Tolworth hero Metier tops 49 Betfair Hurdle possibles

Harry Fry is considering the Betfair Hurdle for his impressive Tolworth winner Metier, with the sponsor installing him as the 6-1 favourite on release of the entries.

Useful on the Flat in Ireland for Andy Slattery, Metier has taken to hurdles exceptionally well following a year off, winning at Newton Abbot and Ascot before his romp in last Saturday’s Grade One at Sandown.

With nothing else on Fry’s radar, it will either be Newbury on February 13, for which Metier is one of 49 entries, or straight to the Cheltenham Festival for the unbeaten novice.

“The owner and I discussed plans after Saturday’s win and wanted to give ourselves the option of the Betfair Hurdle, because we think it’s a race that could really suit him,” said Fry.

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“He will either go for that en route to Cheltenham or go straight for Cheltenham – we will just look at the entries and weights and see how the horse is in the coming weeks.

“We’ve thought for a while now that a race like the Betfair Hurdle would be right up his street – a really strongly run two-mile race on a big, galloping track like Newbury, plus as an ex-Flat horse we know he will handle a big field.

“We’ve been delighted with the progress he’s made this season and are really excited to see how far he can go over hurdles in the future – hopefully he can make a mark at the spring Festivals.”

Fry also has another entry in Lightly Squeeze, who was still in front when coming down at the final flight in the race last season.

Trainer Harry Fry has two live entries in the Betfair Hurdle
Trainer Harry Fry has two live entries in the Betfair Hurdle (John Walton/PA)

“We’ve also entered Lightly Squeeze, who was running a great race in this last year when taking a heavy fall at the last,” Fry added.

“He ran a nice race in the Betfair Exchange Trophy at Ascot last time out, so we potentially have two darts to throw at race.”

Paul Nicholls has a numerically strong entry with Solo, Thyme White, Christopher Wood, Miranda, Friend or Foe and Wild Max.

Nicky Henderson, the most successful trainer in the race with five victories, can choose from Buzz, Fred, Marie’s Rock and Mister Coffey.

Last year’s runner-up Ciel De Neige could run for Willie Mullins, with Dan Skelton holding two live chances in Third Time Lucki and Cadzand.

Ballyandy, Soaring Glory, The Shunter and Albert’s Back are others among a strong field of contenders.

Greatrex fine quashed as panel halves Sheehan’s riding ban

Trainer Warren Greatrex has had his £3000 fine quashed – while jockey Gavin Sheehan has had his suspension halved – following their appeal against a judgment of schooling and conditioning Beaufort in public at Newbury.

The disciplinary panel of the British Horseracing Authority cut Sheehan’s ban down from 14 days to seven, as well as wiping out Greatrex’s fine.

The Newbury stewards ruled the horse had appeared to be ridden without substantial effort from Sheehan.

Beaufort was one of three complete outsiders at 250-1 in a 16-runner maiden hurdle over two miles on December 16, and was beaten 76 lengths in 13th place behind odds-on winner Lecale’s Article.

Both Sheehan and Greatrex have had their deposits returned. Full written reasons for the panel’s decision will follow in due course.

Greatrex said: “I’m happy with the result. Obviously I thought I was sure I hadn’t done anything wrong, and it’s been proved that’s the case.”

Henderson eyes Game Spirit for Altior

Altior could bid to get back on track in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February.

Trainer Nicky Henderson has used the Grade Two contest over two miles as a prep run for the Cheltenham Festival in the past, with Altior taking the prize in 2018 and 2020.

The Seven Barrows handler will be hoping the dual Queen Mother Champion Chase winner will show his spark in that race, having been beaten into second place by Nube Negra in Sunday’s Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton.

Altior was scoped after that race, and Henderson is awaiting the results.

“We’ve scoped him – but it has to go to the laboratory, and we will look at it from there,” he said.

“We scoped him on Christmas Eve, but it was perfectly clean. Our vet has been closed here – so all our scopes are going to Newmarket, and that takes a bit of time.

“We will probably know a bit more tomorrow. He was very bright and sparky in himself this morning anyway – and so was Epatante (second at 1-5 in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle). She was very fresh.

“They did scope Altior there (Kempton), and there was something there. There was no blood or anything like that. There was probably a significant amount of mucus in there. You scope any horse after a race, and it always brings anything out of the bottom of the lungs.”

Looking to plans for Altior as he spoke at Newbury on Tuesday, Henderson added: “I would have thought this (Game Spirit) is the most likely place he will go.

“I’ve not thought about it yet (Cheltenham entries and Ryanair). I’ve not put him in the Clarence House, because that would come too quick anyway. We just want to get to him the bottom of a little bit.

“He has got a bit dreamier in his races – that is a bit of age and a bit of this and that. For all the world it looked as though he wanted two and a half miles because he finished his race very well – which was encouraging.”

Inspection at Newbury – and ‘concerning’ forecast for Cheltenham

The prospect of continued wintry weather is giving officials a headache at Newbury and Cheltenham – where high-profile meetings are due to take place on Tuesday and New Year’s Day.

The card at Newbury, set to feature the Grade One MansionBet Challow Novices’ Hurdle, is subject to a precautionary inspection on Tuesday morning because of the threat of frost.

The Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle is Friday’s feature at Cheltenham – where the going is currently heavy, waterlogged in places, with colder weather bringing sleet and snow expected this week.

While Newbury clerk of the course Keith Ottesen reports the Berkshire track to be perfectly raceable at present, the threat of an overnight frost and possible wintry showers has prompted him to call an 8.30am check.

He said: “We have covered the racing lines on both the hurdles and chase tracks. It might drop to 0C or -1C, with daytime temperatures of 2C or 3C – so pretty similar to today really, with the possibility of some wintry showers.

“We are perfectly raceable today – and the inspection is purely precautionary – but there is no point in being complacent, so we will have a look in the morning.”

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The going is currently described as soft at the Berkshire venue.

At Cheltenham, clerk of the course Simon Claisse, described the forecast as “concerning”.

The track has been hit with 110 millimetres of rain since the last meeting there on December 12. The further worry for officials is that sleet and snow is forecast, with overnight frosts and daytime temperatures of 3C.

“It’s a concerning forecast in that we wouldn’t take much more rain and sleet or snow,” said Claisse.

“We’re not in a position to cover, given our track is waterlogged at the moment.

“There’s snow in the forecast. It’s fingers crossed really we dodge the worst of the cold and any further rain.

“We’ll take stock tomorrow, then it’s declarations on Wednesday and racing on Friday.”

Conditions are also on the easy side at Doncaster and Kelso – with an inspection scheduled at the Scottish track for 7.30am “in case temperatures are lower than forecast overnight”.

Southwell will be racing on the all-weather.

Wednesday’s meeting at Haydock has already been called off because of snow.

The Merseyside venue was due to stage a seven-race card, but four inches of snow fell at the track overnight, forcing the cancellation of the meeting.

The course tweeted: “Unfortunately due to four inches of snow overnight and substantial rain on Boxing Day, racing has been abandoned on Wednesday 30th December.”

Racing is still set to go ahead at Market Rasen and Taunton over jumps, with an all-weather card at Wolverhampton.

The scheduled jumps card at Uttoxeter has been abandoned because of waterlogging, however, on Thursday – when an additional all-weather meeting will take place at Newcastle.

Star Gate’s Challow challenge as Williams eyes another Grade One

Evan Williams is still on a high following Silver Streak’s maiden Grade One win on Boxing Day – and he is chasing another top-level success with Star Gate in the Mansionbet Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury.

The youngest runner in Tuesday’s line-up – he does not turn five until New Year’s Day – brings an unbeaten record into the contest, having won his only point-to-point, a maiden hurdle at Chepstow and scored a very impressive success in a Grade Two at Sandown last time out.

“It might be asking a bit much to win another!” said Williams.

“He handles soft ground, we know that, but he’s only a four-year-old – although he turns five at the end of the week.

“I didn’t envisage giving him such a busy campaign if I’m honest – it definitely wasn’t on my radar.

“But the horse is fresh and well, he’s come out of Sandown well – and this is probably the only place we could go in reality.

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“I didn’t want to drop down in trip for the Tolworth (at Sandown on Saturday) and I didn’t fancy running him somewhere with a penalty in a Grade Two, having won one of those already.

“It’s a very hot race, very deep, and it will be very difficult to win.”

Kim Bailey’s Does He Know failed to win in two outings over timber last season but is three from three this time around, with one of those a Grade Two at Cheltenham last time out.

All his wins have come on a decent surface, though, and Bailey is unsure how he will handle softer ground, with the meeting subject to precautionary inspection at 8.30am due to the threat of frost.

David Bass gets a great leap out of Does He Know on their way to winning at Cheltenham
David Bass gets a great leap out of Does He Know on their way to winning at Cheltenham (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“He’s pleased us enormously with what he has done so far, but this is a big step up and we need to find out whether he is a March Cheltenham horse or not,” said the Andoversford trainer.

“He deserves to be running in a race like this, anyway.

“I don’t know about the ground (being softer). I had him entered at (nearby) Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, but that will be heavy – we’ve got a covering of snow this morning. Fingers crossed, he will handle it.”

Paul Nicholls is another trainer with a Grade One already in the bag over Christmas, having won an incredible 12th King George with Frodon.

He runs Bravemansgame, very impressive at Exeter and Newbury the last twice.

“I think the world of Bravemansgame who has a big future and won so impressively at this track a month ago over this trip,” Nicholls told Betfair.

“He has matured and strengthened, continues to please at home – and I’m hopeful the soft ground at Newbury will not be a problem for him.”

Alan King’s The Glancing Queen has twice run well in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham and made a winning start to life over hurdles at Warwick last month.

“The Glancing Queen was very impressive at Warwick and enjoyed the experience, which was what we wanted, so we now look forward to seeing how she shapes up in grade,” King told his website.

Dan Skelton’s Wilde About Oscar and the Sophie Leech-trained Enfant Roi complete the classy field.

Frosty Newbury calls inspection

Tuesday’s meeting at Newbury, which is due to feature the Grade One MansionBet Challow Novices’ Hurdle, is subject to a precautionary inspection because of the threat of frost.

While clerk of the course Keith Ottesen reports the track to be perfectly raceable at present, the prospect of an overnight frost and possible wintry showers has prompted him to call an 8.30am check.

He said: “We have covered the racing lines on both the hurdles and chase tracks. It might drop to 0C or -1C, with daytime temperatures of 2C or 3C – so pretty similar to today really, with the possibility of some wintry showers.

“We are perfectly raceable today – and the inspection is purely precautionary – but there is no point in being complacent, so we will have a look in the morning.”

The going is currently described as soft at the Berkshire venue.

Conditions also on the easy side at Doncaster and Kelso – with an inspection scheduled at the Scottish track for 7.30am “in case temperatures are lower than forecast overnight”.

Southwell will be racing on the all-weather.

Wednesday’s meeting at Haydock has already been called off because of snow.

The Merseyside venue was due to stage a seven-race card, but four inches of snow fell at the track overnight, forcing the cancellation of the meeting.

The course tweeted: “Unfortunately due to four inches of snow overnight and substantial rain on Boxing Day, racing has been abandoned on Wednesday 30th December.”

Racing is still scheduled for Market Rasen and Taunton over jumps, with an all-weather card at Wolverhampton.

The scheduled jumps card at Uttoxeter has been abandoned because of waterlogging, however, on Thursday – when an additional all-weather meeting will take place at Newcastle.

Stewards ban Sheehan and fine Greatrex over Beaufort run

Jockey Gavin Sheehan is set to miss the busy new year period and the first two weekends of 2021 after being hit with a 14-day ban for his riding of Beaufort at Newbury.

The local stewards also fined trainer Warren Greatrex £3,000 for ‘schooling and conditioning the horse on a racecourse’.

Beaufort was one of three complete outsiders at 250-1 in the 16-strong field and was beaten 76 lengths in 13th place. The horse is suspended from running in any race for 40 days.

Greatrex described the decision as “farcical”, however, and insists he has done nothing wrong.

Beaufort had been beaten a total of 251 lengths in four previous races for him.

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“I have to say it’s just ridiculous,” said Greatrex.

“The horse has got a rating of 87. He has been very keen in the past and hard work at home. Last year he had a couple of runs and he was headstrong. He ran at Newbury last year and finished third and bled after the race.

“We took him to Perth, and Kielan Woods rode. He led again that day, and Kielan Woods said he needed his wind doing and changing the tactics.

“We ran him at Plumpton last Monday when I instructed Gavin to do what Kielan had said, and he did get better as the race went on, but he is what is. I’ve run him today to try and improve him, because I think the more racing he does the better he will get.

“He behaved badly at the start and jumped midfield. But he was keen early on in the race, and Gavin did the best thing by trying to take a pull to settle him. They have said he has not ridden him out to the line. Are we meant to beat horses that are out of contention? He is rated 87, and a 250-1 shot.

“He is not running for a mark, because he has already got one –  I am just trying to get the horse better by running him. It’s farcical. He finished 13th out of 16. What good going forward is it going to do to batter him to finish eighth.”

Greatrex will take advice before deciding to contest the verdict, but did reveal Sheehan intends to appeal. Sheehan returned to action only last month after breaking his wrist.

“I know Gavin plans to appeal,” said Greatrex.

“I will wait to hear from people and seek their advice and go from there. I’m confident I’ve done nothing wrong.

“I feel sorry for Gavin, because he is going to miss 14 important days of racing. He is a good guy that was riding a bad horse. He has done nothing wrong.”

Sheehan’s ban runs from December 30-31, January 1-12 inclusive.

Magic Of Light cruises to Listed hat-trick at Newbury

Magic Of Light opened her account for the season in impressive fashion as she completed a hat-trick of wins in Newbury’s Pertemps Network Mares’ Chase.

Last year’s Grand National runner-up barely had to get out of second gear to continue her dominance of the extended two-mile-seven-furlong Listed race, justifying odds of 1-2 in the three-runner field.

The Jessica Harrington-trained nine-year-old put in a bold round of jumping from the front under Robbie Power before cruising home eight lengths clear of Sensulano, who blundered her chance away with a costly mistake at the second last.

Power said: “It’s hat-trick complete. It’s fantastic.

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“She feels as she good as when she won it for the first time, if not better. She travelled super and jumped super. She didn’t put a foot wrong the whole way round.

“I gave her a breather after the last one out of the back straight and I just rolled on to the cross fence.

“She just loves jumping. She pricks her ears, and you know she is watching what she is doing because she is concentrating on her fences. She is a joy to ride.”

Magic Of Light (second right) is expected to return to Aintree this season
Magic Of Light (second right) is expected to return to Aintree this season (Nigel French/PA)

The Gold Cup-winning jockey reported the nature of the race suited Magic Of Better much better than 12 months ago – when she appeared briefly to have a real fight on her hands against Field Exhibition, who was a length down when departing at the final fence.

He added: “It suited me a bit better today, because last year I had no company over the first couple of fences and she was very idle in front.

“Today I had a bit of company over the first couple of fences, and it just got her racing. That made my job a lot easier than 12 months ago.”

Magic Of Light, who was cut to 25-1 for this season’s Grand National by Paddy Power, will tread a familiar path back to Aintree – with her jockey confirming next month’s Grade Two Warfield Mares’ Hurdle at Ascot, which she has also won for the past two years, will be the aim.

He added: “At the end of the day the Grand National is the main target at Aintree in April.

“It is a nice plan for her we have used the last couple of years. She will come back at the end of January for the three-mile hurdle at Ascot.

“That’s the plan we have used, and it has worked so far, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix. It’s ideal if we can get her to Aintree with loads of confidence under her belt.”

Magic Of Light seeks Newbury hat-trick

Grand National runner-up Magic Of Light will bid for a third successive victory in the Pertemps Network Mares’ Chase at Newbury.

Jessica Harrington’s charge claimed Wednesday’s Listed prize and a Grade Two over hurdles at Ascot a couple of seasons ago, before going on to find only Tiger Roll too strong in the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree.

The nine-year-old completed the same Newbury-Ascot double last term, to set up another National bid, but the Aintree spectacular was ultimately cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Magic Of Light finished a well-beaten fourth on her return to action in a hurdle race at Punchestown last month, but will be a warm order to get back on the winning trail at Newbury under Robbie Power.

Harrington said: “She’s going for the hat-trick and has travelled over great. I just don’t want too much rain – that’s my only worry.

“The ground was heavy for her comeback run at Punchestown, and she was running over a distance much too short for her, but it was grand.

“The Grand National is the plan again, all being well.”

Magic Of Light faces just two rivals, in the Noel Williams-trained Sensulano and Carrolls Milan from Fergal O’Brien’s yard.

Sensulano was actually runner-up to Magic Of Light at Ascot in January, but has a mountain to climb on official ratings in their latest clash – with Carrolls Milan even more up against it.

Scudamore takes straightforward path to third Trophy victory

Keeping things simple can often be the best route to glory, as Tom Scudamore demonstrated with a fine front-running ride aboard Cloth Cap to secure a record-equalling third Ladbrokes Trophy success at Newbury.

Rarely will victory in one of jump racing’s flagship contests have much smoother than it was for the 38-year-old aboard Jonjo O’Neill’s charge.

While it is the final result that counts, getting a good start can often be overlooked – a factor Scudamore believes was key to the pair’s triumph.

Scudamore said: “I just wanted to get a good start. It’s the first time he has really had the ground since he was placed in the Scottish National.

“I just thought the important bit would be in the first four or five fences, as I didn’t want to get too far back and as I’d never get at them.

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“When he winged the first ditch, the second fence, I was thinking I could be in for quite a thrill here, and so it turned out. It was great, very straightforward.”

Getting down to 10st can be difficult for some jockeys, not for Scudamore though, who barely had to break out of his regular routine in order to take up, what would turn out to be, a rare winning ride for O’Neill.

He added: “Siruh Du Lac was taken out at the entry stage, I had ridden for Jonjo a little bit in the past and a bit more for Mr Hemmings and they wanted someone that could commit and do 10st.

“Richie (McLernon) was claimed for Regal Encore and Jonjo (O’Neill junior), with it being 10st, wouldn’t be able to do the weight, so it worked out quite nicely.

“I’m always quite fit and I wouldn’t be letting my weight get away with me, so it wouldn’t be a problem. I was still able to have something last night and just sit in a hot bath for half an hour this morning, but nothing too bad.”

Having eclipsed his father Peter’s tally of two wins in the race, Scudamore was delighted to be able to give O’Neill, who failed to win the three-and-a-quarter-mile prize as a rider, his first victory in the Grade Three as a trainer.

He added: “Jonjo is just about the best trainer of staying chasers there is. He has won the Grand National, Irish Grand National and Gold Cup, he beat me (as a trainer) in the Gold Cup and I forgive him now!

“I’ve won it for the Pipes, Tizzards and Jonjo and that is quite an impressive roll of trainers to win a big race for, so I’m very grateful and Dad and Jonjo go back a long way.

“He has always been very kind to me, so I’m pleased I’m able to reward his faith with a nice winner.”

The stands may have been sparsely populated with only a small number of owners, trainers and racecourse staff dotted about, but it failed to take the gloss off the victory for Scudamore.

He added: “It is sad there are not many people here, but from my point of view, you have to concentrate on the job in hand.

“Yes it would be nice for other people to be here and great for the racecourse, but in the circumstances racing has done a great job.

“Growing up, I always felt it was one of the classic races. To come out and win this again is a great thrill, as it is one of the best races on probably the best course to ride.”

Cloth Cap makes all for Ladbrokes Trophy triumph

Cloth Cap ran the opposition into the ground with a superb all-the-way triumph in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.

The Jonjo O’Neill-trained eight-year-old was given an ultra-positive ride by Tom Scudamore, who also made the most of carrying bottom weight in the prestigious staying handicap chase.

With Cloth Cap, carrying the familiar colours of Trevor Hemmings, putting in an impeccable round of jumping, Scudamore was always in control.

The well-fancied Vinndication was close up but he came down at the fifth-last fence.

Aye Right, who was prominent throughout, tried to lay down a bid, as did last year’s runner-up The Conditional, but Cloth Cap held all the aces.

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The 9-1 shot galloped on strongly from the last to win by 10 lengths from Aye Right (12-1). The Conditional (14-1) was a length and a half away in third place with The Hollow Ginge (50-1) fourth.

Cloth Cap was slashed to 25-1 from 66-1 with Paddy Power and Betfair for the Randox Health Grand National.

O’Neill said: “He has been in tremendous form. His run at Cheltenham when Richie (McLernon) rode him was a cracker. It was great – he jumped brilliantly, it was just brilliant.

“I said to Tom ‘he gets four miles, so the rest is down to you’ – obviously he did his home work. The ride came about through Dave Roberts his agent. We were looking for someone to do 10st and I couldn’t do it, so I thought Tom was the next best thing!

“I was second on Tamalin one year, behind a horse (Zeta’s Son) ridden by Ian Watkinson and trained by Peter Bailey. Michael Buckley owned it and I can still see the colours.

“It is a great start to the season and it was brilliant. Most of the team are running well.

“It is great to win it for anybody. For Trevor it is great, as he loves long-distance chasers and we have been trying to get him to run in the National really, so he is probably on a mark where he will probably get in.

“He needs good ground and that is important to him really. If he gets his ground in the National, take the price now. I was a bit worried about the ground as the lads were saying it is a bit slower today as he wants it good. It was good enough and that is the main thing.”

Graham said: “We are just so chuffed. All week I’ve been thinking ‘are we above ourselves taking on all these fantastic trainers and fantastic southern horses’.

Aye Right (right) delighted his trainer Harriet Graham
Aye Right (right) delighted his trainer Harriet Graham (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“I’ve always thought so much of him and Callum (Bewley) and him have got on really well. We’ve stayed loyal to our jockey and the owners stayed loyal to him and he did a fantastic job.

“The horse jumped incredibly and galloped and we were brave enough to take it to them – it was a super job.

“Over cups of coffee at the kitchen table, we’ve often thought of the Scottish National and we had been going to go to that meeting last season for a supporting chase. That is on the radar, but it is a long way away. I think we have a really nice horse.”

Destination delivers in Francome heat

Next Destination backed up the promise he showed on his comeback to make a winning debut over fences in the Ladbrokes John Francome Novices’ Chase at Newbury.

A dual Grade One winner over hurdles for champion Irish trainer Willie Mullins in 2018, the eight-year-old was off for 920 days before finishing second to Roksana over hurdles at Wetherby on his first start for Paul Nicholls.

Graduating to the bigger obstacles, Next Destination showed he could have a bright future as he stayed on well to claim the Grade Two spoils.

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Kalooki made the running until the second-last fence where Harry Cobden delivered Next Destination to take the lead. The 11-8 favourite was challenged by One For The Team, but kept up the gallop to score by a length and a quarter.

Next Destination was cut to 12-1 from 20-1 with Betfair and Paddy Power for the race formerly known as the RSA Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.

Nicholls said: “It is credit to the team and everyone at home to get him to the course really, as he has had two and half years off. He had severed a front tendon, broken a pelvis and Malcolm sent him to us in June and said ‘if you can get him on the course, it will be a fantastic effort’.

“He went to Wetherby and ran a lot better than we thought to be honest with you. We schooled him over fences and he jumped great and he did that really well. Slower ground will suit him a lot more than today, but it was just about OK today.

“He has got talent and if we can keep him sound, he is a very good horse. We hadn’t had a gallop away before then (Wetherby), so he was going to improve and fitness wise, he will just keep getting better.

“You’ve just got to mind him a fraction with what you do at home. He is a lovely horse. We have just got to space his runs out, look after him and you never know, he could come back here next year for the big one (Ladbrokes Trophy) as he would be the ideal horse for that.

“You would want to mind the ground and you wouldn’t want to run him that often. You could go to Kempton on Boxing Day if the ground was really soft. I’d be bit nervous with a horse like him that has had problems, as you have the grass and the sand there with the all-weather which is not ideal.

“Off the top of my head, the Reynoldstown at Ascot would suit him really well in soft ground. Just winning today, for the horse, everyone involved and the owner being patient, is a bonus as he has done very well.

“He could well be an RSA horse and he will have an entry, but I’d say he would want really nice, soft ground to go there. He does jump a little left handed, so it probably would suit him quite nicely. He would be up there in the mix with horses that can run in the race.”

Pink Sheets makes all for Listed glory at Newbury

Mick Quinn was thrilled to see Pink Sheets take Listed gold with an impressive front-running success in the Play Ladbrokes 5-A-Side On Football Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury.

Arriving on the back of hat-trick of wins, the improving six-year-old added to that tally when taking a step up in class in her stride with a dominant display.

Finding plenty from the from the front, the 10-1 shot kept on gamely all the way to line to defeat the running-on Ahorsewithnoname by three and a half lengths.

Quinn said: “I’m chuffed to bits. She has just improved with every race this year. She had won her last three and she deserved to take her chance at this grade. I don’t think she got the credit she deserved for winning with a double penalty against the geldings last time.

“Jack (Quinlan) schooled her Wednesday and he felt from 19 days ago, she had strengthened, was full of herself and jumped beautifully.

“She doesn’t have to front run, but if no one is going to go on, she is happy to bowl along. She just jumps from hurdle to hurdle. I thought her jumping was impeccable and I thought Jack rode a lovely race pace wise, as she just had enough to see it through.

“It’s my fifth stakes winner and the last one was a long time ago, so I’m chuffed to bits.”

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Pink Sheets was introduced at 20-1 for the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival by Paddy Power.

Floressa followed in the hoofprints of Grade One-winning stablemate Epatante by landing the Ladbrokes Committed To Safer Gambling Intermediate Hurdle.

Racing prominently throughout the extended two-mile prize, the 10-1 shot, who had a racecourse gallop at the track earlier this month, found plenty for pressure under Jerry McGrath to defeat The Pink’n by a length and a quarter.

Trainer Nicky Henderson said: “Reggie Pallas, the lad that looks after this filly and rides her every day, has done a brilliant job as she is not the easiest. I swore she wanted two and a half. The owners were adamant she was a two-miler and they got their way and quite rightly.

“They had a lot of fun with her last year and Jerry has given her a super front-running ride. Reggie and the owners must take most the credit.

“She is a hot-headed lady, like most of the good ones are, and we put one of those red hoods on, but it made no difference.

“It’s amazing to think this was the race that Epatante started off on 137 last year and she was off 141.”

Cap Du Nord opened his account for the campaign when improving on last year’s fifth to win the Sir Peter O’Sullevan Memorial Handicap Chase.

Appearing to benefit from a strong pace set by eventual third Mellow Ben, the Christian Williams-trained seven-year-old forged on after the second-last before drawing smartly clear to defeat recent Aintree scorer Canelo by four and a quarter lengths.

Jack Tudor, winning jockey, said of the 7-1 shot: “They went fast early on and we always thought he would stay very well.

“I thought I was a bit far back down the back, but they went such a good gallop I thought they would stop turning in. He passed a few horses, locked on and then he took off and won nicely in the end.

“I knew they were going fast as he is quite a good travelling horse and I was flat out the whole way. He ran well in the race last year and it is nice to win it this year.”

Flash The Steel set up a return to Graded company when bouncing back from a fall at Haydock seven days ago to claim the Get Your Ladbrokes £1 Free Bet Today Handicap Hurdle by a length and three-quarters.

Trainer Dan Skelton said of the 12-1 shot: “We were frustrated with that (Haydock) as he jumped the jump and almost forgot to put his legs out.

“We jumped him twice in the week and we were happy with him and if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have brought him.

“His work at home was very good and I went to Haydock full of excitement, but coming here today, backing up that quick, you never really know, but he has done it really well.

“I’m going to try him in the Relkeel on New Year’s Day. It’s a step back up to Graded company and he doesn’t carry a penalty.”

Johnson believes Thyme is right for Stayers’ title

Richard Johnson will always have fond memories of the Stayers’ Hurdle, and he believes Thyme Hill can give him another success in the race that was the source of his first Cheltenham Festival winner 21 years ago.

Having failed to land the Grade One prize since steering Anzum to victory in 1999, the 43-year-old thinks he has found a horse capable of ending that drought following the Philip Hobbs-trained gelding’s victory in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

In race that could have easily have passed for a top-level test, the six-year-old made a triumphant return in claiming the Grade Two by a length and a quarter, leaving Johnson excited about the season ahead.

Johnson said: “Anzum was my first Festival winner and David Nicholson’s last, so it was a big moment for me. That is a long time ago, but there are lots of fond memories and hopefully this horse is heading in the right direction.

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“There was plenty of strength and depth to the race today and I’m sure plenty of people will knock it as it was not the truest-run race, but I don’t think it would have been a positive for my lad either.”

Thyme Hill was squeezed short for room at a crucial time in the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival back in March and Johnson feels the pair have unfinished business together at the meeting.

He added: “He was the one I was really looking forward to at Cheltenham last season, but things just didn’t fall our way.

“I can’t say he would have definitely won, but he didn’t get any luck on the day. I’d like to think that hopefully with what he showed today, he can go back to Cheltenham next year and have a proper go. It was fantastic to start off the season in that way.”

Johnson has been privileged to partner plenty of top-class horses during his career, and he is in little doubt that Thyme Hill possesses all the attributes to be a regular in Grade One company for years to come.

He added: “What I love about him is that he is very straightforward. When you ask him to do something, he wants to please. He is the ideal racehorse in that he gets on with it, stays well, jumps really nicely and he has shown he has a huge amount of ability.

“You ride lots of nice horses, but to have a Grade One horse, they are hard to find and not easy to come by, so when you find one you are very pleased.”

Winning a fifth jump jockeys title may be one battle too many for Johnson this season, but with the likes of last season’s Challow Hurdle winner among his mounts, it has given him a renewed enthusiasm for the campaign.

He added: “The championship is the most important thing you can aim at, but you look forward to having horses like him and Defi Du Seuil.

“When we had the likes of Menorah, Wishfull Thinking and Captain Chris, we were probably a bit spoiled as we had three top-class horses all together.

“It is lovely though to have some very smart horses at Philip’s – like Thyme Hill – and some other nice ones you are hoping will develop further down the line.”

Thyme Hill takes Long Distance prize

Thyme Hill laid a marker down for the new season when holding off Paisley Park in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

Trained by Philip Hobbs, Thyme Hill was a Grade One winner as a novice last term and was a slightly unlucky loser when meeting trouble in running in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in March.

None of the 10 contenders at Newbury looked keen to make the running, with the field hanging back as the tapes went up.

Eventually Honest Vic was ridden into an early lead and he held the advantage until Vision Des Flos went from last to first under Robbie Power as the field embarked on the second circuit.

When he was reeled in as they entered the straight, there were plenty in with chances as Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar, McFabulous, Summerville Boy and the first two home were all still travelling well.

But they dropped away one by one, with McFabulous the last off the bridle but appearing to not quite get home as Thyme Hill and Paisley Park fought out a thrilling finish.

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Richard Johnson pushed Thyme Hill (7-2) a length and a half clear of Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park at line, with the runner-up conceding 3lb and putting his Cheltenham disappointment behind him with a fine effort.

Thyme Hill is now as low as 6-1 with Betfair for the Stayer’s Hurdle, with Paisley Park a 5-1 chance.

Hobbs said: “They were making a lot about the race before, but we are obviously delighted with him. He was a bit geed up beforehand and I was a bit concerned about that as he is normally on his toes, but not too much. In the race he settled and jumped well. I was very happy with him.

“I would very much hope he could progress as that is only his fifth hurdle race and he is only six. There is still room for improvement. He would have been pretty fit today, but that run would put him right as well.

“He is not the hardest to get fit, but at the same time he must come on for the run a bit. He schooled over fences when the season finished and he schooled particularly well, but you just have to think he was hopefully going to be good enough to run in this department.

“If he flopped today, it would have been a disaster as it would have been too late to go novice chasing, but thankfully we were OK.

“I was (confident three miles would be his trip) after Cheltenham, as he stayed on very well in the Albert Bartlett. He was unlucky and got squeezed out a bit, so he was unfortunate there.

“The Long Walk is a strong possibility and the Cleeve is a possibility as well. I would have thought it is likely he would only have one run before Cheltenham.

“He is not the sort of horse that holds condition well, but he has got better as he has got older, so hopefully we can have a busier season, but there aren’t that many options for him. There is the Long Walk, Cleeve, Cheltenham and then hopefully he can go to Aintree and Punchestown afterwards.

“He is definitely the best horse I’ve had in this division as I’ve never had a horse that was even likely for the Stayers’ Hurdle.”

Paisley Park was found to be suffering a heart problem following his Festival defeat in March, but jockey Aidan Coleman was thrilled with his performance on his return to action.

He said: “Fair play to the winner, as he is the new kid on the block. But from where we left off from Cheltenham in March, we have come an awful long way, bearing in mind he couldn’t raise a gallop for obvious reasons and we all know why.

“He has gone around today, travelled with loads of enthusiasm and jumped well. It turned into a sprint, but it was the same for all of them, so we are not making any excuses on that front.

“It was fantastic to see him gallop all the way to the line and just take a massive step forward from his last run. Without winning, I couldn’t be happier.”