom when collecting the Victor Ludorum at Haydock, giving 8lb to the runner-up.

“We didn’t enter him for the Triuimph, and he won’t go to the Fred Winter. We might look at Liverpool,” said Symonds, as ever under the radar. This observer hopes he will break into the next level and owners Sir Peter and Lady Gibbins, who also own the smart pair Hollywoodien and Kaki de la Pree, can help him with that ambition.

On a weekend of some successful and some less-so old-timers, the best performance by far was Cue Card’s 16th win in 35 career starts in the £85,000 to the winner Betfair Ascot Chase. The 2010 Cheltenham Bumper winner and Ryanair Chase victor four years later, it’s hard to see why he shouldn’t go close in a race he might have won a year ago bar a late fall. I trust Michael O’Leary is not too fussed that after his Kempton King George defeat by Thistlecrack, handicapper Phil Smith chose to drop Cue Card  from 176 to 170 before Saturday’s tour de force!

He Who D’Airs – Henderson Switch Pays Off

Nicky Henderson shuffled the pack before playing a pair of aces at Sandown on Saturday.

Early in the week, Buveur D’Air looked set to contest the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, before heading for a shot at the JLT at Cheltenham. But after a change of heart, he was switched to the smaller obstacles, and duly strolled to victory in the Contenders Hurdle. That left the Munir and Souede owned Top Notch to step in, and out-class the opposition in the Grade 1 showpiece.

He’s certainly not the biggest, but that hasn’t stopped Top Notch from being extremely slick and accurate at his fences. He made one mistake out the back, but otherwise put in an immaculate round of jumping. Always travelling powerfully, Daryl Jacob held on to his mount until the last, before sweeping past Baron Alco and pulling five lengths clear. The disappointment of the race was Clan Des Obeaux, who having been sent off a short-priced favourite, failed to cope with the intensity of the event. His jumping became ragged, and he ultimately faded tamely to finish last of the five runners.

Daryl Jacob and connections were winning the Scilly Isles for the third consecutive year, and the jockey said: “It was a great performance. That was a real test for him. He's not the biggest in the world but he makes up for it with his heart. He deserves it. He's very, very consistent and he always tries his heart out. This was a big step and it told us a lot.”

An emotional Nicky Henderson said of the winner: "This is a real favourite. He's nearer a pet than a racehorse. He came as a juvenile hurdler and I thought that was all he ever would be. He had a good year last year. He won the Morebattle (Kelso) and was fifth in the Champion, and had nowhere to go so we tried him over a fence. He was beaten first time out, and then we found him two lovely, easy races, and you could see him grow in stature and confidence. Daryl says the two and a half miles suits him well. It will probably be the JLT he'll go for at Cheltenham.”

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Top Notch is now widely available at 7/1 for the JLT, with connections having finished second in the race 12 months ago, thanks to Bristol De Mai.

Earlier in the day Buveur D’Air had put his Champion Hurdle credentials to the test, and ran-out an easy winner of the Contenders Hurdle. In truth, only Irving looked to be any sort of meaningful opposition, and Nicholls’ hurdler is far from reliable. He had one of his off days, which left Rayvin Black alone in the task of stretching Henderson’s classy youngster. Oliver Sherwood’s eight-year-old did his best from the front, but Barry Geraghty cruised alongside just yards from the post, winning ‘hard-held’ by a length and a half.

Buveur D’Air was a classy novice hurdler, finishing third in the Supreme before beating Petit Mouchoir at Aintree. He forms part of a JP McManus double-act heading for the Champion Hurdle in March, along with Alan King’s Yanworth. Geraghty will have a tough decision to make as the opening day of the Festival draws near. Speaking to ITV Racing, he said: “He did it well. He was very slick over his hurdles. He was a bit sticky at the first, but after that he did it well. The ground is tough, but he obviously did it easily.” And when asked if the horse was a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, Geraghty added: “You'd like to think so.”

Henderson spoke of the winner, and of the switch to hurdles, saying: “I think that has earned him his (Cheltenham) ticket. He's done nothing wrong over fences, but he is very good at this and very talented. I thought it was worth a shot and he had to do what he did. We didn't learn a lot, I just think at this stage of his life he might just be a sharper hurdler than chaser.”

The trainer added: “Barry said he can make a length or two over hurdles with him but not so over fences. He is very quick, slick and pacey. He likes soft ground, but good ground will be fine. It was good enough ground in the Supreme last year, but they just all got first run on him. With a bit of luck, he would have finished second and anything that finishes second to Altior is a good horse.”

Henderson has an outstanding Cheltenham Festival record. Performances at Sandown show that Seven Barrows are assembling another powerful squad that will head to the Cotswolds in March.

McManus Launches Champion Hurdle Assault

The JP MCManus decision to switch Buveur D’Air from fences back to hurdles came as quite a surprise, though it shouldn’t have.

Nicky Henderson’s talented youngster looked sure to be heading for the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March, but suddenly finds himself a live Champion Hurdle contender. JP clearly believes that the Mullins contingent are vulnerable, and now is the time to attack with everything at his disposal.

Binocular in 2010, and Jezki in 2014 are the most recent winners of the Champion Hurdle to carry the famous Green and Gold silks, though it was Istabraq who famously carried the colours to a hat-trick of victories from 1998 to 2000.

This year’s Champion Hurdle is starting to resemble 2014’s, when McManus sent Jezki, My Tent Or Yours and Captain Cee Bee into battle against the Mullins favourite Hurricane Fly, and a young unexposed The New One. On that occasion, Jess Harrington’s charge defeated the more fancied My Tent Or Yours in a thrilling finish, with the ‘Captain’ back in fifth. ‘The Fly’ was then a 10-year-old, and though I hesitate to say it, was probably somewhat past his best. For what it’s worth, it’s my view that The New One was outpaced by the front two before staying on for a third-place finish. Understandably, Mr Twiston-Davies has a different opinion.

The field for this year’s renewal continues to evolve. Annie Power met with a setback and will not be there, and Mullins, though sounding confident, must be a little concerned over the wellbeing of Faugheen. The Champion Hurdle favourite, and winner from 2015, has not been seen on a racecourse for more than a year, and missed his intended return last weekend after a slight muscle issue. Chances are that he will now head directly to Cheltenham in March, without a prep-run. He’s a ‘tank’ of a horse, and is known to improve for a run or two.

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It’s hard to believe that Faugheen will arrive on the opening day of the festival firing on all cylinders. The question is whether a 90% primed ‘Machine’ will be enough to repel a McManus assault.

Yanworth was expected to deliver the sternest challenge, having impressed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Alan King’s seven-year-old was due to run at Sandown this weekend, but has also met with a minor setback and may also now head straight to the Festival. In his ‘Weekender’ column, King, writing before the injury came to light, said: “He could have gone straight to Cheltenham, but he’s had only two races this season, and it’s a long time from the Christmas Hurdle to the Champion. It will do him no harm to have a bit more match practice.”

Unfortunately, yesterday JP McManus' racing manager Frank Berry announced: “He's just met with a small problem. He's tweaked a muscle in behind, it's nothing serious but he can't run this weekend. Hopefully it won't take too long to come right and we can get going with him again. Whether he runs again we'll just have to play it by ear, he could go straight to Cheltenham.” Again, by no means ideal, but at least Yanworth has had a couple of runs this winter.

In his absence, it looks like Buveur D’Air will now head to Sandown for the Contenders Hurdle. It was anticipated that Henderson’s hurdler, turned chaser, turned hurdler, would head north to Kelso in a couple of weeks, but a rather busy Frank Berry announced: “Obviously Buveur D'Air is in at Sandown, so it's still an option. We'll see how he is in the morning and we'll come to a decision then I'd imagine. Nicky had mentioned taking him up to Kelso, so we'll just see.”

On Twitter Henderson tweeted: “Change of plan! With Yanworth not going to Sandown, Buveur will now head there instead. Lots of chopping & changing this week!”

A trip to Sandown means that Henderson now has the top two in the market, with Brain Power already an intended runner. An impressive winner at Ascot prior to Christmas, I’m a huge fan of the horse, but this will come as a major test. He’s bred to become a chaser, and certainly has the physique to excel in that sphere. I’m not sure he’ll possess the speed to cope with Buveur D’Air on Saturday.

Decisions made by McManus have certainly given the Champion Hurdle picture a shake. In Nicky Henderson and Alan King, he has trainers that know how to win the main event in March. A McManus-Mullins clash is on, and let’s just hope that all the main contenders now arrive at the start on a thrilling opening day of the Festival.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – ‘Jonjo Joy’ a Festival Feature

Though his monopoly in Ireland has come under threat this winter, chances are that Willie Mullins will again dominate at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Finding value in a Mullins contender is never easy, with his battalion often going off at restrictive prices. His Supreme Novice Hurdle contender, Melon, is a perfect example. The horse made his hurdling debut a few days back, beating an ordinary field in a 13 runner maiden. Though admittedly visually impressive, he’s now as short as 3/1 to take the Festival opener. The price is based on reputation rather than racecourse performances, and the handler’s outstanding Prestbury Park record of-course.

Success at Cheltenham for Mullins is pretty much nailed-on, but the same cannot be said for any other trainer. Many will be travelling to the Cotswolds full of hope, dreaming of that ‘big win’ on jump racing’s greatest stage. Anyone who doubts the magnitude of such a win should watch the reaction of trainers and owners as they return victorious to the winners’ enclosure during those fabulous four days.

One handler that knows the feeling all too well is Jonjo O’Neill. And he’s become something of a master at plotting the path to success, despite his team often looking to be ‘out of sorts’. He’s lifted major prizes at Cheltenham over the years, including the Gold Cup in 2012 with 8/1 shot Synchronised.

Jonjo’s had a steady flow of Festival winners since the turn of the century. Iris’s Gift was a hugely talented hurdler, finishing second in the Stayers’ of 2003 as a novice, before returning a year later to gain revenge on the mighty French hurdler Baracouda. Rated as high as 173 over the smaller obstacles, it came as a surprise when the powerful grey failed to make an impact over fences.

Though Black Jack Ketchum ultimately failed to reach the lofty heights many had anticipated, his victory in the Albert Bartlett of 2006, then the Brit Insurance, was possibly one of the most eye-catching the festival has seen for many a year. Travelling like a Ferrari among a field of Ford Fiestas, he cruised past his rivals, before scooting clear to win by nine lengths. AP McCoy’s face could not disguise the thrill of the ride on the wonderfully talented gelding.

McCoy had the pleasure of winning aboard Wichita Lineman and Albertas Run in the following years, with the latter winning three times at the Cheltenham Festival. In 2012 Synchronised captured the Gold Cup, and two years later, Jonjo celebrated a trio of festival winners, with Holywell, Taquin Du Seuil and More Of That.

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The latter looked set to dominate the sport after his stunning success in the World Hurdle. That victory came as a raw six-year-old, and in More Of That, Jonjo appeared to have a future superstar. Unfortunately, injury struck during the following campaign, and despite finishing third in the RSA last March, the horse hasn’t yet reached the pinnacle over fences. Nevertheless, he remains a horse to follow when running at Cheltenham, having won four times at the ‘home of jump racing’. His festival target is yet unknown, but he should not be discounted.

Taquin Du Seuil is another with festival pedigree, though he’ll find it tough in March. Despite looking like a horse that needed mud in his youth, his better performances in recent times have come on a sounder surface. His jumping remains an issue, but given a clear round in either the Ryanair or the Gold Cup, he remains an each-way proposition. He ran pretty well in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and is as big as 66/1 for the ‘Blue Riband’.

Holywell has the look of a Jonjo plot, with a handicap mark almost back to the festival winning level of 2014. Expect him to run in the opening day Grade 3 handicap chase. He won it in 2014, and finished runner-up 12 months ago. A pair of 10-year-olds have won the race in the past decade, he could be the third.

He may well line-up against stable companion Beg To Differ, who was last seen running a cracker in the Welsh National. His last run at Cheltenham was poor, but he was second at the track in January 2016, and is on a competitive handicap mark. Still only a seven-year-old, he looks a progressive sort.

Another young chaser who looks to be heading in the right direction, is the JP McManus owned Another Hero. He’s a dour stayer, and was last seen finishing third in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster. He came down in the Irish National last March, and may well be one for the Scottish version in April. If he arrives at Cheltenham, the Fulke Walwyn Handicap Chase looks a possibility, a race the yard won with Sunnyhillboy in 2012. Jonjo had three in the race last year, with Upswing the best of the finishers.

Doesyourdogbite was a little disappointing last time in the Lanzarote at Kempton. He was sent off favourite for the race, but never looked like winning, staying on late for a sixth-place finish. He’s won three of his four hurdle starts, and may well still prove competitive off his current mark, if taking his chance at The Festival. Two and a half miles with a stiff finish may be ideal.

Finally, the horse that maintained Jonjo’s impressive festival record a year ago. Minella Rocco looks set to test his Gold Cup credentials when he goes to Leopardstown in a couple of weeks. He’s fancied to go well in the Irish version, though this will be only his third outing of the winter, following his fall at Aintree behind the ill-fated Many Clouds in December. He won the National Hunt Chase at last year’s festival, beating Native River in the process. That form looks a lot stronger now. I’ve watched that race several times since, and it’s noticeable just how powerfully he travels into contention. He could be a real contender in March, assuming he jumps well enough.

It’s been a tough season to date for Jonjo and his team, with a current strike-rate of just 10%. Don’t be too surprised however, should the master of Jackdaws Castle be stood in the winners’ enclosure during the biggest four days of the Jump racing calendar.

Haslam Goes Green and Gold

The sight of JP McManus green and gold colours, hurtling around tracks such as Ludlow and Hexham, remains a little scarce and somewhat unusual.

One of Ireland’s most influential owners is recognised for his team of horses with Jonjo O’Neill and Nicky Henderson, and their victories during prestigious meetings at Aintree, Kempton or Cheltenham. Yet in recent years, McManus has called upon an array of British trainers, and those famous silks can now ‘pop-up’ at venues throughout the UK.

One trainer who has followed in his father’s footsteps, in building a working relationship with McManus, is North Yorkshire based Ben Haslam. He took over from his father, Patrick Haslam, at Castle Hill Stables back in 2010. The Middleham yard is home to around 40 horses, trained for both the Flat and Jumps. Haslam was only 25 when taking over from his father, yet had managed to gather a fair amount of valuable experience before taking over the main job.

He moved to Middleham as a youngster, and when not at school was able to ride out for his father. He had a brief spell as an amateur, riding a handful of winners, but appeared focused on a career as a trainer. On leaving school he took the decision to travel in search of racing experience, heading to South Africa to work with top trainer Joey Ramsden.

A crucial part of his development came when gaining a scholarship with Sheikh Mohammed. The Darley Flying Start scholarship would allow him to travel around the globe, experiencing all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. Much was learnt at the likes of the Curragh, Kentucky and Dubai, and when returning to England he was fortunate enough to spend time with Sir Michael Stoute at Newmarket.

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Finishing his course in 2006, he returned home and began work as assistant to his father. In 2010, he took over the reins, taking out his full training licence. A relatively small yard, Castle Hill Stables stands next to the castle in the historic racing town of Middleham. It’s a beautiful part of Yorkshire, and a terrific place to train racehorses. Renovated in 2009, the yard has 35 boxes, a couple of barns and that all important horse walker, used for ‘warming-up’ and ‘warming-down’.

Middleham’s famous training centre is a stone’s throw away, providing extensive facilities including a multitude of all-weather and grass gallops, along with an impressive schooling ground. The facilities are used by more than a dozen local handlers.

It was back in 2014 that Haslam’s association with JP McManus began, though the Irishman had first sent horses to the yard back in 2006, when Monsieur arrived to be trained by Haslam Snr. A former Henderson inmate, Prince Of Pirates, along with Ever So Much, were Ben’s first in the famous green and gold. Though the former failed to regain the spark of his early career, Ever So Much has become a huge hit, winning seven times, including two of his last four outings.

The latest batch of McManus stock to arrive also has the potential to bring success to the yard. Dursey Sound won at Hexham on only his second start for Haslam. Held up at the back by Richie McLernon for much of the contest, he travelled powerfully into the race looking the likely winner, before being cajoled into doing just enough to win. He certainly looks capable of further success on the northern circuit.

Saint Charles arrived from Nicky Henderson’s yard, and duly won over fences at Southwell on his first outing for Haslam. He’s run well on a couple of occasions since, and is due out again today. He’s sure to pick up more prizes during the coming season.

The Doorman is another to arrive at the yard in recent weeks. He’d lost his way in Ireland, but is undoubtedly a talented sort. By King’s Theatre out of an Anshan mare, he had strong point to point form before switching to rules. He’s sure to win races, and may start at Ludlow today.

Haslam may have a small crop of horses over the jumps, but with a strike rate of around 33% so far this season, he’s worth a watch in the coming weeks. It’s an exciting time for the Yorkshire trainer, with the prospect of more green and gold capturing prizes in unexpected places.

Beware The Moores – Sandown Specialists Target Imperial Cup

First run in 1907, the Imperial Cup is a Grade 3 handicap hurdle run over a trip of two miles.

For many years various sponsors from Paddy Power to William Hill have offered a substantial bonus to the winners that go on to victory at the Cheltenham Festival. Gaspara was the last to complete the double when going on to take the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at Prestbury Park in 2007. Just a year later Ashkazar almost repeated the feat when second to Crack Away Jack, also in the Fred Winter.

Sadly for the first time since 1991 the bonus will not be on offer, though the race has now found a sponsor, with Close Brothers filling the void. This marks a further expansion of their interest in racing, as the UK merchant banking group already sponsor the novices' handicap on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, and just a few months ago agreed a three-year partnership with the Jockey Club.

With prize money for the race of £70,000 now assured, the event has once again attracted a competitive looking field. Affaire D’Honneur has been all the rage from a betting prospective, after his eye-catching performance at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle. Arzal followed an identical path last year for trainer Harry Whittington, though he will be hoping for a better outcome this time round, with Arzal having been pulled up in last year’s race.

This fella certainly looked capable of building on the Newbury run, when after an atrocious start he still managed to finish in fourth place. He was still at the back of the field turning for home, before powering his way up the Newbury straight. Whittington picked him up from France where he had some decent form, and he looks sure to revel in the testing conditions at Sandown. He runs off a handicap mark of 133, and if Rayvin Black takes his place in the line-up, will carry 10st 10lbs. He looks to have a great chance.

No horse has carried more than 11 stone to victory since Korelo was successful back in 2003. Historically five-year-olds have a terrific record in the race, though only two have won in the last 10 years. Six-year-olds have fared better in recent times, but the ideal profile is undoubtedly a progressive sort with limited hurdling experience. Indeed, six of the last 10 winners had run just six times or less over hurdles.

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Unfortunately in a 15 runner field, 14 participants carry 10st 12lbs or less thanks to the inclusion of Rayvin Black. The age of the contenders also makes it tricky to narrow down the likely protagonists, with no fewer than 10 at the ideal age of five or six.

Philip Hobbs is having a sensational season, and looks set to run the JP McManus owned For Good Measure. This five-year-old has also been popular with punters, and has the progressive profile having won easily on his most recent starts. However, he was winning a four runner affair off a mark of 120 at Exeter last time, beating little of note in the process, and this race is infinitely more difficult. He has to run in a competitive handicap off a 10lb higher mark, and I find him hard to fancy.

Ebony Express took the race 12 months ago and returns for another crack. He’s not shown much so far this winter, but his handicap has dropped accordingly. He looks a rather exposed seven-year-old, and though the handicapper has certainly given him a chance he’s not for me.

‘Beware the Moors’ was a quote from one of my favourite films; An American Werewolf in London. And there’s no doubting that the Moores have struck fear into the hearts of their opponents during an outstanding winter. Their record at Sandown is exceptional, with a 22% strike rate since 2011, which would have yielded a profit of 101.54 on a £1 stake. Quite simply, at Sandown Gary Moore and his team have to be followed.

They have an unexposed hurdler at the bottom of the handicap in Clayton. They changed tactic on the horse last time out, when allowing him to bowl along in front, and he duly hosed up in a maiden hurdle. It’s a tactic ‘Team Moore’ have adopted on numerous occasions in recent times, and this ex classy flat performer is certainly an interesting contender.

Knockgraffon is another with the right sort of profile for the race, having run just three times over hurdles and finished in the first two on each occasion. He’s been running over further but has been keen in his races, and the step back in trip may not be much of an inconvenience. He’s by Flemensfirth and should have no issues with conditions. Trainer Dan Skelton is in the midst of a sparkling spell with eight of his last 10 runners either placed or winning. This fella looks a fair price at 14s and could be in the mix.

Solstice Star also deserves a mention as he attempts a six-timer. His last win came at Cheltenham off a mark of 127 and he’s taken another hike which clearly makes his task that much harder. His progression has been phenomenal, but this looks a tall order.

Affaire D’Honneur, Clayton and Knockgraffon look the ideal unexposed and progressive types to me. It would come as no surprise should Clayton slip the field and hold them all at bay off his feather weight.

McManus targets further Betfair Hurdle Glory

Newbury hosts the prestigious Betfair Hurdle on Saturday, with prize money of £155,000. The two-mile handicap hurdle is renowned for uncovering classy types who go on to strike gold at the highest level.

The race was established in 1963 and originally known as the Schweppes Gold Trophy. The three times Champion hurdler Persian War took the event in 1968. He’d taken the previous season’s Triumph Hurdle and had to haul a hefty 11st 13lbs to victory against 31 opponents.

Make a Stand was another gifted hurdler who won the race during a dominant 1997 campaign. Trained by the legendary Martin Pipe, the six-year-old went on a stunning run of victories culminating in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. He improved by an incredible 55 pounds during the season, taking the opposition apart with a string of devastating front running performances. Having taken the Newbury event by nine lengths he won the Champion Hurdle by five in a performance described by Alastair Down as “a remorseless display of speed and precision hurdling”.

In recent years the race has become a successful target for those looking to head for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at The Festival. Two names in particular stand out, and both carried the famous JP McManus silks.

Get Me Out Of Here took the race in 2010, displaying a stunning ‘turn of foot’ from the last flight. In hindsight he was clearly ‘thrown in’ off a handicap mark of 135. He headed for the Supreme at Cheltenham and came agonisingly close, when beaten a head by Menorah, with the Irish odds on shot Dunguib back in third.

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Three years later My Tent Or Yours carried the famous green and gold to victory in the Betfair Hurdle. He oozed class when taking up the running between the last two hurdles and storming to a five length success. So impressive was the performance that he headed to Cheltenham as a strong favourite for the Supreme Novices’ hurdle. Sadly for JP McManus, Nicky Henderson and AP McCoy, a certain Champagne Fever refused to be passed on that memorable Tuesday in March.

It would be remiss not to mention the ill-fated Darlan, who was unfortunate not to win the race in 2012. He was still travelling powerfully when coming down two from home. He too went on to finish second a month later in the Supreme at Cheltenham. Tragically just a year later he was fatally injured when falling at Doncaster. He was a hugely talented horse, and one feels that his loss left an indelible mark on his trainer Nicky Henderson.

On Saturday it’s the turn of Paul Nicholls to send a JP McManus contender into battle. The famous colours will be carried by several challengers, but it is Modus that looks set to head the market, and has the potential to move on to bigger and better things. A terrific second place in last year’s Champion Bumper identified him as a classy individual, and he followed up with a brilliant third behind Bellshill at the Punchestown Festival.

He’s two from three over hurdles having had his stamina stretched under a penalty when third last time at Taunton in testing conditions. He has course form having won at Newbury back in November, though is likely to be at his best on a sounder surface which he certainly will not get on Saturday.

However, a handicap mark of 139 could prove lenient, and yesterday Nicholls said of his runner: “He was a good bumper horse and we bought him in the summer and sold him to JP. He's a much more mature horse and is getting better all the time. We like him a lot and it's a good race for a novice in that you might be well handicapped whereas in a year you might not be.”

The Champion trainer went on to say: “He's got a lot of ability, but one thing I think is he'll be a lot better on better ground. He can cope with the soft ground. He just lacks a bit of experience, but one thing he does do is jump well. I'm very happy with him and he's a high-class horse. He's a horse who's going to get two and a half miles in time, but he's not slow.”

It’s more than likely that Barry Geraghty will be onboard, further enhancing the chances of the famous green and gold capturing this prestigious event once again. An impressive win would ensure that Modus heads to Cheltenham as a major contender for the Supreme.

Hells Bells-hill – Saturday Shocker

Saturday proved something of a reputation buster, with upsets on either side of the Irish Sea causing inevitable shockwaves on the Cheltenham Festival markets.

Ireland had more than their fair share of shocks with numerous hotpots hitting the buffers. The opener at Leopardstown very much set the tone for the afternoon. Ivanovich Gorbatov had started the day as the Triumph Hurdle favourite on the back of an impressive hurdle debut at the track over Christmas. Strongly fancied to follow up, he struggled to go with the strong pace set by Jer’s Girl and Let’s Dance. In trouble turning for home he failed to land a blow and finished 10 lengths back in fourth.

The Willie Mullins trained Footpad stayed on best of all for a surprise win, further strengthening the juvenile stronghold of owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. They now have three of the top six in the Triumph Hurdle betting, having taken first and second in last year’s renewal. The winner is built for fences and appeared well suited by the testing conditions. Quicker ground at Cheltenham would prove problematic, though he’ll be flying up that hill.

Let’s Dance stayed on well for third in Saturday’s race, despite having done much of the donkey work up front. Her action suggests she’ll be suited by a sounder surface and I was taken by her performance. She’s lightening quick over her obstacles and looks to have a bright future.

The demise of Ivanovich Gorbatov will have surprised many, but he had surely been over-hyped on the evidence of just one run. Bellshill on the other-hand had a strong bumper campaign and several impressive victories over hurdles on his CV. Challenging Yanworth at the head of the Neptune market, he was sent off strong favourite for the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. Nevertheless, he too had his inflated reputation punctured when trailing home third, behind surprise winner Bleu Et Rouge and Gordon Elliott’s Tombstone.

Sent on by Ruby Walsh he led until approaching the final flight, but had no answer to the powerful finishes of the front two. Tombstone loomed large at the last, but it was the McManus owned runner, also trained by Mullins, who found most for pressure, scooting clear for victory. He’d run with great promise when finishing behind Tombstone and Long Dog at Christmas, but was ridden more prominently this time round by Barry Geraghty.

The jockey is already set to partner Neptune favourite Yanworth at Cheltenham, but Mullins suggested that race would be the likely target for Bleu Et Rouge, saying: “He ran very well here at Christmas and he learned an awful lot so after talking to Mark (Walsh), Barry went out there with a bit of confidence. The horse looked a bit green going to the last, but Barry thought if he could keep a little bit up his sleeve for after the last, he might beat Tombstone, which he did. All the jockeys are saying the ground is very testing so another two or three furlongs of the Neptune might suit him.”

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It was a taking performance from an improving sort, though the win probably only served to strengthen the confidence in a Yanworth success in March. The result was however another boost for the form of the Future Champions Novice winner Long Dog. He’s likely to head for the Neptune with spring ground at Cheltenham sure to suit.

Gigginstown jockey Bryan Cooper had voiced concerns over the testing ground as the Irish Gold Cup approached. And so it proved when race favourite Road To Riches appeared unable to cope with the testing conditions, finishing a well-beaten second to last year’s winner Carlingford Lough. Noel Meade’s charge lacked his usual zest and though showing plenty of guts to be involved in the finish, never looked like coming out on top.

The race appeared to be going the way of Gigginstown’s Valseur Lido, but a last fence blunder plunged Ruby Walsh into the dirt, leaving the way clear for the strong finishing McManus owned runner.

After the race a deflated Meade spoke of Road To Riches, saying: “Watching the race I was never happy and Bryan came back and said the horse was never really carrying him. We always feared the ground and maybe that contributed to the way he ran. We'll see how he comes out of it and then make plans.”

On Sunday the trainer appeared more enthusiastic when saying: “He seems to be OK, which is good. I think they just went too quick. He never got into a rhythm, and was back and forth a bit in the race. He was only just beaten in the Gold Cup last year so I think he should go back there again. Good ground would help him but it's up to the owners which race they want to go for.”

It’s clear that Meade feels his horse has a chance in the Gold Cup, but the owners have Don Poli, Don Cossack and Valseur Lido all vying for a place on the starting line. Road To Riches has proven himself capable of winning over shorter, and the bookies probably have it right with the horse as short as 5/1 for the Ryanair.

Many pushed him out to 20s for the Gold Cup and they were doing the same with Peace And Co after his lacklustre performance at Sandown. Henderson’s Champion Hurdle hope has done little right so far this winter, and this latest setback surely ends all hope of a win at Cheltenham in March. Or so you would think.

Despite another desperate performance his trainer refuses to throw in the towel, and a check on Peace And Co’s breathing is now on the agenda, with Henderson saying: “It's been a bit of a hotch-potch preparation in that, as you know, we were trying to run a fortnight ago and although we mended it pretty quick, when you miss three days you might as well miss a week. It wasn't ideal. I'm not making excuses; he will come on for the race quite a lot. But that's not the point really - he switched off, he jumped well, he travelled well, he just didn't come home.”

Time of course is running out with The Festival just a month away. The Irish are coming, and they’ll take some stopping.

Coolmore take a Walk In The Park

Just how much of a statement of intent is the purchase of Walk In The Park by Coolmore?

The official announcement came yesterday that the sire of both Douvan and Vautour will now stand at Grange Stud along with the likes of Flemensfirth, Milan and Westerner. The 14-year-old son of Montjeu began his career at stud in France in 2008. He was due to continue at Haras de la Huderie in Normandy at a fee of €3,500 before the move to Ireland.

Stud manager Albert Sherwood said of the purchase: “Douvan and Min are two of the most exciting young horses around so we're delighted to have secured him. As well as getting great racehorses he gets sales horses too with one of his foals topping Goffs December at €70,000.”

An athletic racehorse, Walk In The Park was placed in all his runs as a juvenile before finishing second in the Epsom Derby to Motivator in 2005. His career at stud had proven somewhat lukewarm until the Mullins duo burst onto the scene, and clearly further progeny will now come under greater scrutiny.

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Coolmore’s action to purchase the stallion comes during a season when Joseph O’Brien has launched an assault on the Irish National Hunt scene. Training for JP McManus out of his father’s original yard at Owning Co Kilkenny, the O’Brien National Hunt wing is expected to expand under the backing of McManus. Though his father Aidan’s name appears as trainer, it is understood that this is son Joseph’s first step into the training ranks.

The season has been going well with another exciting winner in the bumper at Leopardstown over the weekend. Aspen Colorado swept to a stylish victory and has now been installed as favourite for the Cheltenham Champion Bumper. The stable also have the favourite for the Triumph Hurdle. Ivanovich Gorbatov won at Leopardstown over the Christmas period, comfortably getting the better of Willie Mullins’ young filly Let’s Dance. The son of Montjeu was pretty slick over his obstacles and is now three from four under rules.

It will come as no surprise to see that the yard’s strongest division is the team of young bumper runners. A winter of 16 wins from 31 runs tells its own story. This compares to just three wins from 10 runs the year before. Long term plans are uncertain, but there’s little doubt that Joseph has already made an impact.

The addition of Walk In The Park to Coolmore’s roster could well provide O’Brien with quality jumpers down the line, giving JP McManus the ammunition to challenge Ricci and Gigginstown at the very highest level.

It’ll soon be a decade since the mighty Istabraq set out on a career of dominance over hurdles. This winter has already hinted at exciting times ahead for team O’Brien over the jumps. With so much talk of a Mullins monopoly, maybe a familiar foe is about to launch a challenge on the Irish National Hunt scene.