A stunning six-timer on Wednesday, followed by a faultless display from a Mullins monster on Thursday, leaves poor old Gordon Elliott facing yet another frustrating finish to an otherwise sensational campaign.
Now apparently lacking the ‘zip’ for two, Mullins stepped Faugheen up to three miles to contest the Champion Stayers Hurdle. Sent to the front by young David Mullins, the 10-year-old absolutely tanked along, jumping like a stag throughout. He had the field in trouble from some way out, with only Cheltenham Stayers winner Penhill, putting up any sort of resistance. But Faugheen was not in the mood for company, and given a shake of the reins, pulled effortlessly clear for a 13-length success. Penhill and Shaneshill made it a one-two-three for Mullins.
He received a hero’s welcome in the winners’ enclosure, where an emotional owner, Rich Ricci, spoke to At The Races: “I’m absolutely delighted. It’s been a tough old season for him and for us. All of a sudden, he’s done that today and it’s magic. It’s credit to Willie as well. He’s amazing, as is everyone in the yard. While Cheltenham may have been disappointing, this makes up for it. This is fantastic and the reception he got here was brilliant. It’s a magic day.”
Little more than an hour after fantastic Faugheen, Punchestown was treated to fabulous Footpad. Foot perfect throughout, this outstanding novice chaser romped home by 12 lengths. His stunning display put the Closutton master more than 420,000 euros clear of a shell-shocked Gordon Elliott. Even a victory for the mighty Samcro over Mullins’ Melon in the Champion Hurdle today is unlikely to put the brakes on the Closutton express. Somewhat resembling King Canute, Elliott looks set to drown under this tsunami of Mullins winners.
Punchestown concludes on Saturday, as does the UK Jumps season, with a cracking finale at Sandown. Nicky Henderson will be crowned Champion Trainer for the second year running and his star chaser Altior will no doubt thrill an expectant crowd in the Celebration Chase.
The result of the Bet365 Gold Cup Handicap Chase looks far less assured, with a competitive field of 20 likely to go to post. Known as the Whitbread in the good old days, it’s a prestigious race that’s been won by some of the best. Arkle and Mill House landed the pot in the 1960s, whilst Diamond Edge became a Sandown superstar as the 70s became the 80s. Dessie won the race in 1988 and a few years back we were treated to a thrilling victory from a personal favourite of mine, when Tidal Bay hauled top-weight to an astounding 15-length success.
Following a first fence mishap at Aintree, Blaklion is tasked with heading the handicap for this assignment. Though he’s undoubtedly a warrior in testing ground, his chances of success under top-weight are surely enhanced by the current drier conditions. Nevertheless, this is a tall order, with only Tidal Bay lumping 11-12 to victory since the turn of the century. Only two others have managed to win with more than 11-stone on their backs in the past 20 renewals. The 2016 RSA winner is undoubtedly a classy staying chaser, and though he heads the betting, I fancy he’ll struggle under the welter burden.
The same can probably be said of Regal Encore, who is a horse that has continued to surprise me this winter. His run in the Ladbrokes Trophy (finished third) was most unexpected, and that he then won a competitive handicap at Ascot in February proved that on a going day, he has a touch of class. Nevertheless, he’s now on a career high mark of 154 and though going right-handed will suit, he can be prone to jumping errors, when getting very low at his fences. It’s tough to be confident about this fella, though his odds of 16/1 are tempting.
The rest of the field carry 11 stone or less, and the trends suggest that this is where we should look in our search for the winner.
Missed Approach is currently tussling for favouritism and was last seen winning the Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival. Noel McParlan will once again be onboard and claims a valuable 5lbs. He gave the horse a beautifully judged ride at Prestbury Park, leading from the off, yet saving enough for a titanic battle up the final hill. The Cheltenham success followed a wind operation and though the eight-year-old is up 8lbs for that victory, he is only 1lb higher than when running a cracker in the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase back in November.
Along with Blaklion, Nigel Twiston-Davies has Bigbadjohn towards the head of the market. Formerly trained by Rebecca Curtis, this nine-year-old unseated his rider in the Topham last time, having previously won at Kempton. A mark of 138 lands him an attractive race weight of 10-3, though it has to be said that he’ll need to improve on what he’s shown so far this season. Despite his prominence in the market, he’s not one for my shortlist.
The Young Master won this race in 2016 and is now on a 13lb lower handicap mark. Fancied to go well in the Scottish National (tipped up by me), his race only lasted to the first, where Sam Waley-Cohen was bounced out of the saddle. Prior to that he put in a reasonable performance at Cheltenham, though will appreciate the better ground at Sandown. There’s no doubt that his jumping is a concern, but he now looks to be incredibly well handicapped.
Nicky Henderson has had a terrific winter and will be hopeful of a decent performance from Sugar Baron. He ran well in last year’s race, before being swamped by challengers after the last fence. A year older, it’s likely he’s a little stronger and certainly a little more experienced. He clearly performs well at the track, having finished a close runner-up in the London National back in December. This better ground is a must for the son of Presenting and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t on the premises.
Paul Nicholls has captured two of the last six and is likely to let Present Man take his chance. He’ll be partnered by winter sensation Bryony Frost. She rode him to victory in the Badger Ales at Wincanton last November on soft ground, though whether she can guide him to see out this extended trip has to be a concern. He didn’t appear to get home in the Ladbrokes Trophy, and was pulled up in this race 12 months ago. Despite all that, I fancy he’ll go well under the talented claimer.
Another horse that enjoys his trips to Sandown is Rathlin Rose. Trained by David Pipe, the 10-year-old has won three times at the course, and though he’s up 5lbs since his win at Ascot in March, a mark of 133 appears reasonable. This will be his toughest task to date and he’s no progressive youngster. Nevertheless, his course form gives hope of a strong performance.
Competitive as ever, this valuable and prestigious handicap is a tough one to call. I fancy that Missed Approach will go very close, especially with the assistance of 5lb claimer Noel McParlan. Those that take to Sandown often return and go well. Benbens and Sugar Baron may well go close, but it’s Rathlin Rose that I’ll be siding with for the each-way money.
Best of luck to those taking a punt.