Hendo sunk by Mullins Magic

A dash of Mullins Magic has transformed Total Recall, triggering astonishing improvement which brought about success in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.

This is a race often won by a second-season chaser, and a move to the Closutton yard has certainly done the trick for the eight-year-old. One win from six last term has become two from two this, and there’s now talk of a tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

In truth, winning this race off a handicap mark of 147 is light years away from lifting the ‘Blue Riband’ in March, though there’s no doubting he was impressive on Saturday. He travelled beautifully throughout and shadowed the move made by Whisper at the third last fence. Nicky Henderson’s chaser was giving the winner a stone, and despite a couple of great leaps at the last two obstacles was overhauled, with Total Recall staying on powerfully approaching the line to win by a neck.

Mullins said of the victory: “The horse was very cool, and Paul was very cool. We all thought he was going well until the second-last and it fell apart a bit. It wasn't until the final 150 yards that I thought 'we have a life here'. It is a race that any jumps trainer wants to win. It's a fantastic race and we have just got to hold on to it this time.”

Mullins was referring to the Be My Royal victory of 2002, which ended in disqualification after the horse tested positive for a banned substance post-race.

The trainer added: “I think a lot of the credit must go to Sandra Hughes, who used her father's (Dessie Hughes) training methods and let this horse progress very slowly. Sandra retired, we just got the benefit of it. We will look at more handicaps, but we will have to look if he is better than that. He’ll definitely get an entry in the Gold Cup. I imagine the entries will close before he runs again.”

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Nicky Henderson was full of praise for the runner-up, saying: “It’s a bit cruel to get done like that. I shouldn’t have got that penalty at Kempton! Davy always had him in the right place, he jumped beautifully, and has still only had a few runs over fences.” Of targets, Henderson added: “He didn't stop, the other one went faster. We will have to sit down and think. Something like a Cotswold Chase could be fun.”

Whisper lost little in defeat (bar around £90,000) and looks the one to take from the race from a Gold Cup perspective. Still relatively inexperienced over fences, a rating in the low 160s leaves him around five or six pounds shy of what is required for the ‘big one’. He’s arguably a better horse at Aintree, though does have a couple of chase victories at Cheltenham to his name. He’ll likely meet stablemate Might Bite in March, and has yet to get the better of his fellow Seven Barrows inmate.

One that has landed the top prize in March is Coneygree. On Saturday his career took yet another turn for the worse. He appeared to be going well up until halfway, but a mistake early on the second circuit saw him back-peddling. Injuries and time on the sidelines appear to have taken their toll on the 2015 Gold Cup winner. His trainer Mark Bradstock said of the ex-champ: “Nico said he may need a wind-op, but other than that he's fine at the moment. We thought we had him on-song and jumping well, but we have to go back to the drawing board. He's been an absolute superstar and owes us nothing.”

A subplot of the Newbury feature is the continuing clash of training goliaths, Henderson and Mullins. The pair are set to lock horns throughout the winter, and especially during the high-profile Spring Festivals. Douvan versus Altior and Faugheen against Buveur D’Air are just a couple of contests that have Jump racing fans licking their lips in anticipation.

Coneygree Top-Class – But Vyta to Roc at Newbury

The Ladbrokes Trophy Chase is Newbury’s feature on Saturday and has attracted a competitive field of 21.

First run at Cheltenham in 1957 and known as the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, the race has become one of the most eagerly anticipated in the National Hunt calendar and has a roll of honour to match the status with which it is held.

Chasing greats have captured the event, among them Mill House and Arkle in the 1960s. Diamond Edge, Bregawn, Brown Chamberlin and Burrough Hill Lad opened the 80s in style, whilst One Man in the 1990s and Denman in recent times added further lustre to this wonderful event.

It’ll likely take a while before we stop calling it the Hennessy, but it was Ladbrokes that took over as sponsors in February and the Ladbrokes Trophy has a decent ring to it.

As always, this year’s renewal has a hugely competitive look, with most of the field having a realistic chance of going close. The Willie Mullins-trained Total Recall heads most of the markets, though Harry Fry’s American is tussling for the honour of favouritism.

The former is an eight-year-old second-season chaser, and was impressive last time when romping to victory in the Munster National. He’s up 18lbs for that win, which seems quite a hike to overcome. This is a race that’s often won by those just out of the novice ranks, with seven-year-olds having a particularly strong record. As a novice chaser this fella was pretty ordinary at best. But Mullins took over training duties after the retirement of Sandra Hughes and there’s every chance that he has brought about plenty of improvement. Nevertheless, that patchy novice campaign along with a massive hike in the handicap is enough to make me look elsewhere.

American is interesting and was certainly more impressive as a novice. Three from three over fences, the seven-year-old has the right sort of profile and Fry sounds confident of a big performance. The horse is known to be fragile and as such has often run with plenty of juice in the ground. More rain would have been ideal, though the good to soft ground on Saturday should not inconvenience him. He’s a neat jumper and a strong traveller. Eight of the last 10 winners have carried more than 11 stone to victory and the 11-4 allotted to American shouldn’t put anyone off.

Singlefarmpayment is next best in the betting and the seven-year-old is another with the ideal profile. He’s only won once in six outings over fences, though has a trio of runner-up finishes. His performances at Cheltenham suggest he’ll have no issues with the 3m2f trip. His handicap mark looks fair for what he has achieved thus far. He’s a consistent sort that looks sure to be in the mix late-on, though I’m less sure he’s quite good enough to win.

Only four of the last 20 winners were successful at odds of more than 10/1, with the biggest price of those being Madison Du Berlais in 2008 at 25s. Reasonably well-fancied young progressive types are therefore the horses we need to focus on.

Nicky Henderson has a strong record in the race, with three wins from the past dozen renewals. He has a pair of fancied contenders in Whisper and Vyta Du Roc. The former was runner-up in the RSA and again chased home the talented Might Bite at the Aintree Festival. Despite being a nine-year-old he has only run six times over fences. He won his seasonal return over an inadequate trip at Kempton and is without doubt a classy contender. It’s a tall order winning this off a mark of 161, though he’s hard to dismiss.

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Vyta Du Roc was sixth last year and arrives off a 3lb lower mark. A solid performer last season without ever getting his head in front, his last success came at Ascot in February 2016 when defeating Minella Rocco. He’s a little one-paced but is on such an eye-catching handicap mark that I find myself drawn to him, like a moth to a flame. I’m sure he’ll go close.

Another leading trainer with a pair of contenders is ‘man of the moment’ Nigel Twiston-Davies. If Singlefarmpayment has a chance of winning, then so does his Cheltenham conqueror Cogry. The eight-year-old had four lengths to spare when they last met, with both likely to improve for the run. A one-time dodgy jumper, Cogry appears to have got his act together of late and was unlucky not to win the Scottish National back in April. He’ll love this trip and if Jamie Bargary can get him into a nice rhythm (as he did in the Scottish National) he could have a huge chance at a decent price.

The Cotswolds trainer also has Double Ross in the race. He was third in this 12 months ago and is a couple of pounds better off this time. A senior citizen at 11, there’s only been one previous winner at that age, and that was back in 1967. He was a 50/1 shot last year and I’d put no-one off having a few quid on him at his current price of 40s. Nige did the trick with Splash Of Ginge at big-odds just a few weeks back.

Though Mullins has the favourite, the Irish have a shocking recent record in the race. That’s a worry for the Noel Meade-trained A Genie in Abottle, though the six-year-old is probably not aware that he’s Irish. His third to Disko at Punchestown in April is strong form and he’s already had a couple of wins this term. He looks to be on a decent mark and will carry just 10-13, which I think is an attractive looking weight for such a talented horse. His one disappointing run came in the four-miler at Cheltenham when never looking likely to land a blow. He’ll have regular pilot Sean Flanagan back aboard tomorrow. First Lieutenant ran into a place for Gigginstown a couple of years back and this fella has every chance of going close.

Present Man is upped 4lbs for the Badger Ales victory and though Bryony Frost claims 5lbs this looks a much stiffer task for the seven-year-old. He should prefer Saturday’s conditions and at 16/1 is yet another with a decent each-way shout. Paul Nicholls has a good record in the race, thanks in the main to a Denman-Double. This fella has won half of his 10 chase starts and cannot be discounted.

Finally, a mention for the best horse in the race, Coneygree. What a story it would be if this fella was to emulate Diamond Edge in being a top-weight winning 10-year-old. Nico de Boinville is tasked with getting him into a rhythm. Should he be in front after the first circuit, few would dare bet against him. Incredibly talented, yet frustratingly fragile, Coneygree is the outstanding horse in this year’s field of 21. It’s a tall order, but who would be surprised if he pulled it off?

I find myself fancying four, but as greedy as I am I’ll only be punting on a pair. Whisper, American, Coneygree and Vyta Du Roc are the ‘Fab Four’, but my dosh will be going on the attractively handicapped Vyta and the outstanding chaser Coneygree.

Best of luck to those having a crack at this competitive renewal.

Gladiators Gather for Newbury Showpiece

The Ladbrokes Trophy Chase (formerly the Hennessy) takes place on Saturday, and despite the ground likely to be a little lively for him, the money continues to come for Harry Fry’s American.

Three from three during an impressive novice campaign, his trainer couldn’t be happier as the ‘big day’ draws near. “We’ve made no secret that this race has always been the plan,” said Fry. “It’s no easy task first time out but we’ve been very happy with him at home. He’s fragile, but we’ve given him away days at Wincanton and Newbury recently, and he’s in good form. We were delighted with everything he did last season, but he’ll have to improve again on that form to win at Newbury.”

He’s also entered in the Welsh National as back-up. But with the going currently described as good to soft at Newbury, he looks likely to take his chance.

American is tussling for top spot in the betting with the Willie Mullins-trained Total Recall. An impressive winner of the Munster National last time, he takes a huge hike in the handicap, and it’s tough to assess whether he arrives at Newbury on a handy mark or not.

“He did one or two bits of work and it looked like his rating might be a little low with the type of work he was doing at home,” said Mullins, referring to his Limerick win. “A lot of things went his way and he won very handily at the end. You need a lot of luck in those races and he got it that day. He is doing everything right at home.”
“I don't know whether the handicapper has caught up with him or not,” the trainer added. “If the weights stay as they are, it's a lovely racing weight. The trip won't be a problem and jumping won't be a problem, so he has a lot going for him.”

Whisper has also been popular with punters and Nicky Henderson is clearly pleased with his preparation: “That was a good race at Kempton. I know it was a two-horse race, but there was not much in it. The extra trip will help him. It was exactly what we wanted to do. The timing was right. It was nice to see Clan Des Obeaux win at Haydock. To be fair, this horse has had a good time ever since. He schooled on Friday and we will give him one more pop and off we go.

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“Davy (Russell) gets on with this horse really well. He will already have an idea of where he is going to go and what he is going to do. He is a great jockey and is pretty cunning and he will have a plan. He has got the hang of this horse very swiftly. He lets him warm up over the first few fences. You can't afford to be hunting around the back to get him through a few gears as the race will be gone. I think he has got enough experience of him now. His work was good on Saturday.”

The Master of Seven Barrows has won three of the last dozen renewals and has another fancied contender in last year’s sixth Vyta Du Roc. The eight-year-old is 3lb better off this time around and has seen his price half in recent days. “He had a run over hurdles at Aintree the same day Top Notch had a run and you saw how much good that did for him last Saturday (winning at Ascot),” said Henderson. “I'm quietly hopeful that will put him exactly where he needs to be and if he comes back to the last day at Sandown last year where he was only beaten a nose, he might have a chance.”

In his ‘Weekender’ column trainer Alan King wrote of his hopes for Label Des Obeaux. The son of Saddler Maker was third to Might Bite last time at Sandown and looks sure to be suited by this extended trip. “We have to try to find some improvement in him, so we schooled him in cheekpieces the other day. They seemed to sharpen him up and he’ll probably wear them on Saturday,” King penned.

King’s Smad Place landed the prestigious event in 2015 and the trainer appears hopeful rather than confident of further success, cautiously adding: “My fear is that he has too much weight. Smad Place was handily treated, whereas Label Des Obeaux doesn’t look handicapped to win a race like this.”

Powerful Performances From Saddler Maker Progeny

Though sadly no longer with us, there’s a French National Hunt Stallion that continues to make a huge impact on the sport.

There’s no doubting that Saddler Maker’s offspring are becoming hot property. The son of Sadler’s Wells out of an Alleged mare died in May 2016 at the age of 18. He’d been a resident at Haras de Cercy in central France. His untimely death came when his services were in great demand. Thankfully, Jumps racing currently has an exciting crop of youngsters that continue to showcase the talents of the late stallion.

Bristol De Mai has become the highest rated of his progeny, following the devastating performance at Haydock on Saturday. Though not essential, it does appear that his offspring prefer soft ground, and indeed many thrive in it. That’s certainly the case with BDM, though Kempton at Christmas may prove just how ground dependant he is.

Another to make a mighty impact in recent weeks is the Nicky Henderson-trained Apple’s Shakira. The sister of Cheltenham Festival winner Apple’s Jade, romped to success at Cheltenham’s November Meeting, coping best with the testing conditions. She leapt to the head of the betting for the Triumph Hurdle in March, and the way she moved at Prestbury Park suggests she’ll prove just as effective on a sounder surface.

Venetia Williams has also got in on the act, and has a young chaser who looks sure to win sooner rather than later. By Saddler Maker out of a Dom Alco mare, Cepage finished faster than anything when runner-up to Sir Valentino in a valuable two-mile handicap chase at Ascot on Saturday. The five-year-old is still a work in progress, and his jumping remains sloppy at times. Nevertheless, he’s on a cracking handicap mark and is sure to be visiting the winners’ enclosure before too long.

Over in Ireland, Alpha Des Obeaux was back to winning ways recently, when capturing the competitive Grade Two Clonmel Oil Chase, beating A Toi Phil by five lengths. He’s still only a seven-year-old and though he may never reach the pinnacle over fences, he’s undoubtedly a classy sort on his day. Unlike others by the stallion, he has looked more at home on a sound surface. It’s maybe a little surprising that he didn’t come over for the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury, as he looks the ideal type.

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One that will be at Newbury for the ‘big one’ on Saturday is Label Des Obeaux. Alan King’s young chaser needs to improve if he is to win and may be high enough in the handicap. He looks an out-and-out stayer, and at six is open to further improvement. He can be a little erratic over the obstacles, but if managing a clear round, he could be staying-on strongly at Newbury.

Another that has proved something of a sensation this season is the Gordon Elliott-trained Dinaria Des Obeaux. She’s only four, but is making a huge impact over fences and could be running in the Grade One Drinmore Novice Chase this weekend. This filly loves testing ground and has proved a natural over the larger obstacles. Her age and sex allowance has proved a huge advantage thus far, and Elliott is looking to capitalise during the winter. Another of the Gigginstown brigade, she’s an exciting prospect.

Connections are also responsible for the aforementioned Apple’s Jade, who runs this weekend in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle or the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse. She’s high-class and was impressive on return at Navan. She’s proved to be adaptable regarding ground conditions. Her optimum trip is probably two-and-a-half miles, though she’s class at two and would probably stay three. A return to Cheltenham in March to defend her Mares’ Hurdle crown is likely to be the main target, but she’s sure to gather other major prizes on the way.

It's an exciting time for followers of Saddler Maker, with owners and trainers fully aware of the impact his progeny can make on the National Hunt scene. Punters too can join the ride and hopefully make a few quid on the journey.

Monday Musings: On Trainers…

How much bad luck can a man have? In the case of Ruby Walsh, at 38, surely at a stage when yet another serious injury, this time a broken leg, might potentially be career threatening, apparently any amount, writes Tony Stafford. Reassuringly, his surgeon seems to think that Ruby will be fit in time for the Cheltenham Festival.

Having waited almost two years for the return from injury of the 2015 Champion Hurdle winner, Faugheen, Walsh suffered his broken leg the day before that one’s planned reappearance at Punchestown. Faugheen had been absent since his 15-length January 2016 romp over Willie Mullins stablemates Arctic Fire and Nicholls Canyon in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Faugheen returned in the Morgiana Hurdle, the same race in which he suffered his sole defeat, narrowly, by Nicholls Canyon. It might only have been a four-runner affair yesterday, but Paul Townend on his first ride on the brilliant jumper, set him off in front and he beat Jezki, his 2014 predecessor as Champion Hurdle victor, by 16 lengths. Swamp Fox, assuredly a handicapper, but one good enough to win the Naas November handicap on the Flat this month, was 37 lengths back in third.

Walsh has had more than his share both of injuries and spills. His injury at Leopardstown came on the last of four rides after an 11-day absence due to a hand injury. He rode one short-priced winner for his boss, but had three falls, the last and most costly on Let’s Dance in a Listed mares’ hurdle for which she started odds-on.

Now, as in all good long-range dilemmas, the attention will switch to another Champion Hurdler, the reigning champ Buveur d’Air, who, like Faugheen, has a single jumping defeat on his curriculum vitae. He is set to return in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday week.

The Nicky Henderson-trained six-year-old also suffered his only loss to a stable-mate and in a championship race, the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham when only third to Altior. After two novice chase wins, Henderson, with one of the intuitive decisions that mark him out as an outstanding handler, decided to send him back to hurdling.

That decision was presumably prompted by the fact that he had already moved Altior to chasing when, for many, he had been the more obvious Champion Hurdle contender for the stable. Then again, Altior would not have to worry about the likes of Faugheen – at the time still on target to regain his crown – if he went over fences.

Both decisions proved far-sighted and until Arkle winner Altior recently suffered one of the all-too-frequent wind problems that seem to assail top jumpers, few would have looked past him for the Queen Mother Champion Chase next March.

I can understand the trainer’s irritation that when he finally released the news last week, having taken a couple of veterinary opinions and consulted owner Patricia Pugh, unnamed (but only just, according to the trainer) members of the media criticised what they saw as his handling of the issue.

Nicky Henderson grew up and learned his trade under Fred Winter in the age of the great stables where journalists cowered and gratefully sought out trifles while lauding their achievements.

Social media has ended that climate, not just in racing, but in all walks of life and where once there was deference from the media, now there’s intrusion, with the general belief it is justified. The BHA and its attitude to trainers and what is perceived as their duty to keep the betting public informed has played its part in that process.

One BHA decision that has caused general derision was when Raul da Silva was given a ban for throwing a handful of Chelmsford’s Polytrack surface sand onto the hind quarters of his mount, Sandkissed, to encourage her into the stalls before a race last week.

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Considering all the horses running round each of the all-weather surfaces are expected to cope with copious amounts of said surfaces being thrown up into their eyes every time they run, such pernickety officialdom seems out of proportion. For me, it is merely another instance of present-day political correctness.

Anyone who has seen horses going to a sale showing their displeasure at coming off a lorry down a ramp will realise stable staff can have an unenviably dangerous job. The same goes for stalls handlers and when a jockey shows a little invention to ease what could become a bigger problem on the day, such an extreme reaction is embarrassing.

The sad death last week of Alan Potts, the surviving half of the Ann and Alan Potts ownership team who battled with the big battalions with such success over the past few seasons, will not apparently stop the success of the green, yellow and red colours.

There were two wins at Cheltenham over the weekend, via the impressive pair Finian’s Oscar and Fox Norton and I hope the story I heard about Alan Potts is true. It seems shortly before he died, so the story goes, he made provision for all the training fees in the future careers of his family’s horses to be secured. No doubt Colin Tizzard, who trains both winners and, among others, Jessica Harrington, trainer of Gold Cup hero Sizing John, will know whether that is true or just a racing urban myth.

I’m not sure if the Potts’s had any horses with Dan Skelton, but Mrs Richard Kelvin Hughes certainly does and her North Hill Harvey, owned in partnership with Mrs Widdowson, impressively won the Arkle Trial at Cheltenham yesterday, to put the trainer onto 99 for the season.

Skelton may still be trailing the likes of Henderson, Mullins and Gordon Elliott with potential big-race contenders, but the efficiency with which he churns out the winners is a reminder of the halcyon days of Martin Pipe. Only Joseph O’Brien, Melbourne Cup and umpteen victories over jumps just in the past month, among youthful trainers, is keeping pace with Skelton’s rapid rate of progress.

I managed to sneak into the owners’ room at Cheltenham on Friday courtesy of Alan Spence whose On the Blind Side was an impressive winner of his second hurdle race when stepping into Grade 2 novice class. I had a brief chat there with Anthony Honeyball, his wife Rachael and their 18-month-old son who I can report enjoys eating cream, some of it not going onto his face.

Two days later the trainer had a treble at Fontwell in which the most significant for the future was the victory of Jukebox Jive, a 97-rated Flat-racer, in the juvenile hurdle, beating the Kelvin-Hughes home-bred Lisp. Success was hardly a surprise first-time-out for Ron Huggins’ also home-bred son of Jukebox Jury, whose former owner Alan Spence will tell you is a much-underrated stallion – evidence his Dominating, winner of six races for Mark Johnston this year.

It was also Johnston who handled Huggins’ best-known and much-loved stayer Double Trigger and it would hardly be a shock were Jukebox Jive to take high rank as a staying hurdler who could double as a potential Cesarewitch winner next year. I’d love him to do that.

- Tony Stafford

Ginge makes a Splash at Cheltenham

Splash Of Ginge battled his way through the mud for a thrilling victory in Saturday’s BetVictor Gold Cup.

Flagged up in my Friday piece as a decent each-way proposition, the nine-year-old, trained locally by Nigel Twiston-Davies, travelled powerfully throughout, and held off a persistent challenge from David Pipe’s Starchitect. Available at 50/1 on the course (yes, I was on), the winner was backed in to 25s before the off. With testing conditions, an attractive handicap mark, and a return to a track he enjoys in Prestbury Park, he had the look of a serious contender. And so it proved, with Tom Bellamy positioning him just behind the leaders, before making his move sweeping downhill towards the third-last fence.

The David Pipe-trained Starchitect was travelling every-bit as well, but Ginge was better at the second-last, and that proved crucial. Neat again at the final fence the length-and-a-half advantage was whittled away as the line approached, but Bellamy and his brave partner held on for a thrilling victory. An emotional winning jockey said: “When I looked at the race I thought he was over-priced. I was told to give him plenty of light, he was hanging left so I thought I'd be in trouble, but it worked out well. I've just started riding out for Nigel again and I've had two winners in a week for him now.”

When asked what it means to land such a big prize, Bellamy added: “It means an awful lot, in the fact that I lost my claim last year and it's been very quiet since, so hopefully that might get the ball rolling a little bit now.”
Nigel Twiston-Davies was winning his third BetVictor Gold Cup in 10 years, and said of the winner: “He has a big following does ol' Ginge. He has been a remarkable horse and just lost his confidence a bit over fences last season, so we put him back over hurdles and he has come back like a bull. He ran really well at Wetherby and as soon as this rain kept on and on we were hopeful, as the soft ground is the key to him. It is probably heavy ground now.

“He just doesn't notice it when it's this soft. It was the same when he won the Betfair Hurdle. It's just come right today. I think I'll be out with the owners tonight though - they'll insist on it! It's unbelievable, especially when it's a horse like that. He'd lost his way a little bit but it's great to give Tom Bellamy a chance as he's not having a great time at the moment. John (Neild, the owner) likes to give the young jockeys a chance so that's great.”

The November Meeting proved fruitful for the ‘Big Three’ of Nicholls, Henderson and Tizzard. There was a poignant success for Finian’s Oscar on the opening day, as Bryan Cooper steered the exciting five-year-old to win the Steel Plate And Sections Novices’ Chase. Carrying the famous silks of the late Ann and Alan Potts, Tizzard’s youngster found plenty from the back of the last and clearly has a bright future.

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The same combination of rider, trainer and owners took the Shloer Chase on Sunday, when Fox Norton proved far too good in testing conditions. With Altior out of action for a while, and Douvan yet to return from injury, Tizzard’s chaser could prove dominant over fences at two to two-and-a-half miles.

The trainer appeared to be leaving all options open for the winner, when saying: “He looks a heavier horse to me and that might be because he is older. The Tingle Creek will be next. It was always Alan Potts' wish to keep him away from Sizing John, who still has the chance of winning the £1million bonus. If Sizing John gets beat (in the Betfair Chase on Saturday) and we won the Tingle Creek, he is entered in the King George just in case. We must not pigeon-hole horses. When he can win like that I don't see any real reason why we should step him up, but the biggest and most prestigious races are over three-and-a-quarter miles.”

One of the meeting’s most exciting performances came from a juvenile in the Triumph Hurdle Trial, when Nicky Henderson’s Apple’s Shakira demolished the previously impressive Hobbs-trained Gumball. The sister of Apple’s Jade put 17-lengths between herself and the runner-up, and looks a thrilling prospect.

Henderson’s Thomas Campbell was another terrific winner, when lumping plenty of weight in capturing the listed stayers’ hurdle on Saturday. Still only a five-year-old, the son of Yeats coped admirably with the testing conditions, responding impressively to the urgings of conditional jockey James Bowen to pull clear late-on. There’s plenty more to come from this young hurdler, and it would come as no surprise if he were to take high-rank as the winter progresses.

Another young jockey making a name for herself is Bryony Frost. A week after winning the Badger Ales, she was steering the Paul Nicholls-trained Black Corton to yet another success. The young chaser was making it five in-a-row (all with Frost aboard) when taking the three-mile novices’ chase. Like Present Man a week earlier, this fella was expected to struggle in the testing ground. That certainly didn’t prove the case, as he stayed-on powerfully, stretching clear of his main rival Ballyoptic, to win by four-lengths. He continues to go from strength to strength and may well prove the type who takes to the four-miler at The Festival. There’s no doubt who’d be looking for the leg-up come March.

Hill can reach Gold Cup Summit for Twiston-Davies

All eyes will be on Cheltenham this weekend, and today’s piece focuses on Saturday’s BetVictor Gold Cup.

The Grade Three began life as the Mackeson Gold Cup and was first run in 1960. Starting as a two-mile chase, the trip was upped to 2m4f in the late 60s. Martin Pipe is the most successful trainer with eight victories, seven of those coming in a devastating spell from 1996 to 2005.

In recent years Jonjo O’Neill (3 wins), Nigel Twiston-Davies (2) and Paul Nicholls (2) have all enjoyed plenty of success in the race. Seven-year-olds have a terrific record of late, with six wins from the last 10. Indeed, the race tends to go to a progressive young chaser, often in their second season over the larger obstacles.

Despite the race often attracting a large field, upsets have proved rare. Only one of the last 10 winners could be described as unfancied, though in that period only one favourite has struck gold. As is often the case at the Home of Jump racing, previous track experience is a huge positive. Seven of the past 10 winners had previously won at Cheltenham. This racecourse is a unique test, and many horses fail the strenuous examination.

The favourite for Saturday’s renewal is top-weight Kylemore Lough, now trained by Harry Fry. Lumping just shy of 12 stone is often a reason to dismiss a horse in such handicaps, but last year’s winner carried 11-11, and four of the last 12 winners have coped with more than 11 stone on their back. This fella has enough Cheltenham experience, and appears to act on the track, though he’s finished fifth in his last two visits. He came close to winning the Caspian Caviar Chase last December (now 2lb lower), and a repeat of that performance would see him go extremely close. Can Fry get more out of him than Kerry Lee? I’m a fan, and I fancy he’ll run well.

The Alan Fleming-trained Tully East is next best in the betting. A second-season chaser, he won at the Cheltenham Festival in March, when ridden beautifully by Denis O’Regan. He travelled like a dream that day and appeared to win with something to spare. Nevertheless, he’s 10lb higher in the handicap, and though he has the right profile, he’ll find this race much tougher to win. He’s a player, though I worry about that handicap mark. Another concern is the poor record of Irish raiders.

Paul Nicholls has a couple of entrants, and both are prominent in the betting. Le Prezien has track winning form, though was runner-up on his last visit, when finding Foxtail Hill impossible to pass. The pair had a mighty tussle in October at two-miles, though the extra half-a-mile should prove no obstacle. The pair are handicapped to finish side by side again, and you’d fancy both will go close. They’re tough to separate.

Nicholls’ other hope is five-year-old Romain De Senam. He’s won his last two, but is up 6lbs and will find this tough. He was runner-up in the Fred Winter of 2016, and probably should have won that day. The track and trip look ideal, and Nicholls took this race in 2014 with Caid Du Berlais, also aged five. I can see him getting outpaced coming down the hill, but I fancy he’ll be finishing well. He has the right amount of experience, but I worry he’ll have too much to do turning for home.

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Ballyalton is an interesting contender. Back from injury, the Ian Williams-trained 10-year-old tuned up for this with a promising run over hurdles at Aintree. He won over course and distance at the Cheltenham Festival of 2016, and clearly enjoys his trips to Prestbury Park. He’s on a competitive mark, though his age is a negative based on the trends. Only three horses over nine have won the race.

The Pipe team have an outstanding record, though David has only managed the one success. Starchitect is two from seven over fences, and has a fair bit to find on Foxtail Hill, from their run at the course in April. Though talented, I don’t think this fella is quite good enough to win in this company.

One that is on a steep-upward curve is Jamie Snowdon’s Double Treasure. The six-year-old beat Two Taffs last time, though the runner-up was having his first outing of the campaign. He’s progressed dramatically over the Summer, but needs to find more if he is to be competitive here. Despite his four wins on the bounce, I fancy this could be a step too far.

There’s a couple I quite like at a price for the each-way punters out there. Theinval is trained by Nicky Henderson and was incredibly consistent during his first season over fences. He has some decent pieces of form to his name, especially the second-place finish to Cloudy Dream at Ayr in April. The sensational Fondmort won this race for Henderson in 2003, and this fella has a far better chance than his 25/1 odds suggest.

Another that interests me is the Twiston-Davies second string Splash Of Ginge. He rarely wins over fences, but his handicap mark has fell through the floor since the dizzy heights of 2015. He’s run well at Cheltenham in the past, and his last performance was encouraging. More rain would help, though I’m still tempted.

Greedy I know, but I’ll be backing three in the race. I fancy Nigel Twiston-Davies could have a day to remember, and I’ll be taking Foxtail Hill to win. He looks incredibly tough and is two from four in recent visits to the track. I’ll also have a little on Splash Of Ginge in the hope that the track and an eye-catching handicap mark spark a revival. Finally, I’ll be putting a couple of quid on Henderson’s seven-year-old Theinval. I’m convinced he’ll go close, though I do worry about his ability to cope with the famous hill.

Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Nicholls and Henderson Jump to it

Present Man defied testing conditions to land the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton on Saturday.

Paul Nicholls has an outstanding record in the race, and had three fancied contenders. He finished with the first and fourth home, though his young novice Mr Mix disappointed. Concerns had been raised over the winner’s ability to cope with soft ground, but any worries were dispelled as the seven-year-old ‘tanked’ along under talented conditional jockey Bryony Frost.

Prominent throughout, Frost sent the winner on from the fifth-last, with only the David Dennis-trained Final Nudge for company. The pair fought out the finish, with Present Man’s bold jumping key to his success. He battled on bravely to hold-off the runner-up by a rapidly diminishing head.

Her father Jimmy had won the race 21 years earlier, and it was clear to everyone that Bryony was thrilled to mirror Dad’s achievement. Speaking to ITV Racing immediately after the win, she said: “He jumped, he travelled. He answers every question. He was pulling my arms out all the way round.”

Nicholls was winning his eighth Badger Ales, and said of the winner: “I was worried about the ground, but I must say I've never seen him look better. I knew he'd go in the ground, but it was whether he stayed in the ground. He's a great example of Rome not being built in a day. He’s took three years to get where he is today. It was a peach of a ride and it's great for the owners.”

Mark Woodhouse owns the winner, and happens to sponsor the race. Clearly emotional, he said of the victory: “We were always in it to win it. It went a bit soft for him, and he’d have had a better chance on good ground. I haven’t got much voice left. I used it up during the home straight.”

The Grand National at Aintree has now been named as a likely target for the winner. The way he jumps a fence will certainly be an asset, though he still has to prove that he can see-out a marathon trip.

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The victory completed a valuable double on the card for trainer Paul Nicholls, having earlier seen his exciting young chaser Modus take the Rising Stars in dominant fashion. Just three arrived at the start, though the race looked competitive enough. Ridden confidently by Sam Twiston-Davies, the favourite took up the running two fences from home. He quickened impressively, hitting the line with nine lengths to spare. Bigger tests lie ahead, but this was a decent performance.

Just 24 hours later, Paul Nicholls’ nemesis, Nicky Henderson, unleashed his potential star staying chaser Might Bite. Last year’s RSA winner made his seasonal debut at Sandown, and romped to an impressive victory in the Future Stars Intermediate Chase. In all honesty, this was a race that he had to win convincingly. At times like a showjumper over the fences, he was virtually foot-perfect throughout. Urged to pull clear by Nico de Boinville, he comfortably put 10 lengths between himself and the field, before being eased approaching the line.

“Job done. I'm happy with that,” said the jockey, speaking to Racing UK after the win. “He was very fresh and well going down to the first. I felt I had to take it (the running) up when I did, just because he was enjoying himself so much. He'll come on bundles for that. The big fences played to his strengths. He's got so much scope for improvement that I think he'll be even better than he was last year.”

Nicky Henderson looked chuffed and relieved, saying: “It was straightforward. His jumping was great. He just needed a run and I think he was running a bit fresh. He settled well, and he jumped beautifully. Our objective is the King George and most agreed the sensible thing was to come here (rather than the Betfair Chase at Haydock). He won't run again until then and he'll be miles straighter than he was today. That's part one done.”

The champion trainer added: “Our job is now to get him there on Boxing Day quite a lot fitter than he was today. I wouldn't say a racecourse gallop would go amiss. We'll try and win the King George and then make a second-half-of-the-season plan.”

Winning the King George is a mile away from landing an intermediate chase at Sandown. But there’s no doubting Henderson’s chaser is talented. He’s fluid in movement and beautifully athletic over his fences. He also looks to have plenty of untapped potential, though how he copes when challenged for the lead remains an unknown. Kempton’s Christmas showpiece is stacking up to be an absolute cracker.

Wonderful Warwick – Castle and All

Death Duty’s return to action on Tuesday reminded us that the new Jumps season is beginning to gather pace. With the Arc now behind us, thoughts will soon be turning to the likes of Wetherby’s Charlie Hall, Cheltenham’s Paddy Power (yes, I know it’s the BetVictor Gold Cup nowadays) and the Betfair Chase at Haydock.

The Skelton’s continue to set the pace, and were yesterday amongst the winners thanks to a double at Bangor-On-Dee. Today National Hunt fans are to be treated to the Autumn Meeting at Warwick. The West Midlands racecourse is a favourite of mine, not least because I can get there in little more than an hour.

It’s a cracking course, set on the very edge of the market town. The town itself is quite small, but has enough to occupy a visitor prior to racing. It is of course famous for the castle, something that really shouldn’t be missed while you’re visiting. Dating back to the time of William The Conqueror, it’s a truly magnificent structure, with towers, ramparts, mottes and a dungeon. Open all-year-round, the kids will love it.

But back to the reason for this article, the racecourse. It’s one of the oldest in the country, with racing dating back to the late 1600s. When established, it was hoped that the sport would attract wealth to the area following the devastating fire of 1694. In the early 1800s the first stand was built, parts of which remain to this day.

One of racing’s greats, Red Rum, ran at the track in 1967. And it proved to be a year to remember, with the course being purchased by The Jockey Club. The group had acquired Cheltenham in 1964, with Wincanton following in ’66. The purchase would help ensure the long-term prosperity and ongoing investment in the course.

Warwick has plenty in common with another Midlands favourite of mine, Uttoxeter. Relatively small yet beautifully formed, both have great facilities for the racegoer, are flattish tracks with slight undulations, and are easily accessed by road or rail.

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Warwick possibly has the edge on the quality of racing throughout the winter. The Betfred Classic Chase Meeting in January attracts high-class staying chasers for the main event. One For Arthur took this year’s renewal and went on to win the Grand National at Aintree. Willoughby Court was also a winner on the day, and he went on to success at the Cheltenham Festival, when capturing the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle in thrilling fashion from the ill-fated Neon Wolf.

In February the course play host the Kingmaker Chase, a two-mile novice event that over the years has gone to Flagship Uberalles, Voy Por Ustedes, Long Run and Finian’s Rainbow. Willie Mullins has also taken to sending horses to the meeting, with talented hurdlers Open Eagle, Arbre De Vie and Glens Melody all successful in recent years.

One of the stars of today’s action is sure to be novice chaser Sceau Royal. Alan King’s hugely talented five-year-old was a high-class hurdler, winning the Elite Hurdle last November and putting in a solid performance to finish sixth in the Champion at Cheltenham. He sports the familiar silks of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, a duo that are gathering a formidable battalion of National Hunt horses. They are responsible for the likes of Bristol De Mai, Top Notch and L’Ami Serge.

Sceau Royal has a look of Top Notch about him, and I’m sure Alan King would be thrilled if he was to have such an impressive first season over fences. Nicky Henderson’s young chaser stepped-up in trip during his novice chase campaign, finishing a terrific runner-up to Yorkhill in the JLT at the Cheltenham Festival. Sceau Royal may well possess a few more gears, and there’s every chance that we could see him back at Warwick in the spring contesting the Kingmaker.

It could prove a fruitful day for King, with Sego Success favourite for the stayers’ chase, and a JP McManus owned favourite running in the opening novice hurdle. With Hobbs, Tizzard and Twiston-Davies all in attendance, those making the trip to Warwick look set to be rewarded with a fine day’s racing. Don’t forget The Castle.

Jumps Over and Feeling Flat

Nicky Henderson captured the Trainers’ Championship for the second time in five years, with a dominant display at Sandown on Saturday.

Paul Nicholls had hoped for a successful final day of the campaign, but it was Henderson who landed a treble on the day, and came close to making it four, when Vyta Du Roc was denied by a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup.

Altior proved the star-turn with a stunning display in the Grade 1 Celebration Chase. He swept past the Champion Chase winner Special Tiara, as they headed for the last fence, and though he got in close, he quickly regained momentum, sprinting to an eight-length victory. His jumping was arguably as good as we’ve seen from him throughout the winter, and he travelled effortlessly throughout. It was a truly devastating display, and many Jumps fans will already be licking their lips at the prospect of Altior versus Douvan in the autumn.

Juvenile hurdler Call Me Lord had been a comfortable winner for Seven Barrows in the first, and L’Ami Serge finally put in a performance worthy of his talent, in winning the Grade 2 Select Hurdle. That double for owners Munir and Soude arguably should have been a treble on the day, when Vyta Du Roc appeared to be given plenty to do, before charging through traffic late-on to fail by just a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup. Peter Bowen’s Henllan Harri was given a peach of a ride by son Sean, and managed to hold-off Henderson’s horse. Though not the biggest, the runner-up will surely be aimed at nationals next season.

Of his success in the title race, Henderson said: “We’ve got some Grade One horses and to be fair to Paul, he has done incredibly well and won a huge amount of prize money whereas we’ve got horses like Altior, Buveur d’Air and Might Bite.” Of Altior he added: “He's top class. I think we've always known that. He’s got a bit of everything - he's got class, he's got the gears. I think we've always known that he is very special ever since a young horse as a hurdler. You know that Special Tiara is going to set serious fractions but this fellow can always have it covered as he has the pace to do it.”

A special Sandown mention goes to the wonderful Menorah, who won the Oaksey Chase for a fourth time, before being retired by connections. The 12-year-old has been campaigned at the highest level throughout his career, and has brought great success to owners Diana and Grahame Whateley. It was terrific to see him go-out with such a stunning display.

So, whilst Henderson successfully kept Nicholls at arms-length, the same could not be said in Ireland, with Gordon Elliott finally overwhelmed by a tsunami of Willie Mullins winners. A lead of around €400,000 going into the Punchestown Festival put Elliott in pole position, but despite several unlucky defeats during the week, the Master of Closutton still managed to retain his crown by a staggering €199,455.

Great Field was mightily impressive in winning the Ryanair Novice Chase earlier in the week, and on Friday, Wicklow Brave in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Bacardys in the Champion Novice Hurdle put Mullins in front. A double on the final day of the meeting, which included a victory in the juvenile hurdle for Bapaume, proved to be the title clincher.

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Of the dramatic turnaround, Mullins said: “I didn't think it was possible for us to win, particularly when a few of the early photo-finishes went against us this week. It's fantastic to win and a big thank you to all the team at home and all my owners. It's been a funny season. It hasn't been that enjoyable and I'm glad it's over. Gordon is a great competitor. He's fantastic and has been a gentleman the whole way through.”

Elliott had led from the off, and was understandably gutted to come off second best: “It's a bit heart-breaking. We've led from day one of the season, but to be in the same sentence as Willie Mullins is brilliant. Hopefully we'll do it one year. I'm still only 39 and hopefully I'll be around for another few years. We've equalled Willie's record of 193 winners in a season. I said coming here that if I could equal that, it would be something. I'll keep my head up and enjoy it.”

Saturday’s action brought the curtain down on a dramatic National Hunt season. Mullins’ ‘against all odds’ title victory will have left him needing a summer break more than ever before. The loss of Vautour was a huge blow, and then Mr O’Leary took his horses elsewhere. Faugheen, Annie Power and Min were all struck-down by injury, yet the Master of Closutton found a way to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.

A tough winter also for Paul Nicholls. His title challenge masks an underlying decline in the quality of horses at his disposal. He desperately needs to uncover a star or two if he is to challenge a resurgent Nicky Henderson. Sprinter Sacre was retired, but Altior has moved seamlessly into the role of Seven Barrows Superstar. He also has a new hurdling hero in Buveur D’Air.

And both will be looking over their shoulders, as Colin Tizzard continues to build on a stunning campaign. Fox Norton, Thistlecrack and Native River have all captured major prizes, and promise much of the same for some time to come.

Now, if we can just get this Flat season out of the way.

Hard-Hitting Henderson Can Roc At Sandown

It truly is a week for the big-hitters, going at it toe-to-toe, in a battle for supremacy.

It may be a rather less bloody affair than Klitschko versus Joshua, but over in Ireland, Willie Mullins is throwing everything at Gordon Elliott as he tries to retain his trainers’title. Several agonizing near-misses, including Nichols Canyon and Djakadam, have served to thwart the Closutton King, and his crown has all-but fallen.

Whilst over in the UK on Saturday, another heavyweight battle takes place at Sandown, as they host the final meeting of the National Hunt season, with Nicky Henderson on the verge of landing the knockout-blow to be crowned the new champ.

There’s enough money in the Sandown pot for Paul Nicholls to turn things around, though Team Ditcheat look to have a mountain to climb. Whilst Nicholls has jabbed away intelligently throughout the campaign, maintaining a high-tempo, landing telling blows again and again, it is Henderson that has possessed the firepower, with the likes of Buveur D’Air and Altior bludgeoning the opposition to win major prizes. The latter may well end the fight by winning the Grade 1 Celebration Chase tomorrow.

Nicholls rests his hopes on the much-improved San Benedeto, though this looks a step too far for the gutsy Aintree winner. Special Tiara is likely to prove a greater threat to Henderson’s new star, though the Seven Barrows chief is taking no chances, and will hope to land the old ‘one-two’ with Vaniteux thrown into the mix. I’m a huge fan of the horse, and he’s more than capable of chasing home his celebrated stable companion.

With the referee likely to have stepped-in to end the fight, both Henderson and Nicholls should feel a little more relaxed as they prepare their challengers for the most valuable event on the card, the Bet365 Gold Cup. And both have the opportunity of ending the season with a bang, though Neil Mulholland holds a powerful hand going into the prestigious staying chase.

The Wiltshire handler saddles his usual suspects, The Druids Nephew and The Young Master, the latter the winner of this 12 months ago. The former was behind in fifth, but his handicap mark is now 10lbs lower, and both look to have a great chance. Their tough to split, and the bookies have them tied at 7/1. Yet Mulholland has arguably a stronger contender, in race favourite, and much improved, Doing Fine.

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A victory and three runners-up finishes, from his four outings since arriving at the yard, the nine-year-old by Presenting is in tip-top shape, and will love both the ground and the trip. He ran a belter when second to Rocky Creek at the track in December, and this race looks tailor-made. He’s a solid jumper, a thorough stayer, and runs without penalty having won easily at Cheltenham just over a week ago. He looks sure to go close.

The champion-elect has a pair of runners, and it’s Vyta Du Roc that I fancy will go best for the Master of Seven Barrows. The eight-year-old’s winter had mirrored, in levels of disappointment, that of Vicente, until that horse stormed back to form in winning the Scottish National last week. They were very similar types as novice chasers, rated around the mid-140s. But both had struggled to make an impact during this campaign, and their handicap marks fell accordingly. Vyta Du Roc is now off 137, and though his form is hardly inspiring, I find myself drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He was sixth in the Hennessy at the start of the season, and defeated Minella Rocco at Ascot, little more than 12 months ago.

Like Mulholland, Paul Nicholls sends a trio into battle, with two of his hopes having gone close in last year’s renewal. Just A Par won the race in 2015, and came within a short-head of repeating the feat last year. He remains on a competitive handicap mark, and looks sure to run well.

Southfield Theatre is burdened with top-weight, though Nicholls has stated that the horse is better prepared this time around. The enormity of the task is best illustrated by saying that Tidal Bay, Desert Orchid, Diamond Edge, Mill House and Arkle, are some of just a handful to overcome such a burden in the past.

Philip Hobbs took this race in 2006 and 2008, and has a serious contender in Rock The Kasbah. The seven-year-old has performed admirably in novice events throughout the winter, though has perhaps not hit the heights connections would have hoped for. I’m convinced that better ground suits him, though this trip is something of an unknown. He’s by Shirocco, the same sire as Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco. Hobbs will be hoping that this step-up in trip proves key to an improved performance. I fancy he could go very close.

It looks a terrific renewal, with cases to be made for plenty. I’m taking Vyta Du Roc to land the spoils for Henderson, and though both Mulholland and Nicholls arrive mob-handed, I’ll take Hobbs’ Rock The Kasbah to make a place for each-way punters. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Monday Musings: Seasons and Champions – Changing The Guard

Why doesn’t Paul Nicholls run more horses in Flat races? I am less than indebted to the Racing Post’s new-style trainer statistics which do not seem to allow me to investigate the multiple jumps’ trainer’s Flat performances before the 2013 season, writes Tony Stafford. [Should have used Geegeez' Query Tool - Ed.]

In that latter period, when in common with the previous ten jumps campaigns he has maintained £2m earnings and more every term, his 14 Flat runners (one unplaced in 2017) have not brought a single win. Despite these numbers, I’m sure he’d win plenty if he bothered.

A busy final end to this jumps marathon will probably mean he concedes the jumps title to Nicky Henderson even if a discrepancy of £170,000 to his rival is not impossible with Sandown’s Saturday riches to play for. Hendo, though, has the sublime Altior to head up a similarly strong raid on Esher.

By contrast with Nicholls, who recorded another notable achievement when Vicente collected a second consecutive Scottish Grand National at Ayr on Saturday, beating 29 opponents one week after his first-fence exit at Aintree, Henderson targets some prime Flat races each summer. Royal Ascot is a favourite while the Cesarewitch is another on his radar every autumn.

Henderson has enough in hand to ignore most of the minor midweek meetings in the UK, save Perth, where he might stretch the lead as Nicholls will be staying nearer home. His own location, though, will be in his favourite spring destination as house guest with Jessie Harrington.

Never before has Mrs Harrington been able to welcome her great friend from such a position of professional strength. For all of her big-race wins, spectacularly so in the case of her multi-champion two-mile chaser Moscow Flyer, Jessie has never experienced the like of the last month or so.

Her three Cheltenham Festival wins last month were headed up by Sizing John’s emphatic Gold Cup triumph and momentum has continued unabated under both codes. Our Duke, a novice with a big weight, dominated the betting before the 28-runner Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday and also the race, winning almost unchallenged after leading some way from home. He will clearly be a serious rival to Sizing John in all next season’s major staying chases.

That victory came just a couple of days after a Flat hat-trick at Cork, two of the winners being owned by her daughter and assistant trainer/amateur rider, Kate. As if Jessica Harrington hadn’t already proved her versatility over many years with her handling of Group-race Flat fillies especially, and more recently, done a great job with smart 2010 juvenile Pathfork.

That Niarchos-owned colt went unbeaten through his three-race campaign, all at The Curragh, culminating in a narrow defeat of Casamento and favourite Zoffany in the Group 1 National Stakes. His only other run in Europe was the following spring when an 8-1 chance, joint second-favourite with Roderic O’Connor for the 2,000 Guineas when he finished seventh of 13 behind the inimitable Frankel.

Yesterday Jessie moved another step forward. Her three-year-old Sepoy colt, Khukri, making his seasonal debut and only his fourth career start, contested the Listed sprint and easily reversed debut juvenile form with Aidan O’Brien’s Intelligence Cross, who beat him first time up.

Then in the Group 3 Coolmore Vintage Crop Stakes over a mile and threequarters she again had the edge on Ballydoyle when her new recruit Torcedor, a five-year-old previously with the now retired David Wachman, made it two out of two for her in beating Order of St George, last year’s Gold Cup winner at Ascot.

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She must be relishing the chance to challenge that champion at the Royal meeting, and no doubt will hope at least to share the headlines on home soil this week with her lifelong friend and sometime rival.

It was wonderful in Easter week to have an unbroken series of high class Flat-racing days at Newmarket, with the restored to three-day Craven meeting, and two high-class varied cards at Newbury.

Somehow between the ever-growing imitation of Hong Kong if not quite Manhattan, Newbury’s new facilities are gradually emerging. It’s hard to work out where to park or even whether to take the little bridge over the railway; the new roundabout from the Thatcham Road or go through the town, they seem to be getting there.

John Gosden clearly found his way and in a week of almost unbroken success, his powerful yard sent out 11 winners over the two major fixtures. One that got away was the second division of the maiden, won by 100-1 shot Duke of Bronte, a gelded son of Mount Nelson, trained by highly-capable and versatile Rod Millman. The Royal colours were carried into second place here by Musical Terms, half an hour after Call to Mind, also trained by William Haggas, gave the Queen a belated (by a day) 91st birthday winner.

Her pleasure when having a home-bred winner, as always, was clear for all to see, as was the understated way she arrived driven by Racing Manager John Warren with only minimal evident security. Coming down in the lift with a camera-brandishing photographer, I learned on Friday from him that his local newspaper: “always know where she’ll be this weekend, so we don’t really even bother to check whether she’s coming”. Imagine that informality in any other country.

Late April brings a quickening tempo for many owners of Flat racehorses and the Raymond Tooth string is no different. The consistent Stanhope is ready for his first run since being gelded in Yarmouth’s finale tomorrow and Micky Quinn hopes he can follow half a dozen placed efforts with a first success.

Yesterday Hughie Morrison had his Owners’ Day and I stood in for the boss as what seemed like possibly the trainer’s best-ever team of horses was paraded in front of a big attendance. Sod’s Law (half-brother to last year’s star Dutch Law, but bigger than his sibling) and the giant French Kiss, got generally positive reaction from the crowd and guarded optimism from their trainer.

French Kiss is from the first crop of Ray’s smart 2011 juvenile French Fifteen, who after winning the Group 1 Criterium International at Saint-Cloud, was sold and then finished a close second to Camelot in the 2,000 Guineas. Outside his box, there’s a sign suggesting “this horse bites”, but it was his neighbour Sod’s Law that grabbed hold of my jacket. “Don’t you remember me from Kinsale Stud?” I asked, to which he seemed to reply: “Sure.” Sod’s Law indeed.

Great racing continues this week. For those with long memories, Epsom’s Spring meeting, once a three-day affair, is a disappointment, but even though it’s now just the Wednesday, the races get beefed up a little each year. It’s always enjoyable to be there, while two days at Sandown at the end of the week, with the jumps finale on Saturday, promise plenty of excitement.

My own Friday will be a little more prosaic, chauffeuring Mrs S to Sheffield, not to see the snooker, but for her date in the British Adult Skating Championships (Bronze) for which there are 31 runners, even more than the Scottish National. Sadly, I’ll be on dog minding duty so cannot stay up there to see it. When she recently went to Estonia and won, that was on the Internet, but this time I’ll have to wait for less immediate communication.

Ayr We Go Again – Vicente At The Double

Predicting the winner of the Scottish National was never going to be easy. And so it proved, as Vicente repeated his success of 2016 by the narrowest of margins.

Punters were clearly more forgiving than I, with the Paul Nicholls trained eight-year-old sent-off an 9/1 joint favourite. Course form; the same handicap mark as a year ago, and of course, a pretty decent trainer, were all reason enough to fancy the horse. I’d backed him for the Grand National, but his first fence exit had stretched my patience to breaking point. This Vicente was clearly not the same racehorse as 12 months ago, or so I thought.

But clearly the Scottish air in April appeals to the hardy stayer. And despite fluffing his lines on numerous occasions throughout the winter, he was virtually hoof-perfect at Ayr. Ridden wide in midfield for much of the marathon event, Sam Twiston-Davies gave him a clear view of his fences, gradually moving into contention turning for home. Travelling strongly, he looked the likely winner, though it took an all-out drive from his jockey to overhaul Cogry nearing the post.

The runner-up’s performance was nothing short of incredible, having finished second in the West Wales National just six days earlier. No trainer is better than Twiston-Davies for getting the most from a staying chaser, and this fella must be as hard as nails, having also run well in the Midlands National in mid-March. This was his tenth run of the campaign, with all races run at three-miles plus. His jumping had been a disaster in the early part of the season, but Cogry has certainly warmed to the task, and there’s a marathon event to be won with this much-improved eight-year-old.

The Cotswold trainer also saddled the third home, with 12-year-old Benbens rolling back the years. He filled the same spot in 2015, when less than a length behind Wayward Prince, and is clearly another that enjoys the journey north. He finished a place ahead of another senior citizen, in Grand National specialist Alvarado. Ever present in these marathons, Fergal O’Brien’s stable hero was runner-up in the race 12 months earlier.

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The success for Team Ditcheat keeps the battle for the trainers’ title alive, though Nicky Henderson remains a strong favourite to be crowned at Sandown next weekend. His advantage was reduced to around £170,000 on Sunday, and whilst the Seven Barrows handler heads to Punchestown this week, Nicholls will be throwing all he has at mainland courses, as he nibbles away at the deficit.

The season finale at Sandown is set to be another thriller, coming 12 months after the Mullins-Nicholls head to head, which saw an unsuccessful Irish attempt at the trainers’ crown. Vyta Du Roc looks likely to be Henderson’s main hope for the valuable bet365 Gold Cup. Paul Nicholls is set to go with last year’s runner-up Just A Par, and fourth place finisher Southfield Theatre. The latter is said to have had a far better preparation this time round.

Henderson’s Altior should prove the star of the show, though his attempt to capture the Celebration Chase is far from straightforward. He’s likely to face Henry De Bromhead’s Special Tiara, fresh from his thrilling Champion Chase success at Cheltenham. The classy two-miler won this race in 2015, and on a decent surface will be a tough nut to crack.

It’s hard to imagine Nicky Henderson being caught, but you can be sure that Mr Nicholls will be doing everything in his power to cling-on to his coveted crown.

Sue Smith Pair Can Prove National Treasures

Another weekend, and yet another national.

The Aintree winner was outstanding, and last Monday Our Duke was something close to sensational in running away with the Irish National, on only his fourth start over fences. I’d been impressed with him throughout the winter, but doubted he had enough experience to win a 30-runner handicap of such magnitude.

Team tactics, along with a huge amount of talent ensured Jess Harrington’s young chaser prevailed. Given a perfect ride from Robbie Power, Our Duke was kept prominent and wide throughout, given a clear sight of his fences, and ensuring that he was never ‘crowded’ at any stage. He jumped solidly, and when asked to go and win his race, he simply pulverised the opposition. It was a thrilling performance from the seven-year-old novice.

He’s been well supported for next year’s Gold Cup, and looks the ideal sort. He’s clearly a powerful stayer, who should appreciate the famous hill. He’ll need to polish-up the jumping a little if he is to test the impressive Sizing John. But, if Harrington can get them both to Prestbury Park in tip-top condition, Robbie Power will have an incredibly tough decision to make.

So, what of the third national in three weeks? Ayr plays host to the Scottish marathon, won last year by the Paul Nicholls trained Vicente. He’s back for another crack, though has to haul 11-10 over the four-mile trip, and you have to go back to 1985 for the last back-to-back success.

As with most distance handicaps, especially nationals, it’s carrying huge weights that has proved a major stumbling block for contenders. In the last dozen renewals, only two have carried more than 11 stone to victory, and both of those had 11-3 on their back. There was a period between 1993 and 2004, when four horses triumphed off top-weight, but recent trends follow the norm.

It’s probably fair to say that tomorrow’s race looks a pretty ordinary renewal. Despite a torrid campaign, the aforementioned Vicente is virtually top-weight, and may well go-off favourite. He remains on the same handicap mark as 12 months ago, but has shown little spark over the winter, with his fall at the first at Aintree, rather summing-up his season.

Missed Approach heads the weights after his runner-up performance in the four-miler at Cheltenham. Carrying 11-12 is a huge negative, but his run in the Cotswolds was a cracker, showing he clearly appreciates a marathon trip. He could go well here, but it’s a tall order from the top of the pile.

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Arpege D’Alene is another Nicholls contender towards the head of the handicap and the betting market. He was fourth in the four-miler at the Festival, proving his ability to cope with these extended trips. His jumping can be erratic at times, and that could make it tough for him to hold a prominent position. He has the talent to go close, but his jumping, along with plenty of weight on his back, are two major worries.

Nicky Henderson never wins nationals, though he has his best chance for a while with Premier Bond. The seven-year-old has only run four times over fences, though such a lack of experience hasn’t always been a problem in past Scottish Nationals. Beshabar (4), in 2011, Godsmejudge (6) in 2013 and Vicente (7) last year, were all similarly lacking in chasing experience when successful here. Premier Bond was third in the Fulke Walwyn at Cheltenham, and this extended trip may well suit. He looks to be on the right kind of mark to run well, and I fancy he’ll go close.

I’m losing track of the times I’ve tipped-up Shotgun Paddy for this type of race, and he’s once again hard to ignore. He’s a relentless galloper, but is always likely to find a couple with a little more ‘toe’ at the business end. Nevertheless, his handicap mark continues to give hope of a huge run, and his third-place finishes in the Classic Chase at Warwick and the Eider at Newcastle, show that he retains plenty of ability. He’s available at a tempting 16/1.

Six of the last 10 renewals have gone to those at odds of 14/1 or shorter, and Vintage Clouds falls neatly into that category. Sue Smith trains the Trevor Hemmings entrant, and this seven-year-old has proved a consistent performer throughout the winter. He was a promising third behind Vieux Lion Rouge and Blaklion in the Haydock Grand National Trial in February. He came down at Cheltenham when going well in the Ultima Handicap Chase, and I fancy that he’ll go well tomorrow. He can be clumsy at his fences, and he’ll need a better round to go close. Nevertheless, I think his handicap mark is favourable.

Another Sue Smith contender that could go well at a huge price is Blakemount. He ran out of gas in testing ground at Uttoxeter in the Midlands National, when looking the likely winner three-out. By Presenting out of a Supreme Leader mare, I’m confident he’ll enjoy the sounder surface, and that this marathon trip is within his compass. He could be an exciting each-way proposition.

Picking the winner of this 30-runner marathon is a tall order. And I’m going to be greedy in firing three bullets at the target. Sue Smith knows how to win a national, and I’ll be backing both Vintage Clouds and Blakemount. And I fancy Nicky Henderson will go very close to ending his National jinx with Premier Bond.

Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Cue a Glorious Finale

Could Thursday at Aintree be the last time we see the wonderful Cue Card on a racecourse?

Though nothing has been said publicly, the 11-year-old’s trainer Colin Tizzard, and proud owner Jean Bishop, must be mulling over the option of retiring the wonderful chaser. And should he repeat last year’s success in the Betway Bowl, it would prove a perfect way to bring the curtain down on a dazzling career.

Cue Card launched his long and illustrious career with victory in a Fontwell bumper back in January 2010. The four-year-old had ‘quickened clear’ to win ‘readily’, in the style of a talented young horse. A few weeks later, Tizzard and his team were celebrating a Cheltenham Festival success, as the youngster ‘romped clear’ to win the Champion Bumper at odds of 40/1. It was a stunning victory.

A year later he returned to Cheltenham, and was far from disgraced when fourth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. In a stellar renewal, the race went to Al Ferof, with Spirit Son second and a young Sprinter Sacre in third. A month later, he then chased home the talented Spirit Son at Aintree in the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, with Rock On Ruby eight lengths back in third.

A decision was then made to send him over fences, and he opened his account with a comfortable win at Chepstow in October 2011, beating Silviniaco Conti in the process. Tizzard had to decide whether to campaign Cue Card at the minimum trip, or target the RSA the following March. A defeat to Bobs Worth at Newbury, when appearing to be out-stayed, and getting tagged on the line, sealed the deal. A young Cue Card was not short of gears, and the Arkle Chase looked the right fit at this stage of his development.

Unfortunately for Team Tizzard, a certain Sprinter Sacre was lying in wait, and when the pair met in March there could be only one winner. Cue Card ran a cracker in defeat, just seven lengths off the winner, and miles clear of the remainder.

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The following season started with a romp in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter, before a failed first attempt at three miles in the King George. He took the Grade 1 Ascot Chase en-route to Cheltenham, and understandably dodged a clash with Sprinter, instead taking in the Ryanair Chase. It proved the right decision, as he ran-out an impressive winner at his fourth festival.

His next outing, though ending in defeat, was arguably one of his best. He again locked horns with the greatest chaser of his generation, as the pair clashed in Aintree’s Melling Chase. Many remember the race for the way Henderson’s fella performed, but Cue Card was awesome that day. He finished just four lengths adrift of one of chasing’s all-time greats, with the rest of the field out of sight.

A stunning victory in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase later that year, saw him arrive for the King George of 2013 as joint-favourite. A certain winner two fences from home, became a three-length defeat at the line, with Cue Card appearing to run-out of gas. Injury prevented him from attempting to retain his Ryanair crown, and when he returned to action, his 2014-15 campaign proved disappointing.

A wind-op prior to his return in late-2015 turned his career around, and the nine-year-old Cue Card became unstoppable. With the Charlie Hall and Betfair Chase in the bag, he headed to the King George, and a shot at redemption. In a thrilling renewal, he mugged Vautour in the shadow of the post for a sensational victory. He may have added a Gold Cup to the CV but for a fall three-out, though Don Cossack was a terrific winner. He then hammered a strong field in last year’s Bowl, before a tired looking finale at Punchestown.

This season has again proved profitable, thanks to Grade 1 victories at Haydock and Ascot. He was runner-up to his talented stablemate Thistlecrack in the King George, and again came down at the third-last in the Gold Cup.
He retains tons of ability, and is the short-priced favourite for Thursday’s showpiece. But with £1,340,230 in the bank, it’s possible that we may be witnessing the final chapter in Cue Card’s incredible National Hunt story. A victory this week at Aintree would without doubt, be one of the season’s highlights. Loved by all, it would surely prove a fitting finale to the career of a jumping legend.