Nicholls has the right Mix for Wincanton showpiece

The Flat season concludes at Doncaster on Saturday, but with the Jumps now in full swing, I’ll be focusing on the Badger Ales Trophy which takes place at Wincanton.

First run in 1962 at a trip of 2m5f, the race was extended to 3m1f in 1990 and achieved Listed status in 2003. The right-handed galloping track with hefty fences proves a thorough test for a chaser. Though not as ‘trappy’ as Kempton, they do nevertheless tend to go at a fair old clip.

Paul Nicholls trains at Ditcheat, just a short distance from the racecourse, and it’s no surprise that the ex-champion trainer enjoys plenty of success at the track. His record in the Badger Ales is mightily impressive. He’s been responsible for seven of the last 20 winners, achieving a stunning strike-rate of 35%. He looked likely to land last year’s renewal, when Southfield Theatre came down at the last.

The same horse is back for another try, and is among a trio of entries for the master of Ditcheat. All three have posted victories at the track and are well fancied to go close on Saturday.

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Southfield Theatre runs off a 3lb higher mark than 12 months ago. He’s clearly not the easiest to keep right, having only had two outings last winter. He’s gone well fresh in the past, winning his seasonal debut in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Though a nine-year-old, he’s got relatively few miles on the clock, and his age group have a strong record in the race. Carrying big weights has not proved an issue in this over the years, and if Nicholls has him right, he ought to run well.

Mr Mix has far less experience, though did win a handicap at the track last time. He’s up 5lbs for that success, though the six-year-old should have plenty of improvement in him. He has a fair strike-rate with four wins from 13 starts under rules. Two horses aged six have won this in the last 10 years.

Present Man is the other Nicholls contender, and was last seen winning over hurdles at Kempton. That should have put him just right for this, and he’s currently the race favourite. He’s won four of his nine chase starts, though I’m far from convinced he’s good enough to win here. I’m also doubtful as to whether the trip will suit. His best performances have come at 2m5f, and this may stretch him.

One that I do like is the Tom George-trained Double Shuffle. His handicap mark is plenty high enough, but he seems to enjoy going right-handed, and ran a race full of promise last time over an inadequate trip. Arguably his best two runs have come at Kempton over three-miles, and he gave weight and a thumping to Go Conquer last December (that form given a boost last week at Ascot). I fancy he’ll go close.

Colin Tizzard looks sure to fire plenty darts at the target. Theatre Guide, Tempestatefloresco and Bally Longford look likely contenders. The latter is the one I fancy to go well. Owned by Ann and Alan Potts, he had just the three runs for his new trainer last winter due to a stress fracture. Now back to full health and thoroughly used to his new surroundings, he could take a marked step forward this term. His seasonal debut was certainly promising, when fourth behind Mr Mix at Wincanton. He should improve plenty for that, and is 5lbs better off at the weights. He could go close.

Neil Mulholland is another with plenty of potential runners. Pilgrims Bay is best going right-handed, and beat Double Shuffle at Kempton in February. He’s worse off at the weights, though the seven-year-old may well have further improvement to come. He does very little when hitting the front, and as such, may still be ahead of the handicapper.

Mulholland also saddles The Young Master. Talented, though out of sorts last year, he’s still only eight, despite appearing to have been around forever. His handicap has dropped from a high of 150 to a rather attractive mark. He’s another that likes going right-handed and is capable of running a huge race.

This looks an intriguing renewal, and a case can be made for many. As long as the rain stays away, I can see Double Shuffle going very close. I’ll certainly be on his side. I also like Mr Mix, though his lack of experience is a slight concern. Nevertheless, I think there’s plenty more to come from this young chaser, and will be throwing a few quid his way.

Best of luck to all those having a punt. It looks a tricky one.

Nicholls Strong Hand in Fixed Brush

Haydock’s Fixed Brush Hurdle is small on history, but has quickly become big on reputation.

Not just seen as a staying hurdle event, the race is often used as a transition from the smaller obstacles to a career over fences. The impressive roll of honour is testament to its attraction, with past winners including Halcon Genelardais, Diamond Harry, Grand Crus and Dynaste.

The first running was in 2005, and six of the 11 winners were bred in France. It’s a race that has favoured young precocious types, with five and six-year-olds winning all bar three. David Pipe’s three victories from 2010 to 2013 typified the profile, with Grands Crus, Dynaste and Gevrey Chambertin all French bred five-year-olds.

Pipe is the most successful trainer in the race, but will not be adding to his record on Saturday, as he is without a contender. Last year’s event went to Dan Skelton with his ill-fated Baradari. Yet another five-year-old, he revelled in testing conditions, winning easily despite the burden of 11-2 on his back.

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It’s surprising for a handicap, that weight has never proved an obstacle to success. Three top-weights have been successful, with only four horses having carried less than 11 stone to victory in the event’s short history. Horses making their seasonal debut have a decent record in the race, so don’t be put-off by those lacking a prep-run.

It’s something of a surprise to see that Paul Nicholls is yet to win the Fixed Brush. That could all change on Saturday, as he has three leading contenders; all bred in France. Mr Mix and Ibis Du Rheu fit the winning profile perfectly, as both are progressive looking five-year-olds. Both are expected to head over fences this winter, and Nicholls has clearly chosen this as a suitable starting point. The former is arguably better suited by testing conditions, and made a satisfactory return in the Silver Trophy at Chepstow last month.

Ibis Du Rheu won the Martin Pipe at the Cheltenham Festival on good ground, and I’d be concerned that this trip; just shy of three miles, on testing ground, may stretch his stamina somewhat. Arguably the stronger contender for Nicholls is the older French Bred, Caid Du Berlais. He’s returned to hurdles after a year off the track through injury, and impressed last time with victory at Aintree. The trip looks fine and he is proficient on all ground conditions. Nicholls has claimers on all three contenders, with Stan Sheppard taking a valuable 5lb off Caid, Jack Sherwood 5lbs off Ibis and the impressive Harry Cobden taking 3lbs off Mr Mix.

The Skeltons took the race last year, and are likely to have the favourite on Saturday, with Two Taffs currently heading the market. An embryonic chaser, this son of Flemensfirth is a gorgeous looking fella. He travels powerfully through a race, and ran a cracker in the EBF final at Sandown on soft ground back in March. The trip and conditions should suit, as should the long straight at Haydock, which should aid this big, powerful galloping sort. He looks sure to go well.

Matorico’s an interesting contender for Jonjo O’Neill and JP McManus. Another five-year-old, he ran with promise last season, winning a fair handicap at Cheltenham in April. He ran a couple of times on the flat during the summer, but has not been sighted since May. A son of Mastercraftsman, he appears to cope with all conditions, and could prove a fair each-way proposition.

Harry Fry looks set to run his Albert Bartlett winner Unowhatimeanharry. He went through last season undefeated, and will have no problems with ground conditions. His improvement throughout the last campaign was astounding, and a mark of 149 looks fair enough. It would come as a surprise if he didn’t run well, though as an eight-year-old the trends are very much against him.

Paul Nicholls has started the season in sensational fashion and I fancy he has the firepower to win this race. Of his three, Mr Mix is the one that I will be siding with. He’s sure to have improved from his Chepstow run, and I’ll take him to get the better of Two Taffs and Caid Du Berlais. Expect a host of decent chasers to come from the race, whatever the outcome on Saturday.