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Shishkin stays unbeaten over fences with Aintree strike

Shishkin maintained his unbeaten record over fences with a workmanlike performance in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

Nicky Henderson’s exciting prospect may not have been as impressive as in previous races, but the 1-8 favourite got the job done to complete the Cheltenham/Aintree two-mile novice Grade One double after taking the Arkle Trophy last month.

Gumball made the running until Nico de Boinville decided to go on some way from home.

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Funambule Sivola put in a brave bid, but Shishkin was too good and went on to win by three and a quarter lengths in what was a good time.

Shishkin was left unchanged as 6-4 favourite for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase with the sponsors and Coral, while Betfair and Paddy Power kept him at 5-4.

Henderson, who also did the double with Chantry House, said: “It’s always difficult after Cheltenham to know how much to do with them. Obviously they are fit, but the team have done great because they came here in pretty good nick. Both are very good novices though, they’ve had pretty nearly perfect seasons.

“Nico said he could have done with a lead for longer. Gumball usually goes a solid gallop, but he didn’t today. He’s a very laid-back horse and at home you don’t see the speed you see on track. He’s got a wonderful temperament and I suspect he was just getting lonely. Fair play to the second, though.

“It’s amazing how quick he gets to the other side of a fence, it’s a very effective technique but it is a bit unusual.

“He won’t go to Punchestown, doing the two is difficult, doing the three, you need to be Sprinter or something, who did it one year.

“You’d like to think it will be the normal two-mile route next year, and I’d like to think Altior is at Sandown in two weeks. If they meet next year, they have to meet.

“It’s amazing we’ve gone from Sprinter to Altior and this lad is going the right way the whole time.”

Shishkin seeks to complete perfect campaign

Shishkin bids to crown his faultless campaign with victory in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old has been foot-perfect in winning each of his four starts over fences to date – most recently dominating his rivals to provide his trainer with a seventh success in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham.

Shishkin is the latest in a long line of crack two milers off the Seven Barrows conveyor belt, following the likes of Remittance Man, Sprinter Sacre and Altior – but that remarkable lineage is something Henderson does not take for granted.

“We’ve been very, very lucky,” he said.

“Sprinter Sacre was the horse of a lifetime, and no sooner had he retired then Altior turned up.

“Altior hasn’t finished yet, but maybe we have another one in Shishkin – they are properly top-class, two-mile chasers.

“They’re exciting races and exciting horses, but you do get a bit edgy with them.”

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Shishkin will be long odds-on to see off four rivals on his first visit to Merseyside on Saturday, with Henderson not expecting the track to pose any problems.

Shishkin after winning the Arkle at Cheltenham
Shishkin after winning the Arkle at Cheltenham (Michael Steele/PA)

He added: “Shishkin proved he is as good as we thought and hoped (at Cheltenham). He did what everybody was looking for, which does make you sleep better.

“Aintree and Cheltenham couldn’t be more different if you tried. Aintree is much more a speed track – but this is a sharp horse, and I have no desire at the moment to go up in trip.”

Elvis Mail (Nick Alexander), Funambule Sivola (Venetia Williams), Gumball (Philip Hobbs) and Longhouse Sale (Dan Skelton) are Shishkin’s four opponents.

Grade One honours are also up for grabs in the preceding Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle.

Leading contenders for the home team include Skelton’s My Drogo and the Donald McCain-trained Minella Drama, while Henry de Bromhead’s Ballyadam and Dreal Deal from Ronan McNally’s yard carry Irish hopes.

Ballyadam steps up to two and a half miles after finishing a distant second behind regular rival Appreciate It in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Chris Richardson, managing director for owners Cheveley Park Stud, said: “We just thought that the ground would be suitable – and while the trip is an unknown, it will hopefully tell us where we should be heading going forward into next year.

“We thought we might be better coming here, rather than going to Punchestown and potentially bumping into Appreciate It for a fourth time this season!

“We’re on a learning curve at the moment. But he’s in good form according to Henry, so we’ll see how we get on.”

Ronan McNally (right) with Dreal Deal at Punchestown
Ronan McNally (right) with Dreal Deal at Punchestown (PA)

Dreal Deal has won his last six starts over hurdles and on the Flat combined, providing McNally with the biggest success of his career in the Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown in February.

The six-year-old missed an intended trip to Cheltenham after McNally’s string was hit by aspergillosis – a reaction caused by a form of mould – and the trainer admits only time will tell whether he is back to his very best.

“We’ll only know after the run. It’s obviously not ideal what’s happened, but he’ll go and take his chance – and we’ll hope for the best,” said the Armagh-based trainer

“His preparation since Punchestown has been poor. But at the same time it was poor going to Punchestown, and he was still very good.

“If he can run up to the Punchestown form it would give him a fair chance.”

Chantry House collects Mildmay honours at Aintree

Chantry House took full advantage of the exit of Espoir De Romay to land victory in the Betway Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

The Marsh Novices’ Chase winner from Cheltenham was two lengths down approaching the second-last when Kim Bailey’s long-time leader crumpled on landing.

That left the 11-8 favourite a long way clear of Shan Blue and he went on to provide Nicky Henderson and Nico de Boinville with a welcome winner having drawn a blank at the meeting up to then.

Espoir De Romay had set a fair gallop out in front, with David Bass getting some great leaps out of his mount.

He looked to be travelling the better of the two, with Bass still yet to really ask a serious question while De Boinville was hard at it, only for Espoir De Romay to come down.

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There were some big disappointments, with the Colin Tizzard pair of The Big Breakaway and Fiddlerontheroof never figuring and Sporting John pulling up.

Shan Blue travelled well before his stamina gave out before three out. He was beaten 32 lengths in second.

The winner was left unchanged at 20-1 by Paddy Power for next year’s Gold Cup, while Espoir De Romay was introduced at 33-1.

I felt I had David covered, but who knows?

De Boinville said: “I thought he travelled well enough early doors and then David Bass went up a gear and I just had to nudge and coax him along. I felt I had David covered, but who knows?

“I think this week has shown that doing Cheltenham and Aintree is quite hard, with only three weeks in between.

“The team at home have done a wonderful job getting Chantry House to run again and put up a performance like that.”

Nico de Boinville and Chantry House
Nico de Boinville and Chantry House (Tim Goode/PA)

Henderson said: “Nico was reasonably confident that he was creeping to the other horse, but I feel very sorry for Kim, as his horse had put up an exhibition and set a very strong gallop.

“The object of the exercise was to find out if he’s a three-mile horse – and they’ve gone a good enough gallop there to prove that is what he wants. It tells us where to go next year.

“I don’t know where we’ll start next season – we’ll talk to JP (McManus).”

He added: “I think you’ve got admire any horse that wins at Cheltenham and comes and wins here – they’ve got to be pretty good to do that.

“He’s a very solid horse with a great temperament and a lovely attitude to life.

“He might have been lucky twice, with Envoi Allen falling at Cheltenham and Kim’s horse today, but I hope he hasn’t used all his luck up as he’s got a bright future in front of him.”

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.

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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.”

Buveur D’Air seeks his second Aintree Hurdle

Buveur D’Air bids to roll back the years and claim a second victory in the Betway Aintree Hurdle.

It is four years since the dual Champion Hurdle hero claimed Thursday’s two-and-a-half-mile Grade One – and he finished second to Supasundae when the race was last run in 2019.

However, Buveur D’Air has endured a far from straightforward couple of years since – with a freak hoof injury suffered in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle later that year keeping him on the sidelines until his comeback at Haydock in January.

Nicky Henderson with Buveur D'Air at Seven Barrows
Nicky Henderson with Buveur D’Air at Seven Barrows (Steven Paston/PA)

After he was beaten by Navajo Pass there, connections ultimately opted against bidding for a third Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last month – a decision trainer Nicky Henderson hopes will pay off on Merseyside.

He said: “He’s come on since Haydock. We had a little hiccup before Cheltenham, which helped us make the decision to come here.

“I think the extra half-a-mile is not an unnatural thing to do when you’re 10 years old.”

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The Seven Barrows handler believes it is a triumph in itself that Buveur D’Air managed to return to the track following the setback he suffered in the north-east almost 18 months ago.

He added: “It was a freak thing that happened to him at Newcastle – the photograph of that piece of wood sticking out of his hoof was absolutely terrifying.

“Both our vets here and the vets in Ireland have done an amazing job. To be fair, it’s a miracle he’s racing again at all.

“To win a race like this and get one back always gives you great satisfaction.”

Among Buveur D’Air’s opponents, Olly Murphy’s Brewin’upastorm and the Paul Nicholls-trained McFabulous renew rivalry after finishing first and second in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell in February.

Murphy said: “It’s been a long-term plan, and two and a half miles on good ground are his ideal conditions.

“It looks very competitive, but he’s going there in the form of his life – and fingers crossed, he’s got a real good each-way chance.”

Nicholls is confident McFabulous can gain revenge, telling Betfair: “Things didn’t go his way at Fontwell, where the track was a bit tight for him and he was caught in a pocket at a crucial time.

“He was also giving 6lb to the winner, who is very good on his day.

“McFabulous will be much happier round a galloping track like Aintree and will relish the drying ground. Hopefully he will go very well.”

Abacadabras after winning the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown
Abacadabras after winning the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown (Niall Carson/PA)

Abacadabras and Jason The Militant are two leading contenders from Ireland.

Denise Foster’s Abacadabras was an early faller in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, while the Henry de Bromhead-trained Jason The Militant was last seen landing the rescheduled Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Fairyhouse in February.

Foster said: “Abacadabras looks amazing at the moment – and I’m looking forward to him, definitely.

“It’s an open race, and I think he would be one of the horses I’d be looking forward to most (this week).”

Three-time Grade One winner Song For Someone (Tom Symonds) and Christmas Hurdle hero Silver Streak (Evan Williams), who is the highest-rated horse in the field, also feature in an 11-strong field.

Buveur D’Air to seek Aintree Hurdle repeat

Buveur D’Air will bid to roll back the years and win a second Betway Aintree Hurdle.

Nicky Henderson’s 10-year-old lifted Thursday’s Grade One prize over two-and-a-half miles in 2017, and was runner-up in 2019.

The dual Champion Hurdle winner was sidelined for 420 days when suffering a freak injury in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November 2019 – and returned to action only in January when he was beaten by Navajo Pass at Haydock.

Henderson also runs Buzz – while Silver Steak, who was a well-beaten fifth in the 2019 renewal of this race on his only previous attempt at two-and-a-half miles, is among the 11 declared this time.

The Evan Williams-trained grey won the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton this winter and was sixth in the Champion Hurdle on his latest start.

Tom Symonds’ Song For Someone, who defeated Silver Streak by a nose in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, is among the opposition – along with the talented but unpredictable Not So Sleepy.

The two Irish-trained runners are Denise Foster’s Abacadabras and Henry de Bromhead’s Jason The Militant, winner of the Red Mills Trial Hurdle.

The other runners are Ballyandy, Brewin’upastorm, McFabulous and Millers Bank.

Emmet Mullins’ versatile performer The Shunter is one of seven declared for the SSS Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase.

The eight-year-old is effective over hurdles and fences, and scooped a £100,000 bonus for connections when winning the Paddy Power Plate Handicap Chase at Cheltenham after taking Kelso’s Morebattle Hurdle.

Rivals include the Henderson-trained Fusil Raffles, who was second to stablemate Chantry House in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Festival.

Eldorado Allen, Hitman, Phoenix Way, Protektorat and Umbrigado are also in the mix.

Adagio, runner-up in the Triumph Hurdle, will try to go one better in the Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle.

The David Pipe-trained four-year-old is already a Grade One winner, having landed the Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow in January.

There are two unbeaten horses over hurdles among the six runners – Paul Nicholls’ Monmiral and Donald McCain’s Fiveandtwenty.

Dan Skelton’s pair Carlos Felix and John Locke, plus the Henderson-trained Paros, make up the sextet.

Paisley Park in top shape for weekend assignment

Emma Lavelle reports Paisley Park firmly on course for a likely rematch with Thyme Hill in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree.

The Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill came out on top when the pair first met in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November, before Lavelle’s stable star reversed the form in an epic Long Walk at Ascot the following month.

A third clash was on the cards in last month’s Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but Thyme Hill missed the race through injury, while Paisley Park had to settle for an honourable third in his bid to regain his crown.

The pair are among 18 entries for this weekend’s Grade One contest.

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Lavelle said: “Paisley Park is very much an intended runner on Saturday. He’s in good form and it’s all systems go.

“Aintree is obviously a different type of track to Cheltenham, but I’m very happy with how he is and I’m looking forward to the rematch with Thyme Hill and a few others.

“He’s won over two and a half miles at Aintree and I don’t think tracks really matter to him, to be honest.

“He’s definitely a bit sharper all round since he ran at Cheltenham, so hopefully it will work out on Saturday.”

Thyme Hill will renew rivalry with Paisley Park
Thyme Hill will renew rivalry with Paisley Park (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Tom O’Brien is booked to partner Thyme Hill following the retirement of regular rider Richard Johnson. O’Brien guided the seven-year-old to a debut success on his racecourse debut in a Worcester bumper in 2018.

Other contenders include last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar and Dan Skelton’s mare Roksana, who was narrowly beaten by If The Cap Fits – also in the mix this weekend – in the last running of this race two years ago.

The first of three Grade Ones on Randox Grand National day is the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, for which 22 horses are engaged.

The likely favourite is the Paul Nicholls-trained Bravemansgame, who was best of the British when third behind Bob Olinger in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Ballyadam (Henry de Bromhead), Dreal Deal (Ronan McNally) and The Shunter (Emmet Mullins) are potential Irish challengers.

The brilliant Shishkin will face a maximum of eight rivals when he bids to round off a flawless campaign with victory in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase.

Nicky Henderson’s runaway Arkle winner will be doubtless be a red-hot favourite to make it four from four over fences with another top-level triumph under Nico de Boinville.

Arkle runner-up Eldorado Allen could take him on again, as could the fourth Allmankind.

McCoy and Walsh lead tributes to Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson’s fellow great jockeys Sir Anthony McCoy and Ruby Walsh led the tributes to the four-time champion following his retirement.

McCoy has repeatedly insisted he would never have set the records he managed in his career without Johnson pushing him all the way.

When McCoy retired after his 20 jockeys’ titles, it left the way clear for perennial runner-up Johnson to finally win the crown, and he managed another three before injury and the pandemic halted him in his tracks last season.

McCoy told Great British Racing: “On a professional level I probably got to know him better than anyone – and he’s a brilliant man to be around, a fantastic jockey and unbelievably competitive.

“He also has a great work ethic and is the fairest jockey you could ever ride against, so he has deserved all of his success.

“As I’ve said many times, having Richard to compete against for all of those years definitely made me a better jockey. But however good a jockey you think he is, he’s an even better person.”

McCoy also earlier tweeted: “Sometimes those who challenge us the most teach us the best.

“You did both to me for over 20 years – I will be forever grateful to you, thanks buddy. When you go home tonight, look in the mirror you’ll see what a champion looks like. Enjoy your retirement.”

Walsh made his admiration clear too.

He said: “What everyone knows about Richard Johnson is what an excellent jockey he is and what a great asset he is to racing.

“But what they might not know so much is that he is also a hard man, who has toughness and determination and an incredible pain threshold, as well as being a thoroughly decent human being.”

Johnson enjoyed many great days alongside trainer Henry Daly and still rode out for him on a weekly basis.

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Daly believes it will be “impossible” to replace Johnson, who rode big winners for him on the likes of Mighty Man, Behrajan, Hand Inn Hand and Young Spartacus.

“It’s impossible to give a ‘quick tribute’ about Richard, I could go on forever,” said Daly.

“He’s been part of the fixtures and fittings here for 23 years. Every Tuesday morning he turns up – even when I don’t ask him to!

“His work ethic was unbelievable, and his attitude to the job was just incredible. It’s so hard to think of the right words that sum up a man like this.

“You will read endless quotes about what a nice guy he is, but that is because he is. I can honestly say in 23 years we never had a crossed word – which is astonishing because I’m a grumpy git!

“He never says no to anybody. It really is the mark of the man.

“I have a picture on my wall of when Mighty Man won as a novice at Aintree – where he was very good – and Dicky is up between his ears, that just sums them both up. They were a match made in heaven.

“People will say he leaves a void, but for Philip Hobbs and myself we won’t fill it – we will change what we do because of him. It’s impossible to replace him.”

Four-time champion trainer Nicky Henderson is another who is grateful to have seen Johnson’s dedication at first hand.

“He spent all those years in AP’s shadow, but if anything he has developed further as a jockey since AP’s retirement,” said Henderson.

“The input that he gives you is enormous, and his work ethic is unbelievable – he’ll go to Timbuktu for a ride. He’s tireless and a true asset to racing.”

Johnson’s weighing-room colleagues were also generous in their praise.

Tom Scudamore tweeted: “Simply the finest bloke and friend you could wish to have. When I grow up, I want to be like Richard Johnson.”

Aidan Coleman said: “Richard Johnson has been my hero from when he spoke to me on my first ever ride, can’t find the words to describe what he means to me from both a personal and professional point of view.”

Sam Twiston-Davies said: “Can’t believe the news, @dickyjohnson77 not just a legend but a hero to so many. Not just one of the best in the world, but also one of the nicest. Happy retirement #hero.”

Harry Skelton, who is battling to be champion jockey this year, added: “Words wouldn’t be able to describe how good a person Richard Johnson is. He is the ultimate role model to any human in general life, not just a jockey. Happy retirement @dickyjohnson77 #champion.”

Daryl Jacob said: “It’s been an absolute privilege to ride against ⁦@dickyjohnson77 throughout my career. A wonderful jockey and a real gentleman. Wishing him all the very best in the future.”

Jonjo O’Neill jnr, last year’s champion conditional, said: “The ultimate role model to anyone growing up. So determined, yet so humble and gracious.

“People like him just aren’t made every day. Strong as an ox, the ultimate champion. Just an unbelievable man.”

Professional Jockeys Association chief executive Paul Struthers added in a statement: “Dickie took over as Jumps President following AP McCoy’s retirement and has been actively involved in the PJA ever since.

“He is the nicest, kindest, most professional jockey I have ever had the pleasure of dealing with – and on both a personal and professional level, I am delighted he is retiring  from the saddle on his own terms.

“I cannot think of a single person who would have a bad word to say about him.

“Yet while there’s  a common saying that nice guys don’t win, Dickie has been at the top of his profession for close to  30 years – and only someone as remarkable as AP McCoy prevented him from being champion jump jockey more than the four times he was.

“He was the most amazing role model to other jockeys – incredibly professional in every aspect and a great communicator.

“Like so many senior jockeys before him, Dickie didn’t look out for just himself. He was passionate about the plight of all jockeys and was an excellent and active president of the PJA.

“He’s devoted himself to the racing industry and thoroughly deserves to enjoy a happy  retirement from the saddle with his family. We and his colleagues will miss him terribly.”

Shishkin to spearhead ‘solid’ Aintree squad for Henderson

Shishkin is set to lead Nicky Henderson’s squad into battle at next week’s Randox Grand National Festival at Aintree.

The Seven Barrows handler assembled what he views as a “pretty solid team” for the three-day meeting, which did not take place last season because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Henderson admits Aintree will have a very different look to it this year without the usual crowds, but he is nevertheless looking forward to making the trip to Merseyside.

He said: “We’ve had great days at Aintree. It’s always been tremendous fun and everyone is incredibly hospitable.

Nicky Henderson is looking forward to Aintree
Nicky Henderson is looking forward to Aintree (David Davies/PA)

“The atmosphere is great – it’s a bit more relaxed than Cheltenham.

“It’s not going to be the same as normal years, obviously – but it’s enjoyable and I think we’ve got a pretty solid team.”

The undoubted star of the show as far as Henderson is concerned is Shishkin, who extended his unbeaten record over fences to four with a runaway success in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham last month.

The seven-year-old will bid to round off his flawless campaign with another Grade One win in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase on Saturday week.

“He was very good at Cheltenham. I think it was a relief as much as anything,” Henderson added.

“He was very professional. He has a different jumping technique to some horses – he’s very quick and gets from A to B without you noticing he’s done it.

“This is the obvious place to come. I don’t see there’s any reason to go any further than two miles at the moment as he is a sharp horse.

“He won’t go to Punchestown. Shishkin would finish his season here, I hope.”

Henderson’s pair of Chantry House and Fusil Raffles finished first and second respectively in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.

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Chantry House in action at Cheltenham
Chantry House in action at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

However, they are set to be split at Aintree, with Fusil Raffles sticking to two and a half miles in Thursday’s Sss Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase and Chantry House stepping up to three miles for the Betway Mildmay Novices’ Chase the following afternoon.

Henderson hopes two of Ireland’s star novice chases, Monkfish and Envoi Allen, will be staying at home, adding: “We’ve read that Monkfish and Envoi Allen are going to take each other on at Punchestown, unless it’s an April Fool!

“I hope they do and we can all go round amongst ourselves at Aintree.”

The multiple champion trainer is planning to step Mister Fisher up in distance for the opening afternoon’s Betway Bowl.

The son of Jeremy, who was pulled up in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, is likely to have plenty on his plate, however.

Mister Fisher is bound for the Betway Bowl
Mister Fisher is bound for the Betway Bowl (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Henderson said: “We’ve been dying to try him over three miles – it’s always looked exactly what he wanted.

“There’s talk of Tiger Roll running and I gather A Plus Tard may possibly come, so there’s going to be a lot of Irish competition still, although I think we’re all rather hoping a lot of them will stay at home for Punchestown and not travel again!

“It will be a good race, but I think three miles on good ground at Aintree will suit Mister Fisher and I’m keen to run him.”

On the same day, Buveur D’Air will bid for a second win in the Betway Aintree Hurdle.

With connections deciding against bidding for a third Champion Hurdle success at Cheltenham, the 10-year-old will be running for only the second time since suffering a freak hoof injury in the 2019 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.

He finished second on his return from over a year off the track at Haydock in January.

“We kept him out of Cheltenham and I think an extra half a mile will help him,” said his trainer.

“He wouldn’t want fast ground, but he’s in very good form and schooled this morning and was as electric as ever.”

Henderson confirmed Heross Du Seuil an intended runner in the Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle on the opening day, while plans are more fluid for the exciting Dusart, who has not been seen since his hurdling debut at Newbury in November.

Henderson said: “Dusart was very impressive at Newbury. 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. He could run in the Top Novices’ Hurdle over two miles, the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle over two and a half, or he might just wait for Ayr.

“Ronnie (Bartlett, owner) is coming to see him work on Friday and we’ll decide after that.

“Pipesmoker will almost certainly go for the two-and-a-half-mile race.”

One horse unlikely to be part of the Henderson’s Aintree battalion is Altior.

Having disappointingly missed the Cheltenham Festival for the second year in succession, the 11-year-old looks set to instead head for the Celebration Chase at Sandown, which he has already won three times

Nicky Henderson with Altior
Nicky Henderson with Altior (David Davies/PA)

“He will do a bit of work this weekend, but it will be his first since the dirty scope that meant he missed Cheltenham,” said Henderson.

“I’m wouldn’t rule Aintree out, but I think it’s more likely he’ll wait for the Celebration.”

Asked whether he expected Altior to return next season, he added: “I hope so – there’s no reason why not.

“He’s as fresh as paint here and in great form.”

While Henderson has famously never won the Randox Grand National, he has won the other big race over the famous fences – the Topham Chase – on five occasions.

This year he plans to run Caribean Boy, Lust For Glory, Morning Vicar and Precious Cargo, saying: “It’s easy going round (the National course) once, but getting round twice is a big problem!

“All four are intended runners. They’ve all schooled over National fences and all went well.”

On The Blind Side and Call Me Lord, meanwhile, could contest the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle on Grand National day.

Ok Corral set to shoulder Henderson’s hopes of elusive National victory

Nicky Henderson could rely on Ok Corral in his bid to finally end his long wait for a first victory in the Randox Grand National at Aintree on Saturday week.

The Seven Barrows handler has been champion trainer on multiple occasions and has won just about every prize the National Hunt game has to offer – apart from the world’s most famous steeplechase.

Henderson has not yet managed to better the second place of Zongalero, who was his first first runner in 1979, but it has not been for the want of trying.

Speaking on a Zoom call to promote the Randox Grand National Festival on Thursday, he said: “We’ve had a lot of chances.

Nicky Henderson has not had much luck in the Grand National
Nicky Henderson has not had much luck in the Grand National (Bradley Collyer/PA)

“In our first ever year Zongalero was second. I wouldn’t say I thought it was going to be easy. I was numb, to be honest with you, by the end of it.

“As you start to get further and further round and know you’re in the hunt, it gets very exciting. We’ve had lots of times we’ve got to Becher’s second time and we’re thinking ‘this is going well’, and then crash, bang, wallop!

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“We’ve had lots of horses placed, but then I think we had six consecutive fallers at the first! It’s just been one of those races.”

While insisting there are no thoughts of retirement in his mind, the 70-year-old admits he will not have many more chances to break his National hoodoo.

He added: “The clock is ticking!

“The National is very special to everybody. It would be nice to get it on the CV, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.

“If you haven’t got a National horse, it’s hard to make one.

“We have found some very good two-mile chasers, but we can’t find a four-mile chaser.”

Having scratched top-weight Santini and ruled out running Beware The Bear, Golden Present and Pym, Henderson’s only remaining contenders are Ok Corral and Valtor, although the latter is far from certain to make the cut.

The coronavirus pandemic put paid to an initial National 12 months ago for Ok Corral, who won the 2020 Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster in January before pulling up on his return from over a year on the sidelines at Cheltenham last month.

Leading Irish amateur Derek O’Connor is in line for the ride.

Henderson said: “The only one really is Ok Corral. Valtor needs a lot of horses to come out, but if he got in, he would come into it.

Derek O’Connor will ride Ok Corral at Aintree
Derek O’Connor will ride Ok Corral at Aintree (Niall Carson/PA)

“Ok Corral schooled over fences this morning and that was very good.

“The plan is for Derek O’Connor, who knows him well, to ride him. As long as all the work goes well in the morning, I’m going to give Derek the green light, because I think the poor guy hasn’t had a meal for three weeks!

“The horse jumped really well this morning. AP (McCoy) was down here with us and we were were all very happy.

“I’m not rushing down to the bookies to back him, but if you’re not in you can’t win and once you’re one of the 40 runners going down to the first fence, you’ve as good a chance as any.”

Jonbon hits all the right notes on Newbury debut

Jonbon lived up to the huge billing that preceded him on his debut when smoothly dispatching his rivals for Nicky Henderson and Nico de Boinville in the BetVictor Standard National Hunt Flat Race at Newbury.

The full-brother to the brilliant Douvan – who had changed hands for a record £570,000 at the sales in November after a point-to-point win – was not in any way fazed by this first outing under rules, handling the preliminaries and the race itself with an admirable professionalism.

The 5-6 favourite settled and travelled smoothly – and was too strong for nearest challenger Flying Demon, readily stretching four and a quarter lengths clear at the line.

Henderson said of the six-year-old: “We are very lucky to be sent horses like this, and you’ve got to say you feel the pressure that comes with it. We were waiting for what fortunately happened – he was relaxed during the race and quickened up well.”

Jonbon, who came back to the strains of a Bon Jovi hit, will summer at owner JP McManus’ Martinstown Stud in Ireland, and Henderson added: “We have sighed a sigh of relief and can now dream of what might happen next year. I think he is a bit special.

“He’s a bit of a fidget at home and doesn’t stand still for long, which is one reason I wanted to bring him to Newbury. But he appears to have everything – the pedigree and the looks. He ticks every box you could wish to see and is a gorgeous horse.”

BetVictor cut Jonbon to 12-1 from 16-1 for next year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Henderson reported he had only done four pieces of work, and already jumps well.

De Boinville also had high praise for the winner.

He said: “I was really impressed with him. I watched his point-to-point, and it was clear he’s come from a very good school in Ireland. Nicky has trained him just like any other horse, irrespective of his price tag.

“It’s the start of his career, and we’re mindful that it it will hopefully be onwards and upwards.”

Doddiethegreat does charity proud at Huntingdon

Doddiethegreat was a popular winner of the bumper at Huntingdon on Tuesday.

Trained by Nicky Henderson, the five-year-old runs in the Honeysuckle colours of owner Kenny Alexander.

He is named after Scottish rugby union great Doddie Weir, who is suffering from motor neurone disease and has set up his own charity to help others in the same situation.

The My Name’5 Doddie Foundation aims to raise funds to aid research into MND, and Alexander has donated everything Doddiethegreat earns to the charity – and on this showing, there will be plenty more.

Already a winner at Ludlow, the 5-6 favourite conceded lumps of weight to second-placed Kalmoor but ran out a four-and-a-half-length winner.

Both Henderson and jockey Nico de Boinville also donated their share of the winnings from the Racing TV-sponsored contest.

Peter Molony, Alexander’s racing manager, said: “Kenny met Doddie a few years ago at a rugby international.

“Scotland were playing Fiji, and Kenny has a Fijian sister-in-law. Her son was with them. They met Doddie, and he made their day – Kenny thought he was an absolute superstar.

“Kenny loves his rugby and was really keen to do something to help Doddie. It’s nice of Nico and Nicky as well.”

Molony is looking to an exciting future with the unbeaten gelding.

“I loved the way he won the last day, and the second came out and won well, which is always a good sign,” he said.

“It’s never easy to give away a penalty in a bumper, but he was giving a stone to a fancied horse today and won well.

“He won’t run again this season, that will be it, and we can look forward to going hurdling next season with him.”

Henderson: Shishkin all set for Aintree

Impressive Arkle winner Shishkin is set to line up at Aintree’s Randox Grand National Festival next month.

The seven-year-old cantered home 12 lengths clear in the Grade One heat at Cheltenham and is due to be joined on Merseyside by fellow Nicky Henderson inmate Chantry House, who also grabbed top-level glory in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Festival.

Fusil Raffles was second in the Marsh for Henderson and he is also pencilled in for Aintree, while Epatante, who finished third in defence of her Champion Hurdle title, is set to clash again with her Cheltenham conqueror Honeysuckle at Punchestown.

“I’m hoping Shishkin, Chantry house and Fusil Raffles will all be going to Aintree – that is the plan,” the Seven Barrows trainer told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast.

“Epatante was probably slightly disappointing. I think she ought to have finished second, but she wouldn’t have beaten Honeysuckle in a million years. We’re probably going to go to Punchestown and give it another go.”

Henderson’s dual assault on the Cheltenham Gold Cup yielded little joy, with Champ never jumping and pulled up before the seventh fence, while Santini made a blunder at that obstacle and was pulled up after the 12th.

Henderson handler felt Champ was suffering from a physical issue, with Santini ultimately unsuited by the application of a first-time visor.

Champ was a Gold Cup disappointment
Champ was a Gold Cup disappointment (Tim Goode/PA)

He added: “Champ, almost certainly, we know where the problem is – it’s in his back and he’ll be returning to Ireland ASAP for a bone scan. He has had back surgery before in the past and it almost certainly wants re-examining, so that’s all been put in place.”

“Santini schooled very well in the visor, but I have to say, in the race, he just didn’t face it. Some horses don’t, (but) you can’t tell at home. He didn’t like it, he’d schooled well and we thought it would make a big difference.”

Champ headlines Henderson’s dual Gold Cup assault

Champ and Santini give Nicky Henderson a strong hand in his bid for a third victory in the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Long Run provided the Seven Barrows handler with his first taste of success in the blue riband in 2011, before the popular Bobs Worth repeated the feat two years later.

The shortest priced of his two runners this year is Champ, who is out to claim a second Festival victory following his memorable last-gasp effort in last year’s RSA Chase.

An autumn wind operation meant the JP McManus-owned gelding missed the first half of the season – and when he did return, he unconventionally ran over just two miles in the Game Spirit at Newbury, performing with huge credit to finish second to Sceau Royal.

“Champ had his wind done, which consequently put us on the back foot,” said Henderson.

“We were aiming for the Denman at Newbury, but when the meeting got put back a week, we came up with the wacky idea of running him over two miles in the Game Spirit. We just felt he was going to have an easier race over two miles rather than over three.

“I was hoping we’d see what we saw as my head was on the chopping block for this ridiculous idea if it didn’t work. Thankfully it went well and his jumping at that pace was exceptional. We all came away very happy and he has been fine since.”

Champ’s stablemate Santini went down by a diminishing neck to Al Boum Photo in last year’s Gold Cup.

The nine-year-old has been a little underwhelming in three starts so far this season, but better is expected on his return to Cheltenham in a first-time visor.

Nicky Henderson with Santini
Nicky Henderson with Santini (David Davies/PA)

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Henderson added: “The Cotswold Chase (at Cheltenham) was off. Sandown took it on, but the ground was desperate on the day. I was satisfied with how he ran and it put us where we wanted him.

“He ran a fantastic race in the Gold Cup last year and I see no reason why he won’t run well again.”

Henry de Bromhead is also double-handed, with Savills Chase winner A Plus Tard joined by Minella Indo.

The latter was only narrowly denied by Champ at last year’s Festival and could hardly have made a more impressive start to this season in winning at Wexford and Navan.

However, he will return to Prestbury Park with something to prove, having fallen when favourite for the Savills Chase and finished only fourth behind Kemboy in last month’s Irish Gold Cup.

Minella Indo is an interesting runner
Minella Indo is an interesting runner (Gary Carson/PA)

“Our plan with Minella Indo was to be busy with him up to Christmas because we thought he lacked experience. He had two great runs at the start, winning a Grade Three and a Grade Two at Wexford and Navan, when he was very impressive,” said De Bromhead.

“Then we went to the Savills and it was disappointing he fell. It wasn’t the plan to run him again before the Gold Cup, but obviously we couldn’t go off the back of a fall, so looking at all our options we plumped for the Irish Gold Cup and I thought he ran respectably.

“We were adamant he needed a clear round and we got that. Kemboy got away from us after a mistake, but he still ran well.”

Native River, who won an epic Gold Cup in 2018, is out to become the first horse since Kauto Star to regain the crown.

The popular Colin Tizzard-trained 11-year-old also finished third in 2017 and fourth in 2019, but missed out last year through injury.

Tizzard, who will hand over the licence to his son Joe in the coming weeks, said: “He’s beaten the better English chasers and he’s the top-rated chaser in England.

“The fact that he’s 11 is why he’s a 16-1 shot. If he was an eight-year-old I’m sure he’d be in the first three in the betting.

“He’s in cracking form. He’s a Gold Cup winner and a class horse and we know he stays three miles and two furlongs.”

Native River is joined by stablemate Lostintranslation, who was a close-up third in last year’s Gold Cup but has failed to recapture that form so far this term.

Lostintranslation needs to bounce back
Lostintranslation needs to bounce back (Paul Harding/PA)

Tizzard added: “I wouldn’t dismiss Lostintranslation. He seems in absolutely great form – the best he’s been since I can remember.

“I’m sure you’re going to see him turning in as though he might win it, but as we’ve seen here before, horse have got to get up that hill.”

Runaway Peter Marsh Chase winner Royale Pagaille is a fascinating contender for Venetia Williams, who also saddles outsider Aso.

Connections deliberated long and hard as regards which race to go for with the Rich Ricci-owned Royale Pagaille, who is technically still a novice.

In the end they plumped for the Gold Cup, and jockey Charlie Deutsch is relishing the opportunity of a lifetime.

Royale Pagaille was brilliant at Haydock
Royale Pagaille was brilliant at Haydock (David Davies/PA)

He said: “I’ve loved riding him this season. I was gutted to miss out on him at Haydock last time, but I’m just really happy to keep the ride on him. Numerically it has been my best season to date and it would be a nice touch if I could win this on top.

“I didn’t get much of a say in which race he would run in, although I spoke to Venetia. However, I didn’t really find out what race he would run in until everyone else did. The horse is in good form and you have to have a go at a race like this when they are in good form – hopefully the hype will be right.

“I’m really lucky that I’ve had the support of Venetia and I’d like to think I’m doing my best to reward her as much as I can by riding her winners.”

He added: “You have to remember it was still a handicap he won last time. I think, like Venetia said, with the horses that finished in behind it was hard to know what sort of performance it was, but it was hard not to get excited by it as he won by a long way and quite easily.

“Like Venetia said, any of those good horses in the Gold Cup would have put in a similar performance at Haydock and Kempton.”

Envoi Allen crashes out as Chantry House takes Marsh honours

Chantry House took the Marsh Novices’ Chase after Envoi Allen’s untimely and unexpected early exit in the opening race on the third day of the Cheltenham Festival.

All eyes had been on Envoi Allen and there was a real sense of anti-climax when the 4-9 favourite came down at the fourth fence, leaving his jockey Jack Kennedy disconsolate.

It was trainer Nicky Henderson who was the beneficiary, saddling the 9-1 winner Chantry House, ridden by Nico de Boinville, as well as the runner-up Fusil Raffles for good measure.

The latter was up front from the start along with Shan Blue, who was given the office by Harry Skelton to stretch the field a long way out.

That injection of pace caught the opposition off guard, but they still were able to reel in Dan Skelton’s charge after three out where the Henderson pair were in prime position.

Chantry House proved the stronger up the hill to prevail by three lengths from Fusil Raffles and give Henderson a 70th winner at the Festival.

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Asterion Forlonge was another two lengths back in third, with Chatham Street Lad fourth.

Henderson said: “He was very good. To be fair, when Dan’s horse quickened up down the back, it was a bit like last year. When he ran in the Supreme behind Shishkin he looked to need another half mile and it looked the same again.

“You’d have to think he’ll be going over three miles sooner rather than later.

“At Wetherby last time out he was good, but he needed surgery on his back after he ran here the time before. He did well to get back in time to run at Wetherby, in truth.

A long walk back for a devastated Jack Kennedy after the fall of Envoi Allen
A long walk back for a devastated Jack Kennedy after the fall of Envoi Allen (Tim Goode/PA)

“He’s a lovely horse and I’d hoped he would at least give Envoi Allen a bit of a race, but you’ve got to take it when you are given a chance like that.

“I don’t know why we wouldn’t go over three miles at Aintree or Punchestown, it just depends how quick he recovers.”

He added: “It’s a pity he (Envoi Allen) fell from a lot of points of view, but on the other hand it was nice to take the opportunity. He’s looked flawless all year so it was a surprise to see him do that.

“We looked in top gear for a lot of the race there, so it certainly looked like going further would help him.

“We’ve had a couple of disappointments this week, it’s nice to get JP (McManus, owner) on the board for the week, too.”

Henry de Bromhead, trainer of Envoi Allen, said: “Jack just said he was a little bit keen. He just launched at the fence, unfortunately, and that was it.

“I’ve had a look at him though and he looked fine, and Jack’s fine too, so that’s good.”

Henry de Bromhead walks down to console Jack Kennedy
Henry de Bromhead walks down to console Jack Kennedy (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Kennedy said: “He is fine, so that’s the main thing. He was very keen down over the first few fences and he was very brave over the first two.

“He went down and popped the third fence then and I thought he might be settling into it, but he went down and let fly at that one and fell. That’s hugely disappointing, but we live to fight another day.

“He was just doing too much with me in behind horses and he just came up out of my hands and landed on the top of the fence. He will learn from it, I suppose. He’s never made a mistake in his life so that was probably too good to be true.

“Something was going to happen at some point, so he will learn from it.”