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A Racing “Guess Who”

When people have been around the racing game for a while, especially when they haven’t had the good fortune to crack it in the way of a Henderson or an Aidan O’Brien, a good way of teasing out their identity is to offer snippets from their lifetime, writes Tony Stafford.

We all know about Mr Frisk, the Kim Bailey-trained Grand National winner ridden by the amateur Marcus Armytage, son of trainer Roddy and brother to the first female Hennessy Gold Cup winning rider Gee, later Tony McCoy’s secretary.

Marcus was subsequently a colleague of mine at the Daily Telegraph – indeed he is still there. But our mystery man beat the youthful Old Etonian to it, winning five chases in a row, and unbeaten in six on the gelding in an invincible season as a novice, at one point telling an interviewing journalist that he and Mr Frisk would win the Grand National. Events would subsequently conspire for the combination of horse and jockey to be broken through no fault of our rider.

Next clue, born and bred in West Ham, East London, he went to the same school as did - a good few years earlier of course - Michael Tabor and the late and much-loved David Johnson, owner of all those wonderful jumpers with Martin Pipe. Our hero’s father Norman, youngest of a family of 13 after serving with distinction in the army, joined the Daily Telegraph as a printer.

In the days of hot metal linotype he and his many skilled colleagues would stand one side of the “stone”, the flat piece of the print room’s furniture along which the individual pages would be laid out and constructed. He would help the sub-editor – very often me on the racing pages – standing on the other side to fit it all in from my upside-down, back-to-front perspective. My job was assisted by having paper printers’ single long “takes” of the individual stories and racing cards which had to be cut to length – rather different nowadays with instant editing for all, not least without all the sensitivities of not crossing other unions’ demarcation lines.

Knowing what and how much to cut was the key but a good stone man on the other side made it easy and Norman knew his stuff all right. I loved those days and can still read newspapers upside down – maybe not the most helpful attribute these days, rather like knowing Latin declensions and conjugations!

A bit sketchy so far, well how about this? At 6ft 2 1/2inches he was the tallest jump jockey of his time. One season he broke his right collarbone nine times; it was only when ironically riding Bailey’s Just For The Crack at Newbury that both went in the same fall.

After retiring from race riding in the mid-1990’s he would not begin training in his own right for a few years, instead working as Norman Mason’s assistant – the assistant to the amusement machine magnate from the North-East was in effect the trainer.

Mason also had a Grand National winner, but Red Marauder’s success in 2001 when one of only four finishers happened after the mystery man’s departure having overseen his novice win. He was already setting up his own stable by then. What has defined him in the intervening two decades has been his extreme patience waiting, it seems, forever to land a touch for his owner, then carrying it off with certainty.

If you haven’t got it yet you never will so here we go - say hello to Alan Jones. From West Ham to the West Country via Northumberland has been a stretch. He still stands just as tall and with a season-best of ten a while ago and more likely four or five every term from his ten-strong string of individually and minutely prepared jumpers, he keeps the show going for his owners.

One of them enjoyed such a winning punt on his veteran horse Tiquer in the winter of 2017-18 that he decided to invest at a higher level. “He won 140 grand”, recalls Alan, “so decided to go to Goff’s in Ireland that October to look for a smart yearling. He had been using an agent but he thought his fees excessive, so he asked me to go along and find a nice filly for around 100-110k”, recalls Alan.

“We started with a dozen but boiled it down and eventually settled on a Camelot filly. To my surprise we got her for €100,000. The wind came out of my sails a bit when the owner sent her to Richard Hannon, but she was from a major Coolmore source, consigned by Timmy Hyde’s Camas Park stud, so you would have expected her to go to a big Flat yard. In any case, he is my biggest owner so you’d want to keep him happy.

“Of course, I kept my ear to the ground, listening for news on how she was doing at Hannon’s. It seemed she didn’t make the expected progress and it was as much an economy measure as anything else when I was asked to take her for the winter as a two-year-old”, said Jones. The next season as a three-year-old soundness was again an issue with her so it was back again to Mr Jones for some more rest and recuperation.

Ironically, recalls Jones, it was just when he detected the filly was starting to shape up that the owner nearly brought the project to an untimely end. “She was improving every day and then suddenly there was a potential buyer wanting to send her to stud unraced. I told the owner I thought we could still do something with her and luckily he finally agreed.”

Thus on Sunday, prepared on the same type of hill up which Martin Pipe, who in Jones’s estimation, completely changed the science of training racehorses, Lady Excalibur was finally ready to go.

The chosen target, a bumper at Stratford last Sunday, came along 1,021 days after Alan Jones signed the docket to re-invest that big chunk of his owner’s massive touch. After the event he reckoned “she’s not quick” but if you watch the video of where she is turning for home and where she is at the finish with Tom O’Brien sitting pretty you might have another opinion. The world is her oyster and whatever she does on the track she will always have a value as a potential broodmare.

As Tom told him afterwards, “You are just like my Uncle Aidan, you can perform miracles. This one certainly is”. Praise indeed, but when your stable is limited to a handful of animals, candidates for such miracles come along only rarely. In 60-year-old Alan Jones’ case 1,021 days from purchase to payoff is a bit of a sprint!

- TS

Bailey asserts trainers and owners should take lead in care of retired horses

Kim Bailey insists it is the responsibility of his fellow trainers, and owners, to ensure ex-racehorses are properly cared for throughout their lives.

Bailey, who has trained the winners of all the top National Hunt races in a career stretching over more than 30 years, described the covert footage of abattoirs broadcast by the BBC’s Panorama programme as “horrific” and “horrendous”.

He stressed too, however, that it is incumbent on those who own and look after horses in their racing years to do all they can to help provide a safe and comfortable home for them afterwards.

Monday night’s Panorama documentary broadcast scenes of horses about to be euthanised at an abattoir in Swindon – reporting many had arrived there after gruelling and inhumane transportation from Ireland.

The British Horseracing Authority has responded by calling urgent meetings to discuss the troubling issues with industry leaders, including the independently-chaired Horse Welfare Board, and their counterparts at Horse Racing Ireland.

Bailey told Sky Sports Racing: “You can keep re-funding and adding more funds as long as you want to – but the end product is it is up to the trainers, I believe, to make sure the horses they have in their own care find a home afterwards whereby they can be looked after and treasured for the rest of their lives.

“I think it’s something trainers need to point out to owners that, when they get involved in racing, they are as responsible as we are to make sure those horses – when they leave racing – have a future.

“You just can’t get involved in a horse and say ‘well, actually it’s stopped racing now – I want to get rid of it’.

“They’ve got to hold on to responsibility themselves. It’s a dual responsibility, from the trainers’ point of view and the owners’ to make sure we look after where horses go after racing.”

Also crucial, Bailey believes, is the administrative infrastructure which allows the movement of ex-racehorses to be properly tracked.

Kim Bailey (left) with Harry Topper after his victory in the 2014 Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury
Kim Bailey (left) with Harry Topper after his victory in the 2014 Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“I think it’s incredibly important,” he said.

“We pass on horses on a regular basis – I think we’ve moved on about 20 this summer.

“We interview the people who are taking the horse on, (and) we get references from the people who are having them.

“They have to keep in touch with me during the entire time they have the horse. If at any stage during that period they find they can’t cope, for financial reasons or they find the horse is not suitable for them, the horse has to come back here – and then we can try again.”

One such horse was Bailey’s former Grade Two-winning chaser Harry Topper.

He added: “Harry Topper – who was a very good horse for me some years ago – we rehomed him three times.

“The third time, we found the ideal home for him in Ireland with a person who used to look after him when she was here.

“They go from here with a view that, if it doesn’t work out, they have to come back – so they can’t disappear.”

Enhanced governance by racing authorities can only help further.

“You can certainly push on the governing situation,” said Bailey.

“They have a microchip – horses are, like a human, (in that) they have a passport. They are there to see if we can trace where they’ve gone to.

“How far do you go to regulate the situation?

“There are always going to be (cases) whereby horses do not end up in the ideal home – and a decision has to be made as to what happens to that horse.

“But it should be a joint decision between the owner and trainer as to what you do next.”

Bailey was especially concerned by Panorama’s reports that many horses – including former top chaser Vyta Du Roc – had to endure transportation from Ireland to the abattoir in Swindon.

“I thought that was probably the most horrific part of the whole programme,” he said.

“I’m sure Ireland have their own abattoirs – (so) I cannot understand why horses had to be dragged from Ireland to Swindon. It made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.

“I think that’s one area we need to really push to find out why that happens – because (the horse) should never have been in the situation it was, to go from one country to the next.”

Panorama’s abattoir has caused great consternation – as have claims that contaminated horse meat found its way into the human food chain via fraudulent practice.

The Food Standards Agency, which regulates abattoirs, responded in a statement which read: “Upholding animal welfare and the safety and authenticity of the food we eat is a top priority for Government.

“The Food Standards Agency and Defra work closely with food businesses and slaughterhouses to ensure that animal welfare is maintained at all stages of food production and that all our food is correctly labelled and safe to eat.

“The FSA has asked Panorama to supply the footage that has been obtained during this investigation. If there is any evidence of mistreatment of animals, they will take action and investigate thoroughly.”

Bailey added: “The programme showed racing in a bad light, but it also showed the abattoir world is in a far worse place than we are.

“Their welfare regulations are obviously not as stringent as they rather hoped they are.

“To see what we saw last night – which was nothing to do with racing – is just awful, and you have to work on the theory that the abattoirs need to get themselves under control, because what they showed us last night was just horrific.

David Menuisier agrees with his fellow trainer Kim Bailey about the responsibility of care provided to ex-racehorses
David Menuisier agrees with his fellow trainer Kim Bailey about the responsibility of care provided to ex-racehorses (PA)

“Anybody who has to watch those sort of scenes, it’s horrendous to see.”

Flat trainer David Menuisier underlined his belief too that trainers owe a debt to their former charges when their racing days are over.

He said: “I think the pictures we saw last night were absolutely disgusting.

“People who are in the sport are basically there because they love horses, they are animal lovers – and what we saw last night (in the abattoir footage) was just atrocious.

“I’m trying to rehome a horse now who I’ve cared for three or four years. I’ve had a few phone calls, but I want to meet the people and make sure they are right for him before anything is agreed.

“I think we possibly need to look at better traceability for horses after they leave racing, but many horses do go on to have a happy retirement.

“We are nothing without them, and we owe it to them to make sure they have happy lives. We need to make sure from A to Z, like humans, they are cared for and treated well.”

Select repeat at Sandown for Younevercall

Younevercall repeated his victory of two years ago in the bet365 Select Hurdle at Sandown, in a race of changing fortunes.

Kim Bailey’s 10-year-old landed the last renewal of the race in 2019 and having shown some solid form this season, headed the market at 5-2.

It was far from a straightforward victory, however, as Call Me Lord, On The Blind Side and Indefatigable all looked likely at one stage or another.

Younevercall usually likes to make all, but while he was headed at various stages on this occasion he never dropped out of contention.

On The Blind Side was the first one to crack and then when Call Me Lord made a hash of two from home his chance was gone.

David Bass resisted in throwing everything at Younevercall until after the last and he saw the trip out really well to beat Indefatigable by half a length.

Bass said: “This race was the perfect one for him because even though he’d won it, that was two years ago and he didn’t have to carry a penalty so he was well-in at the weights.

“He likes to be fresh and I thought he looked amazing in the parade ring.

“The race didn’t always go as I’d hoped, but he really thrives on a right-handed track and saw it out well.”

Bailey sets Two For Gold Topham test

Kim Bailey already has next year’s Grand National in mind for Two For Gold as he gives the eight-year-old a first taste of the famous fences in the Randox Topham Handicap Chase at Aintree.

Two For Gold has had a good second season over fences – beating Aso at Warwick in February before finishing third to Grand National favourite Cloth Cap at Kelso last month, with other big-race hopefuls Definitly Red and Lake View Lad behind him.

“The owners are very keen, as we are, to see him over the National fences,” said Bailey.

“We think he’s going to be a Grand National horse in a year’s time, so this is a good place for him to learn, and we’ll see how he gets on.

“It’ll be an interesting race, as it always is.”

The likely favourite on Friday is the Willie Mullins-trained Livelovelaugh, who will be ridden by the trainer’s son Patrick.

The 11-year-old, who finished 11th in the 2019 Grand National, has been running well in defeat this season – but has not managed to get his head in front in more than three years.

Mullins said: “I was actually angling to try and get Livelovelaugh to go for the Foxhunters’ this year, because he hasn’t won for a few years, but they decided to keep him going in normal racing.

“He’s been running very consistently. He’s an 11-year-old with 11 stone, so I don’t think the stats say he has as good a chance as the betting does.

“But he jumped fantastically for David Mullins in the National a couple of years ago when he didn’t stay, and the trip will suit and the ground will suit.

“I think he should give me a great spin.”

Willie Mullins also saddles Robin Des Foret, of whom Mullins junior added: “He’s a similar type of horse – he likes good ground, he’s a good jumper and a strong traveller.

“He needed his run back in Clonmel. He’s got plenty of weight, but the race will suit.”

Kauto Riko, last seen finishing fourth in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham in November, is set to take his chance in the Topham because he is only third reserve for the Grand National on Saturday.

The 10-year-old’s trainer Tom Gretton said: “We were hoping he’d get in the National, but I think we’re struggling.

“He runs best fresh. He ran well at Cheltenham in November, and if he could run like that it would be ideal.

“He was going to run in January at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day and/or Trials Day. They were both lost to the weather, then I didn’t want to run before Cheltenham or Aintree, and we decided on Aintree.

“He had a racecourse gallop and had a school over over Aintree-style fences twice this week.”

Alex Hales has had this race as the objective for Huntsman Son since the start of the season – and was pleased with his run at the Cheltenham Festival when he was sixth in the Paddy Power Plate.

“This has sort of been our plan all year,” said the Northamptonshire trainer.

“We wanted to run him in the Grand Sefton, and the ground went against us.

“I thought he ran very well at Cheltenham. Touch wood, he’s a very good jumper, and I think this race is made for him really.

“He’s got a lovely weight (11st), and I thought he was quite a big price, to be honest.”

The spring is Snugsborough Hall’s time of the year, and Liam Cusack is looking forward to giving the 10-year-old an opportunity over the National fences – with top Irish amateur Derek O’Connor in the saddle.

“He’s in good form, he’s a spring horse and it will be nice ground,” said the County Laois trainer.

“It’s his first time over those fences, but he jumps well.

“We’ve got Derek O’Connor. He’s a top man and has plenty of experience over those fences.

“We’re hoping he runs a nice race and comes back in one piece.”

Henderson expects trip to suit Chantry House

Nicky Henderson is confident the step up in trip can bring the best out of Chantry House the Betway Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

The JP McManus-owned seven-year-old caused a minor upset when landing the two-and-a-half-mile Marsh Novices’ Chase at last month’s Cheltenham Festival, with red-hot favourite Envoi Allen making it no further than the fourth fence.

Chantry House steps up to three miles and a furlong in his bid to double his Grade One tally on Merseyside on Friday, with his trainer expecting to have a clearer idea of potential targets for next season afterwards.

Henderson said: “When they set off down the back straight at Cheltenham, Shan Blue suddenly injected a lot of pace into the race – and to be fair, it looked as if Chantry House was nearly out of his comfort zone for a while.

“They had gone very hard, and he soon got back into it and won really nicely, but it did look as if he was crying out for three miles.

“I think this is a good time to try it. We know he stays two-and-a-half really well – and if we try three now, at least we’ll know where to go next season.”

Colin Tizzard fires a formidable twin assault, with stablemates Fiddlerontheroof and The Big Breakaway renewing rivalry after finishing second and third behind Monkfish in Cheltenham’s Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.

Other contenders include Dan Skelton’s Shan Blue and Espoir De Romay from Kim Bailey’s yard.

Espoir De Romay on his way to victory at Leicester
Espoir De Romay on his way to victory at Leicester (David Davies/PA)

The latter faces a step up in class following an impressive handicap success at Leicester last month.

Bailey said: “The handicapper has put him of 15lb for winning at Leicester, which I think is absolutely crazy.

“I hope the handicapper is right – because if he is, we’re only 4lb behind Chantry House.

“I don’t know whether we are or not, but we won’t know until we run.”

The first of four Grade Ones on day two of the Grand National meeting is the Betway Top Novices’ Hurdle, which stages the return of Henderson’s Dusart.

The six-year-old got the better of the high-class Soaring Glory on his hurdling debut at Newbury in November, but has not been seen in competitive action since.

“Dusart was very impressive at Newbury,” said Henderson.

“He then had a freak accident and has been missing since. I actually didn’t think we’d get him back at all this season.

“He’s a smart horse, I hope.”

His nine rivals include Peter Fahey’s County Hurdle winner Belfast Banter, the Alex Hales-trained Supreme Novices’ Hurdle third For Pleasure and Bailey’s Ajero – who has won his last four races.

Alex Hales has high hopes for For Pleasure
Alex Hales has high hopes for For Pleasure (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Hales said of For Pleasure: “We think Aintree should suit him – a big, flat, left-handed and slightly sharper track.

“We’ve been looking forward to this race all year, to be honest. He ran above expectations at Cheltenham, and we couldn’t be happier with him going into Aintree.”

Bailey is keeping his fingers crossed for a bold showing from Ajero, but is wary of the threat posed by the Henderson runner.

He said: “I have to say I was hugely impressed with Dusart at Newbury – I think he’ll take an awful lot of beating.

“I hope our horse will run well. He’s in good form.”

Bravemansgame will be a hot favourite for the Doom Bar Sefton Novices’ Hurdle.

Third behind the hugely impressive Bob Olinger in the Ballymore at Cheltenham, the Challow Hurdle winner is stepped up to three miles for the first time since his success in an Irish point-to-point two years ago.

Nicholls told Betfair: “He won a point-to-point as a four-year-old over three miles and was staying on stoutly when successful in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury, so I don’t have any concerns about the step up in trip for him on this drying ground.

“It’s in the back of my mind that he had a very hard race at Cheltenham – but he seems fine at home, and the only way you find out is by running them. On all his form this season, he has a decent chance.”

Streets Of Doyen is an interesting contender
Streets Of Doyen is an interesting contender (David Davies/PA)

Two of the biggest threats to Bravemansgame hail from Ireland, as Emmet Mullins and Rachael Blackmore team up with Cape Gentleman and John McConnell saddles Albert Bartlett third Streets Of Doyen.

McConnell feels the drying ground at Aintree will be in Streets Of Doyen’s favour.

“We’re really looking forward to that,” said the County Meath trainer.

“He’s in great nick. The drying ground will suit him a lot, more so than in Cheltenham. The ground there was probably too sticky for him.

“It’s a competitive race, but I expect him to go well.”

Java victory provides Aintree Pointer for Bailey

Java Point armed Kim Bailey with a good omen for Aintree by posting a stylish first success under rules in the Join Racing TV Now Maiden Hurdle at Warwick.

Bailey has a team of around half-a-dozen heading to Merseyside next week, with the possibility of exciting hurdler Ajero among them – although his target is yet to be confirmed.

Java Point endorsed the well-being of his trainer’s team as – in the colours also carried by Singlefarmpayment to victory on Sunday at Ascot – the 5-4 favourite kept on too strongly for market rival Known to score by a length and three-quarters under Jonathan Burke.

Bailey said: “We’ve been waiting for the better ground all winter with this horse – he’s an embryonic chaser.

“He was very fresh at Newbury when Nico de Boinville thought we were running over the wrong trip.

“But we knew that, and the form has worked out – and now we have options, one of which is to run him at the start of next season in a novice chase in May.”

Talking about his contenders for the Grand National meeting, Bailey added: “Espoir De Romay, Happygolucky, Two For Gold, Vinndication and possibly Ajero will go there.

“Ajero could go instead for the Scottish Champion Hurdle – off a mark of 140 his handicap days might not quite be over, let’s see.”

Burke, who is on the 40 winner mark for the season and has bettered his previous best by two, said: “He jumps well and is a straightforward, honest horse with the attributes to become a very good staying chaser.

“It’s good to have surpassed my previous best number, and I’d love to get to 50 by the end of the season.”

Champagne City gave owner Roger Brookhouse and trainer Tom George a third winner in less than a week when springing a 20-1 surprise under Ciaran Gethings in the Happy 21st Birthday Tia Harrison Handicap Hurdle.

The previously out-of-form winner took advantage of the fall of Givepeaceachance two out to come home four lengths clear of Clemento.

Gethings said: “He’s a bit of a monkey, but one with a lot of natural ability. He benefited from being dropped back on nicer ground.”

The Every Race Live On Racing TV Novices’ Handicap Hurdle went to Pour Une Raison, who reacted positively to the fitting of a visor for trainer Nick Mitchell and jockey Tom Bellamy.

“There’s been a transformation with the visor,” said Bellamy.

“He travelled and didn’t hit a flat spot. He didn’t miss a beat in the jumping department, and was super.”

Caid Du Berlais completed what was effectively a lap of honour in the Air Wedding Open Hunters’ Chase.

The 1-8 chance led throughout under Will Biddick to come home 44 lengths clear of Bishops Road.

Black Poppy, trained by Kerry Lee, provided a 25-1 upset in division one of the racingtv.com Maiden Open National Hunt Flat Race, resisting Party Business by a length-and-a-half – with the odds-on Blairgowrie only third.

Winning jockey Brendan Powell said: “I tracked the favourite and was always travelling well. I think he wouldn’t want either very soft or quick ground, and has a bit of filling out to do.”

There was another minor upset in the second division too when Sidewaysinmilan (11-1) ran on too strongly for 2-1 favourite Mexican Boy – for the Rosemary Gasson and Ben Poste trainer-jockey combination.

Bailey outlines Punchestown and Sandown options for Flow

First Flow could be a rare British-trained runner in Ireland this season with Kim Bailey considering Punchestown or Sandown for his Champion Chase sixth.

Bailey is keen to go back right-handed with the Clarence House Chase winner, who was beaten six and a half lengths by Put The Kettle On.

“He will go, if the ground is suitable, for either the Celebration Chase or to Punchestown. He has improved so much this season and seems a bit more versatile with the ground,” said Bailey.

“If the Champion Chase was run at Ascot, he would have won. David (Bass) struggled to steer him around Cheltenham and he really struggled to handle the bends there, but that was always going to be the worry we had.

“At one point down the back straight it looked as though he was going to be pulled up, so how he has got back to finish where he did in sixth I don’t know, but it was a fantastic effort.”

Having taken his strongest team ever to Cheltenham, Bailey left empty handed, but he was enthused by the performances of Vinndication (sixth) and Younevercall (eighth) in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

Of the former, Bailey said: “If you take all the Irish runners out of the race, he was second to Paisley Park! The problem with him is he jumps most of his hurdles like fences and that has happened as most of his schooling has been over fences, which he will be going back over next season.

“There is nothing to really run him in over fences and I think it would be too tight for him over fences at Aintree. The only other race is the bet365 Gold Cup, but he won’t be going for that, so he will go for the three-mile hurdle at Aintree.”

Vinndication is likely to head to Aintree
Vinndication is likely to head to Aintree (Tim Goode/PA)

Younevercall is to head to for the bet365 Select Hurdle.

Bailey added: “The plan is to go for the Sandown race he won two years ago. He ran a smashing race in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Half-way down the hill we started to get a bit excited.”

Ultima runner-up Happygolucky could run in either a handicap or Grade One over three miles at Aintree, but Imperial Aura, who pulled up in the Ryanair, is finished for the season.

“Unfortunately Imperial Aura broke a blood vessel in the Ryanair and he will now be roughed off for the season,” said Bailey.

“He was out of his comfort zone from the word go, but I think even if he was on song he wouldn’t have won that race as they went so fast. I think we will probably look to step him up in trip to three miles next year.”

Flirtatious Girl powers home for Sandown Listed gold

Kim Bailey appears to hold a strong hand ahead of next week’s Cheltenham Festival and advertised the yard’s good form when Flirtatious Girl landed a cracking renewal of the Listed British Stallion Studs EBF Mares’ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race.

The going on the Sandown hurdles course was described as soft, heavy in places and was all the more testing after the preceding Imperial Cup.

But Flirtatious Girl, who had been beaten when taking a while to settle at Huntingdon on her second start, looked much more professional this time and sauntered to a two-and-a-quarter-length success over Speech Bubble, with Tweed Skirt a further three and three-quarter lengths back in third.

Bailey said: “She has improved since her last run in December. She is a really good mare and she is so tough.

“I was slightly concerned that the ground might have been too soft for her. She really is unbelievably tough, so to go and do what she did was great. She is not very big, but at the end of the day, she’s done it now.

“She won a Listed race and she’s been placed in Listed company and if she never runs again, she’s worth her weight.

“She is very different to my other winner of the race, Molly’s A Diva (2013), who was a big tank of a horse and as slow as a hearse. This little, tiny thing in comparison is quite quick, but both loved soft ground and hopefully she will go on to better things.”

Bailey’s Festival team is headed by First Flow in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and Vinndication in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle and he added: “I had a really good morning, watching the Cheltenham prospects on the gallops and I’m really looking forward to it.”

The conditions, testing as they were, got worse ahead of the Listed Paddy’s Rewards Club Novices’ Handicap Chase, which was run in a cloud-burst.

The torrential downpour did not hurt the chances of the mud-loving Farinet (13-2), who got off the mark over fences with a gutsy display to overhaul Up The Straight after both had made blunders late on.

Winning rider Charlie Deutsch said: “After the last time I rode him at Haydock, I thought this lad would stay really well and I think he’d get three miles.

“I wanted it to be a test, but coming into the last, which I missed, the horse in front had stopped a bit. But to be fair to him, he was very tough to be able to pick up again and run to the line like he did. He’s a very good horse.”

The Gary Moore yard have their sights firmly fixed on the future with Hudson de Grugy (4-5 favourite), who took apart a sparse field in the Paddy’s Giving Away £1 Million Today Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.

The four-year-old made light work of his three rivals to come home 17 lengths clear of Global Agreement in the four-runner contest, despite making a complete hash of the third last.

Winning rider Joshua Moore said: “I saw the wood come flying past me three out!

“But he really does keep on galloping and he’s a big, strong horse who has plenty of scope.

“He has not been the most natural hurdler in his early days, but he is getting a lot better and the first time around here (last time) he was a bit novicey and it cost him the race. He does need a galloping track, which suits him very well.

“I would say he is more of a future chaser. A fence would help him to back off a bit. He’s a big strong, horse and next year we will have to feel our way with him and pick our races carefully and keep him in mind for the following season. He wouldn’t want any jar in the ground and would prefer the ground on the soft side of good.”

Richard Johnson rarely comes away from Sandown without having a winner and this card was no exception, as Fortescue (8-1) made the most of the taxing ground to overhaul the front-running Debece and claim the fourth chase win of his career in the ‘From The Horse’s Mouth’ Podcast Handicap Chase.

Johnson said: “If anything, I was almost in top gear around the first circuit. He is one of those horses who benefit from these conditions today. I’m sure, in the future, there will be some nice staying chases to go for.

“There are one or two options for him maybe later in the year, but it largely depends on the ground. Perhaps races like the Welsh National or extremes of trip is where is future lies.”

Five Star Getaway (11-8 favourite) was arguably the most impressive winner of the afternoon, landing the concluding ‘Paddy Power ‘3 Sleeps To Cheltenham’ Handicap Chase in the hands of Nick Schofield.

The seven-year-old, who raced off bottom weight, was always travelling well and his rider was looking over his shoulder after the last on his way to a five-and-a-half-length victory.

Trainer Christian Williams said: “He’d have probably won with 14st on his back today! We have always thought a lot of him.

“We have tried to avoid running in the worst of the ground over the winter, but felt it would pay dividends today. It looks like he’s handled soft ground, but we were not sure.

“He will probably have his last run of the season in the final of this race at Haydock (April 3).”

Festival beat suits drummer turned jockey Bass

David Bass might have been in a band had he not been a jockey – but Kim Bailey’s man surely made the right decision, based on the strength of his book of rides at the Cheltenham Festival next week.

Bass and Bailey are racing’s odd couple. At differing ends of the political spectrum they may be, but Bass’ forward-going style in the saddle seems to suit Bailey’s horses, and this year their partnership is flourishing.

With a Grade One in the bank thanks to “winning machine” First Flow in the Clarence House, they have four realistic chances at the Festival.

It could all have been so different, though, for Bass – whose musical tastes may not meet with the weighing room’s universal approval.

Bass has struck up a great partnership with Kim Bailey
Bass has struck up a great partnership with Kim Bailey (Simon Cooper/PA)

“I was probably more of a ‘pop punk rocker’, ” said Bass.

“Our band weren’t modelling ourselves on the Sex Pistols or the Clash, anyone like that – we were more modern-day pop/punk, like Green Day.  As I got older I got into more of the punk from the 70s.

“I was a drummer. I was average. I didn’t practise enough – but if I wasn’t a jockey I could possibly have been a musician. I loved playing live.”

Bass is also more vociferous than some regarding jockeys’ mental health and in particular their diet. He himself is a vegan.

“Our job is diet and nutrition, and I always find it interesting how a lot of jockeys cope differently with their weight,” he said on a call hosted by Great British Racing.

“I’m one of the heavier lads and have always struggled with my weight. I probably cope better now than I ever have.

“I just find it interesting, and the whole vegan thing can lead on to that. I’ve been doing it for over two years. I’d like to think it has helped, because ever since I’ve started the diet I’m so much more knowledgeable about what I’m eating and always looking at what is in certain foods.

Imperial Aura and David Bass were successful at the Festival 12 months ago
Imperial Aura and David Bass were successful at the Festival 12 months ago (Simon Cooper/PA)

“I do feel since I’ve been on the diet it is as healthy as it has ever been – but in saying that, when I first started it was pretty bad. I would eat the wrong things and also binge and then lose weight quickly. I wasn’t healthy when I was younger.”

Bass and Bailey’s association began at Towcester one day in May 2014 – and it got off to a flying start.

“I rode a horse for Kim at Towcester one day, Crazy Jack. It came about because a  friend of mine, Ed Cookson, worked at the yard at the time,” explained Bass.

“I went to give him the saddle, and Kim said ‘I’ve never heard of you, I don’t know who you are, but Ed says you can ride’ – and luckily he won, and not long after that I started riding out for him. The rest is history, I suppose.”

Imperial Aura is the arguably the pair’s biggest hope next week, in the Ryanair Chase, but he does need to put an early exit at Kempton last time out behind him.

Bass said: “At Carlisle I was really excited about what I felt – it felt like he’d improved a lot since I last rode him in a race, and that day I felt he could progress to being a genuine Grade One horse.

“At Ascot he was progressive again. You could pick holes in that form, but he couldn’t have done it any easier.

“At Kempton, while I hate making excuses – the horse made a mistake, and I got unseated – but I’m convinced he was looking at the shadow on the wing. He’d jumped out to his left earlier too, so he was looking at something.

“He’s schooled brilliantly since, and I find his jumping is better the quicker he’s going, so the way the Ryanair should pan out will suit him.

“I think he’s good enough to win and I’m excited to ride in the race.

“It can only be a positive the he’s had three good runs there and won last year. Cheltenham form is a big boost.”

Vinndication had other options next week but has recently been confirmed as a runner in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

“He’s a horse that people have probably got bored of me banging on about, how good I think he is. I’ve got so much faith in him, but he’s obviously been fragile to train,” said Bass.

“Last year I thought he was a certainty in the Ultima. But he hadn’t run since November, and we couldn’t get a racecourse gallop into him, and he just got tired.

“This year we got a racecourse gallop into him – because he hasn’t run since the Ladbrokes Trophy – and as far as the hurdling option, we had a discussion and felt he was just physically finding it hard over fences.

Vinndication will be back over hurdles next week
Vinndication will be back over hurdles next week (Tim Goode/PA)

“We gave him a school over hurdles, and he seemed to really enjoy it. He’s the type who could run well in the Stayers’, because he races behind the bridle. I think that track will suit him as well.

“We also have Younevercall in the race, who was fourth in the Long Walk, and there wouldn’t be much between them. I hope Vinndication can prove to everyone how good he is.”

Happygolucky is favourite for the Ultima Handicap Chase on the first day of the Festival, and Bass struggling to come up with a negative.

“I think he’s got a great profile for the race,” he said.

“I’ve always really liked him, and he’s a true professional. He’s a good traveller, he jumps well – and while it’s his first handicap chase, I’m not concerned about that because he has a great temperament.

“He ran a very good race in the Martin Pipe last year, and was fourth, but he’s always been crying out for three miles. We stepped him up last time, and he won at Cheltenham. He’s so straightforward and handles any type of ground.”

First Flow is already in bonus territory. Bass does not feel he needs soft ground to be seen at his best any more – but he has some formidable opponents.

“He won’t be frightened, he’s a great horse but a bit of a freak to be honest,” he added.

“I rode him the other day, and he tried to kill me when I was tacking him up. I’m told by everyone at home that is a sign he’s in really good form.

“He’s a horse with loads of character – he has his own routines at home, like always needing to be at the front of the string. He’s a credit to the team and has turned into a winning machine.

“I think if you ask the lads that rode at Ascot the day of the Clarence House they’d say it was no worse than good to soft, so I’m not too worried about the ground.

“As for the track,  I know he disappointed on his only run at Cheltenham, but he wasn’t right when he ran in the Supreme – he came back all wrong. He’s won at Doncaster and Wetherby the last two years, but he does seem more comfortable going right-handed. I hope he handles the track.

“Look, it’s a Champion Chase – they are all very good horses, but ours knows how to win and he’s progressing, so we’ll give it a go.”

With Bass also set to ride Moonlighter for Nick Williams in the Grand Annual, it could turn into a special week.

“I’m excited more than anything,” he said.

“I want to try and enjoy it. I feel very lucky to be riding the horses that I am at the best meeting me have. I’m just going to make sure I enjoy riding good horses against the best.

“I’d have to say Imperial Aura is my best chance. All of mine have got a chance – of course I’m going to say that – but Imperial Aura has the course form, and I think he can prove he’s a genuine Grade One horse.”

Aura tops Kim Bailey’s strongest ever Festival team

Imperial Aura will lead what Kim Bailey believes is “undoubtedly” his strongest ever team into battle at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Twenty-six years on from completing the Champion Hurdle-Cheltenham Gold Cup double with Alderbrook and Master Oats, the Cotswolds trainer is excited about his chances of adding to his tally at the showpiece event of the season.

“In that big year I had, I had a horse called Simple Arithmetic, who we thought would win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and finished third, and a couple of horses run in handicaps,” said Bailey.

“I’ve never been one for running horses at Cheltenham unless they had a reason for going there.

“This year is undoubtedly my strongest team, (and) Imperial Aura was always going to be at the front of the house.

“We’ve been steadily building up towards this. It’s great that it’s coming to fruition – and now they’ve got to try to prove a point.”

Bailey’s Festival team were put through their paces on Wednesday morning, and the trainer was relieved to report all came through with flying colours.

He said: “We’ve had a very successful morning. We worked all the horses this morning and schooled them all in thick fog. The great thing about working horses in the fog is they always work five times better than they do normally, because none of us can see them!

Imperial Aura heads for the Ryanair Chase
Imperial Aura heads for the Ryanair Chase (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“I’m very excited about Cheltenham – having fancied runners at the Cheltenham Festival is why we do it.

“It’s going to be very different this year – it’s going to be very sad (with owners and spectators absent because of coronavirus restrictions).

“I feel very sorry for the racecourse and incredibly sorry for the owners, because Cheltenham is Cheltenham and why so many people get involved in ownership.”

Ryanair Chase contender Imperial Aura won the now defunct novices’ handicap chase at last year’s meeting and was impressive in winning his first two starts of the current campaign at Carlisle and Ascot.

The eight-year-old then unseated David Bass on his latest outing at Kempton, but Bailey is not too worried about that.

He added: “We’ve done extensive schooling with him. He’s a good jumper, and I’m convinced something took his eye off the fence. I’m very thankful it happened there – and hopefully it won’t happen at Cheltenham.

“He worked very well this morning, and schooled very well.

“I’m delighted with the way the horse is progressing. We didn’t go for the Ascot Chase the other day, and we’re hopefully going to Cheltenham as a fresh horse.”

While Imperial Aura was always expected to return to Cheltenham with leading claims, Bailey admits the progression of First Flow into a genuine contender for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase has taken him by surprise.

David Bass aboard First Flow at Ascot
David Bass aboard First Flow at Ascot (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Unbeaten in his last six races, the son of Primary earned his shot at the two-mile chasing championship with a thoroughly impressive Grade One success in the Clarence House at Ascot on his latest appearance.

“When I made the entry (for the Champion Chase) it was a little bit of a fairytale entry really, but what he achieved at Ascot was phenomenal – it was as good a race as I’ve ever watched in my life, I think,” said Bailey.

“I really enjoyed the fact that he did what he did, and it was the way he did it on ground that we weren’t necessarily expecting him to be that good on.

“It launched us very quickly to a place where we have to go for the Champion Chase – whether we like it or not. He became a horse that’s certainly good enough (to run).

“We’re going forward in a new dimension and in a place where none of us knew we’d be. We’re going to take it on with both hands and with both feet firmly on the ground.”

Bailey would dearly love to add a Champion Chase victory to his CV, adding: “I’ve never had a fancied runner in it – I’ve only had one runner in the race before, and that was a situation where the owners insisted on running him.

“I’ve always loved the race and loved watching it. I go back to the days of Viking Flagship when there was three horses jumping the last upsides in front.

“What a moment it would be to have the horse that passes the post in front in a race like that.”

Bailey plans to make a late call on whether to allow Vinndication to join stablemate Younevercall in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, or shoot for glory in the Gold Cup.

Vinndication has not been seen in competitive action since unseating his rider in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November.

Plans are fluid for Vinndication
Plans are fluid for Vinndication (Tim Goode/PA)

“If we were to run Vinndication in the Stayers’, David Bass would ride – so therefore when we were working the horses this morning, it was important Ciaran Gethings had the chance to sit on Younevercall (with a view to riding at Cheltenham),” said Bailey

“I’m sitting on the fence at this moment in time with Vinndication. It will probably be the end of next week before we make a decision – as close as possible (to the meeting).

“He’s been schooling over fences and hurdles, and I really want to see where I am.

“My biggest problem with him is the last time he ran was at Newbury, and he unseated. Until he parted company with his jockey, he was jumping brilliantly and I need to have it in my own mind that he can do that again (to run in the Gold Cup).

“It’s a difficult one for everybody. I don’t want to say one way or t’other, and then change my mind.”

Market Rasen strike completes Ajero hat-trick

Ajero sealed a hat-trick of victories when taking the MansionBet’s Faller Insurance Handicap Hurdle at Market Rasen.

The Kim Bailey-trained gelding began his winning streak at Ludlow in October, following up with a success at Kempton in November before collecting the third leg of his treble as 7-2 co-favourite under David Bass.

The gelding took up the lead with three flights left to negotiate and held on to record a two-length success, despite hanging slightly right as the line approached.

“He really picked up well down to the second last, it’s tiring old ground and he’s done really well to keep going,” said Bass.

“He did just lean to the right, to the rail, when he came under pressure, so I think for the time being we’ll just stick to these right-handed tracks.

“He’s a pleasure to ride and he’s got loads of gears, I’m really pleased with him.”

Ajero is half-brother to high-class chaser Charbel, with Bass reporting that the six-year-old is even faster than his older sibling.

“He’s smaller than him, but he’s actually quicker than Charbel was and Charbel was a quick horse,” he said.

“At home he has to do everything on his own as he’s just too quick for anything else.”

Oliver Greenall’s Homme Public went one better than his recent second at Catterick to claim the MansionBet At Market Rasen Juvenile Maiden Hurdle by a comfortable six and a half lengths under Henry Brooke.

The four-year-old joined Greenall’s stable after beginning his career under the care of French trainer Francois Nicolle, taking the runner-up spot on his British debut when contesting a similar juvenile hurdle event.

This time the gelding was not for beating, taking up the lead with two flights left to jump and readily pulling clear of second placed Gilbertina to triumph as 11-8 favourite.

“On that ground I think he needed the run slightly, inexperience probably got him beat at Catterick,” Greenall said.

“He’s more experienced today and he settled. He’s one of those horses that only ever does enough, he’s a very laid back sort of horse.”

The French-bred holds an entry for Cheltenham’s Triumph Hurdle, but Greenall feels he may still be too inexperienced to take his chance in that Grade One event.

“He’s done it nicely enough today, but what he’s beaten is hard to say,” he said.

“It’s a possibility, Cheltenham could actually suit him, but I think he needs to travel a bit better.

“I don’t know if he’s hardened enough for Cheltenham, we’ll see, we’ve got the option there.”

Martello Sky remains unbeaten over hurdles after taking the MansionBet’s Best Odds Guaranteed EBF Mares’ “National Hunt” Novices’ Hurdle for Lucy Wadham and Aidan Coleman.

The grey filly won on her debut over obstacles when taking a mares’ maiden contest at Fakenham in December, having previously won two bumpers at the same track, and backed up that performance with a one-and-a-quarter-length victory over Marada when starting as 6-4 favourite.

“She’s always been on our radar as a nice, above average filly,” Coleman said of the five-year-old.

“Size and scope-wise you wouldn’t think Fakenham would suit her, but you run where suits and the prize money at Fakenham is good, it’s close to Lucy, so why not run there?

“She’d go anywhere though, you could run her anywhere – up, down, left or right, it doesn’t really matter.

“She’s won well, it takes a bit of doing, but she’s a nice filly.”

Blarney Bateleur took full advantage of her generous handicap mark to take the MansionBet’s Watch And Bet Mares’ Handicap Hurdle at 28-1 for trainer Andy Irvine and jockey Niall Houlihan.

The eight-year-old was rated 93 after three performances under rules, leaving her bottom of the handicap.

“I thought today the grade might be a little too high, but I thought off 10st 1lb, mares only and with the ground up here suiting her, it’d be worth giving it a go,” said Irvine.

The performance marked Blarney Bateleur’s first run under Irvine’s name, with the mare previously trained by his late wife Zoe Davison, who died after a lengthy battle with cancer in January.

“Each day is difficult, I wake up and my wife’s not there,” Irvine said.

“We’re keeping the show on the road, as we keep saying.

“We left at quarter to six this morning, it took us four, nearly five, hours to get here and just for that it’s been worth it.

“We’d do it every day of the week for this.”

First Flow building towards Champion Chase

Kim Bailey is gradually building First Flow back to his peak for a crack at the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.

The nine-year-old has had a relatively easy time since booking his place in the two-mile showpiece with last month’s victory over reigning champion Politologue in the Grade One Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

With the Champion Chase now less than five weeks away, Bailey is preparing First Flow for the big day.

“He’s good. He’s started cantering this week, so I’m happy with him,” said the Cotswolds trainer.

“I won’t be taking him for an away day. He’s an easy horse to get fit.”

First Flow is a top-priced 14-1 for Festival honours, with Chacun Pour Soi a shade of odds-on after extending his unbeaten season to date with an impressive victory in the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown on Sunday.

It was another eyecatching performance from Willie Mullins’ charge, for which he has rightly been lauded – but all Bailey and others can do is prepare their contenders for the challenge ahead.

Asked for his reading of Chacun Pour Soi’s latest win, Bailey said: “I don’t think I need add to the accolades people have given him.

“Getting our horse there in one piece is the most important thing.”

Monday Musings: Two Major Contenders from Left Field

At the age of 25 back in 1978 Kim Bailey took over the training licence from his father Ken at their family farm in Brackley, Northamptonshire, with the experience of having learnt his trade from three training greats, Humphrey Cottrill, Tim Forster and Fred Rimell, writes Tony Stafford. In 1995 he enjoyed the almost unthinkable achievement of winning both the Champion Hurdle, with the novice Alderbrook, and the Gold Cup with Master Oats.

Until Saturday they had been the only Grade 1 wins on his card. Now, 26 years later and in his 43rd year as a trainer, the still-boyish Bailey, greatly to his own surprise, can refer back to a wonderful performance by the nine-year-old, First Flow. After an end-to-end battle he emphatically saw off reigning Champion Two-Mile Chaser Politologue in Ascot’s Clarence House Chase.

Kim Bailey has, over the years, gone through a number of transformations and training locations as well as a major domestic upheaval and a Henry Cecil-like slump. That must have caused this consummate horseman to question whether he should continue to pursue his career.

Throughout, Bailey has always had the respect of his fellow professionals, even in the darkest days. The same was true of course for the future Sir Henry before the arrival of Frankel and the subsequent great loyalty – hardly surprising one might say – of Prince Khalid Abdullah. The recent passing of Prince Khalid could have significant implications for the future of many of the present-day’s leading Flat-race trainers.

Bailey’s own darkest years came in the first decade of the present century when in the four seasons between 2004 and 2008 he won respectively only six, six, nine and finally three races. Those three in 2007-8 came from 131 runs and produced earnings of a little over £29,000. Nowadays he characteristically has one of the higher strike rates, operating at close to 18%. Less than three per cent must have given him kittens!

The Racing Post statistics for each trainer includes a section at the bottom entitled Big Races Won. Between March 2002 and November 2012, a full decade, none of the Bailey winners qualified for entry in that section.

In more recent times, he has built up his business again at a modern farm in Andoversford, 15 minutes or so from Cheltenham. A great adherent to modern technology, he was moving around his snow-covered 70-strong yard on Sunday morning, reflecting by video on the previous afternoon’s exploits by one of three chasers that could be lining up in the top races at Prestbury Park in six weeks’ time.

As he progressed with his commentary, all the time he was sharing the credit, principally to David Bass, whose opportunist ride on First Flow he described as “one of the best rides I’ve ever seen”. Also earning his gratitude were various key members of his staff. If ever there was a benevolent boss, it is Kim Bailey, who stresses that any success achieved by Thornfield Farm is very much a team effort.

That attitude will undoubtedly bring loyalty from the staff and he certainly has managed to keep a number of owners, among them First Flow’s, Tony Solomons, with him over many years. “Tony was one of my first owners all those years ago and I’m so happy for him. First Flow was not an expensive buy and he’s done so well for us,” says Bailey.

He certainly has. Saturday’s win for First Flow was his sixth in succession and his tenth in all from only 16 races over obstacles. The race was worth a few bob short of £60k and represented a nice early birthday present for his owner.

Tony rarely has more than a couple of horses in training but the retired banker also had tremendous success in recent years with the staying Flat handicapper, Nearly Caught. That smart gelding, trained by Hughie Morrison, won nine races and was placed 15 times.

His last win, as an eight-year-old, came on his final appearance when he easily won a Newmarket Listed race from an official rating of 107. That was his fourth Listed win, to which he could add a Group 2 victory at Deauville as a six-year-old. All of his five stakes wins and eight places came in his final three seasons’ racing.

While Bailey had some sparse years where major races were concerned, that could not be said of 2020 when he earned seven entries in that category. First Flow is joined by Imperial Aura and Vinndication as fellow high-class performers and Bailey hopes all three will make it to the Festival.

He regards Vinndication as a potential Gold Cup candidate. The eight-year-old is still lightly-raced and although he has yet to win going left-handed, he ran a blinder when only two lengths behind Cyrname in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby when starting out the present campaign at the end of October.

Bailey aimed him at the Ladbroke (ex-Hennessy) Handicap Chase at Newbury the following month and the gelding was still very much in contention when unseating David Bass five fences out (his only non-completion) under a big weight. The trainer hopes he will be able to prepare him in time to participate.

Until Imperial Aura’s unexpected early exit from his Kempton Grade 2 target a couple of weeks back he had been carrying all before him, adding two nice wins to his Cheltenham Festival novice handicap chase victory in March. Another eight-year-old, like his two stablemates he also has an enviable win ratio, seven from 12.

Nothing succeeds like success. From the dark days Bailey has now put together seven highly rewarding seasons, all bar last term’s 32 (for obvious Covid) reasons bringing between 43 and 61 wins and at least £400k in earnings.

With £450,000 already this term and more than three months to go, he could even get close to the £696,000 of the extraordinary Master Oats/ Alderbrook campaign when he had 72 wins from 312 runs, especially if things work out at the Festival.

It is hard not to be excited by First Flow, but one other horse produced an even more eye-opening performance the same afternoon. The Venetia Williams-trained and Rich Ricci-owned Royale Pagaille turned the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock Park into a rout and must be followed over a cliff for the rest of the season and beyond.

This race has had a proud heritage since its inception in 1981, with its early winners including the three Cheltenham Gold Cup victors, Little Owl, Bregawn and The Thinker. Jodami made it four a decade later, while its best recent champion has been Bristol De Mai, also a three-time winner of the Grade 1 Betfair Chase over the same course and distance.

Royale Pagaille was bought as an experienced four-year-old by French agent Guy Petit out of the Francois Nicolle yard in November 2018 at Arcana for €70k. He had won one of ten starts, a minor hurdle race at Pau, although he did have plenty of experience over fences after that victory.

Sent To Venetia, it was more than a year before he saw a British racecourse and his two runs last season before racing was summarily curtailed were hardly  earth-shattering. First, in a two-runner Chepstow novice chase he found the 150-rated Vision Des Flos predictably too good, trailing home almost ten lengths behind. Then, in a three-runner chase at Huntingdon he was miles behind the lower-rated pair Equus Secretus (Ben Pauling) and Lies About Milan (Fergal O’Brien) who fought out a close finish over the near three-mile trip. Those performances gave little inkling of what was to come.

Hence when Royale Pagaille reappeared for this season at Haydock on December 2, the son of Blue Bresil was the 11/1 outsider in a four-runner novice chase over two miles and five furlongs. He confounded those odds, very easily coming from the back to draw clear of the Kim Bailey-trained favourite Espoir De Romay, who carried a 5lb winner’s penalty.

After that, on the second day of Kempton’s big Christmas meeting, his winning margin of just over three lengths might not have been extravagant, but the style of the victory off his revised mark of 140 was such that the chase handicapper raised him 16lb to 156.

At no stage on Saturday did it appear likely that Royale Pagaille would have any difficulty in defying his new mark, travelling and jumping with utter authority. Conceding 20lb to the proven staying handicappers Just Your Type and Potters Legend, he was already a long way clear of the pair at the last fence in the heavy ground and it seemed as though Tom Scudamore could have doubled the eventual victory margin of 16 lengths over Potters Legend had he wished.

That suggests to me the chase assessors will struggle to keep his new mark below 170 and at the present rate of progress, further improvement could easily be forthcoming. That already takes him right into the top echelon of chasers. For the record, in its 41-year history the Peter Marsh Chase has never been won by a horse younger than seven, Royale Pagaille’s age.

Bookmakers are quoting Royale Pagaille for four races at the Festival, but if he was mine I would find it difficult to disregard the big one. There are many instances of trainers thinking their emerging horses are not quite ready but with the number of pitfalls that can assail them, those delaying plans often prove fruitless with the horses never actually making it to a later Gold Cup. And this one already has eleven chase starts to his name, so is hardly an inexperienced novice.

I’m suggesting you take the 12-1 (unless you can get better) for the Blue Riband of the meeting.  If you prefer to be safe, he is 8-1 non-runner no bet.

First Flow magnificent in Clarence House victory

First Flow put up a remarkable performance to outrun a clutch of established Grade One stars for victory in the Matchbook Betting Exchange Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

Kim Bailey’s nine-year-old mud-lover was stepping up to the top level over fences for the first time in his career, but extended his winning sequence to six – taking on reigning Champion Chase hero Politologue from a long way out and staying on to win by seven lengths at 14-1.

First Flow, ridden in trademark style by the dynamic David Bass, was also providing the popular Bailey with his first Grade One success since Master Oats won the 1995 Cheltenham Gold Cup for him.

Paul Nicholls’ 11-8 favourite Politologue led early, and First Flow was always his nearest pursuer – as the pair built up a sizeable lead over the rest of the eight-strong field in the back straight.

Relishing the soft conditions, First Flow took over on the turn towards home and stayed on with great determination to repel all challengers, with Politologue second and Waiting Patiently just holding on for third ahead of the closing Fanion D’Estruval.

Bailey was quick to praise Bass, saying: “You have to hand it to that guy on top, who knows him so well. We realised we couldn’t take on Politologue for the lead from the start, but David took the bull by the horns.

“I was absolutely staggered, to be honest, because we both felt the ground wasn’t going to be soft enough and that if he had finished third he would have done very well. I admit I didn’t expect him to improve like that.

“He had a hard race at Wetherby (Castleford Chase on December 27), but we gave him an easy week, and that’s what’s happened. I’m so pleased for the owner Tony Solomons, who is my longest-standing patron. He’s 92 and has been with me for 40 years, showing that loyalty is a great thing in life.”

First Flow powered home
First Flow powered home (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The Champion Chase obviously enters the equation for First Flow, and Bailey said: “Regarding Cheltenham, he has only been there once before when he ran in the Supreme (of 2018), but I wouldn’t mind going back there.

“If it’s soft or good to soft at Cheltenham you would have to think about the Queen Mother very seriously.

“Getting back to David, I had an irate punter ring up and criticise him to me, and I am so pleased that he has had to eat his words, because David got some of the best jumps out of the horse I have ever seen from him. He (Bass) never lets us down – he’s got better and better, and adores the horses.”

He added: “I never thought (First Flow) would get to Grade One level, but I feel we should give it (Cheltenham) a go. We have eight to 10 pounds to find, but he is obviously improving. It’s quite an emotional moment. This horse can’t school over fences at home and jumps over tractor tyres.”

Bass said: “I have always seen him as a proper two-miler, and he has a touch of class and can handle most types of ground.

“I didn’t really want to be too close to Harry (Cobden, Politologue), but he winged the fences down the hill – and then, between the third-last and second-last, I let him fill himself up so that he had something left for the finish.”

David Bass and First Flow were dominant at Ascot
David Bass and First Flow were dominant at Ascot (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Bass admits First Flow’s improvement has surprised him – but he is emboldened after this victory to head for the Champion Chase.

“Why not? Let’s have a go,” he said.

“Let’s take on the big guns again, and hope for a bit more improvement.

“I’m still a little bit surprised he put up that performance. I knew that he’d improved, and was on a real winning streak.

“He’s really stepped up again, and I can’t believe he won as he did.

“He jumped so well – he was brilliant down the hill, and just made up so much ground jumping.

“We’ve had two or three quiet weeks, and we were starting to get a little bit concerned. But there’s nothing like a Grade One winner to let everyone know our horses are still in good form.”

First Flow’s jumping was pinpoint precision throughout – in direct contrast to most of his practice with Bass back at Bailey’s Cotswolds yard.

“I promise you – he’s frightened the life out of me at home,” added the winning jockey.

“I think I got a fall off him last year, schooling – he’s very average jumping at home, always has been.

“He wasn’t a natural. But on the racecourse, he’s been brilliant – and today was as well as he’s ever jumped.

“Knowing the horse as I do, I’m conscious in my head to either really go forward and attack a fence or take him back and get him underneath me. I said to myself, if I was meeting those fences right down the hill, then really attack them.

“That’s what I did. I was seeing good strides, and he was really winging them – and I didn’t want to disappoint the horse. He was enjoying it, and so was I. We were here to give it a go, and I wanted to be positive.”

First Flow also demonstrated that he does not necessarily need bog-like conditions to show his best form.

Bass added: “I think Kim’s given me a bit of stick, because I’ve always said he loves heavy ground – but he’s a classy horse, and he obviously handles soft, good to soft ground, which I thought it was today.

“I’m really pleased for the horse. He’s a real character, and a yard favourite.”

Bailey in race against time for Gold Cup hope Vinndication

Kim Bailey is convinced Vinndication is a “Gold Cup horse” – but he is also about to give his classy chaser an alternative Cheltenham Festival entry in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle.

History is in danger of repeating itself for Vinndication this winter because, just as last year, an injury setback means time may run out for a prep run before March.

At Cheltenham in 2020, he put up a mighty effort under top weight in the Ultima Handicap Chase as he failed by less than three lengths to defy his four-month absence before the Festival.

This time, Vinndication injured himself again when unseating in a prominent position – once more under a welter burden – in November’s Ladbrokes Trophy Chase at Newbury.

Bailey has not given up hope of finding another race for him before mid-March but has already decided he will not be ready in time to test his course-and-distance credentials in the Cotswold Chase at the end of this month.

“To this day I don’t know what happened in the Ladbroke – but anyway, he parted company with his jockey,” he said.

“He banged the inside of his near-hind joint, which he was very sore on for a few days.

“Although he’s 100% sound, he spent time on Jason Maguire’s horse treadmill to try to help him.

“He’ll come back in time. The Gold Cup entry is very much there for the simple reason that I think he’s a Gold Cup horse.”

Bailey, a Gold Cup-winning trainer with Master Oats back in 1995 and who also briefly housed 1997 hero Mr Mulligan early in that horse’s career, is in no doubt the best is yet to be seen of Vinndication.

“He needs to go and have a run (before a Gold Cup),” he added.

“If he had completed the race at Newbury and gone and won, he’d be a very laudable favourite, or bang there for the race.

“(Jockey) David (Bass) is convinced he would have won, but it’s very easy to say that. Even if we’d have finished second to him (impressive winner Cloth Cap), we’d have run a great race, giving him all that weight.”

Entries for the Stayers’ Hurdle close on Wednesday, and Vinndication’s name is set to be among them – even though he has not run over timber since completing his unbeaten novice campaign with a third successive victory almost three years ago.

“He’s still a good hurdler,” said the Cotswolds trainer.

“So, from the owner’s point of view, what races have we got in mind for him? If I can’t get a prep race into him for the Gold Cup – which I’d like to have – I do have the option of the Stayers’ Hurdle.”

Asked if he has yet reached his full potential, Bailey said: “No. He’s had very little racing. He’s only run 12 times.”

His next will not be at Cheltenham’s Festival Trials day, however, because time is too short.

“No, definitely not,” said Bailey.

“Unfortunately, it could easily be (like last year).

“It is such a difficult situation. Do I go back the handicap route, do I go for the Gold Cup? It will have to work itself out.”

Vinndication will not be joined by stablemate Younevercall if he does take up the Stayers’ Hurdle option.

The latter was pulled up behind impressive winner McFabulous in the re-scheduled Relkeel Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday – and will have an extended break before returning to defend his Sandown crown at the end of April in the Grade Two hurdle he won when it was last run two years ago.

Reflecting on Kempton, Bailey said: “He’s 10 years old, and there are very few races for him.

“The owners were very keen (to run at the weekend), and there was no reason to say the horse shouldn’t run.

“But it’s very obvious to me that he’s a horse that always takes a long time and needs a break between races – and that came too quick for him on Saturday.

“I’m not worried about that – you can eradicate that (run).”

Younevercall and David Bass en route to their Sandown victory in the 2019 bet365 Select Hurdle
Younevercall and David Bass en route to their Sandown victory in the 2019 bet365 Select Hurdle (Julian Herbert/PA)

Younevercall, who had performed with such credit to be fourth in the Grade One Long Walk at Ascot before Christmas, will have more than three months to freshen up for his big target.

“There’s nothing else for him to run in (for a while),” added Bailey.

“He doesn’t need to be going to Cheltenham – he doesn’t like going left-handed.

“So I should think our season with him now will be aimed at Sandown, (and) I’d think we’ll probably go straight there.”