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Morrison happy to go under the radar with Not So Sleepy

Not So Sleepy is bang on course to emerge from his winter break for a Champion Hurdle challenge next month.

Trainer Hughie Morrison is content with the long-term plan to keep his dual Betfair Exchange Trophy hero fresh for the Cheltenham Festival.

Morrison so far fears only Ireland’s brilliant, unbeaten and Festival-winning mare Honeysuckle, following her hugely impressive 10-length triumph in last weekend’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Otherwise, the Berkshire trainer has enjoyed watching Not So Sleepy’s potential rivals scramble to fit in their Cheltenham prep runs through the wintry weather of the past month – with the waters muddying along the way.

“As it gets closer, usually the races start to look more difficult – and I have to say Honeysuckle was very impressive on Sunday,” he said.

“She quickened up, and they couldn’t go with her, could they?

“I suspect the race (Champion Hurdle) could be set up for her as well.

“The rest of them, I wouldn’t be frightened of taking on.”

Among them, Nicky Henderson’s title-holder Epatante met with a shock defeat behind Silver Streak in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle – and has since reportedly had successful treatment for a suspected back issue.

Hughie Morrison has singled out Irish Champion Hurdle heroine Honesyuckle as the Cheltenham rival he fears most for Not So Sleepy
Hughie Morrison has singled out Irish Champion Hurdle heroine Honesyuckle as the Cheltenham rival he fears most for Not So Sleepy (Niall Carson/PA)

The mercurial Not So Sleepy made an early exit when swerving and unseating his rider as Epatante went on to win the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November, only to return three weeks later with an all-the-way victory as he retained his crown in the valuable Grade Three at Ascot.

Morrison announced there and then that, unlike last year, there would be no attempt at another big handicap pot in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury – due to be run this weekend if the freezing temperatures abate in time.

Twelve months ago, habitual front-runner Not So Sleepy was hampered at the start in the Betfair and never got into the race, before being pulled up in the Champion Hurdle a month later.

Morrison has not been tempted to give the same schedule a second shot.

He said: “Last year, we weren’t sold on going to Newbury – but he was in such good form two weeks after (Ascot) we decided to, and I think he then just probably flattened out in the middle of January, and we never really got him back.”

This time, a winter breather followed Not So Sleepy’s mid-December win – and as long as no snow interrupts his remaining preparations at home, all is well.

Not So Sleepy was a runaway winner of Ascot's Betfair Exchange Trophy in 2019
Not So Sleepy was a runaway winner of Ascot’s Betfair Exchange Trophy in 2019 (Julian Herbert/PA)

“We gave him a break afterwards really,” added Morrison.

“We kept him going, then gave him a week or so off at the beginning of January, not really doing anything.

“Touch wood, I think that’s paid dividends.

“He’s a difficult horse to judge, but I’d like to think he’s in good form at the moment.

“We took him back to build him up again. We (just) wouldn’t want snow now, that’s all.”

Morrison is looking forward to another opportunity to take on Henderson’s reigning champion.

“Epatante was very, very good last year,” he said.

“Whether she’s as good this year, she’s got to prove it again after disappointing at Kempton.

“What we don’t know is what would have happened if Not So Sleepy hadn’t tried to refuse and Silver Streak hadn’t been taken out at Newcastle.

“So it didn’t prove anything really, did it?”

Not So Sleepy has shown his best hurdles form on soft ground – and ideally, Morrison would therefore prefer a return to wet weather following this week’s snow and frost.

“I think we’d probably like it to be very soft (at Cheltenham),” he said.

“He’s won on what I would call ‘soft Flat’ ground, and it suits him better than others.

“It wouldn’t stop us running if it was good ground, because that’s soft on the Flat really.

“You never know with Not So Sleepy. Realistically, he might not be good enough, but he is a very good horse underneath it all.”

In the meantime, should Newbury go ahead after all on Saturday, it will provide Morrison with another indication as to the merit of Not So Sleepy’s latest Ascot victory.

He beat his former stablemate Buzz there – in receipt of 6lb – and Henderson’s grey is set to be in action again in the Betfair, before a possible Champion Hurdle bid himself.

Naturally, a prominent showing from Buzz would breed further confidence at Morrison’s East Ilsley yard.

“It would be great for all concerned if he did (run well) really,” he said.

“Top weight is always difficult, but he nearly carried top-weight (to victory) the other day.”

Monday Musings: of Hollie, Paisley and Sleepy

So Hollie Doyle finished third in the new-look BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2020 showing that technology can mix with the old-style modesty and courtesy which Ms Doyle, Jordan Henderson and Stuart Broad showed by bothering to turn up on a Sunday night in Manchester, writes Tony Stafford.

Henderson, the genuinely-likeable captain of Liverpool FC, team of the year and whose manager Jurgen Klopp was coach of the year, finished second and favourite Lewis Hamilton won for the second time having been successful six years ago. Standing next to a Christmas tree – “I didn’t decorate it!” he said, Hamilton was presumably at home in Monte Carlo rather than Stevenage. Ronnie O’Sullivan and Tyson Fury didn’t show up either.

Seven world driving championships in overwhelmingly the best car proved too high a hill to climb even for Liverpool’s first winning captain in the life of the Premier League and an unassuming 24-year-old who rode her first Group winners in her eighth year as a jockey only this summer.

It had been quantity rather than quality until her recruitment by Tony Nerses to ride for his boss Imad Al Sagar and it was her win on Sagar’s Extra Elusive in the Group 3 Winter Hill Stakes, the fourth of a record five winners on a single day for her as recently as August 29 at Windsor that propelled her into the public perception.

It was a nice, albeit forlorn, idea to think she could supplant the well-established front-runners for the SPOTY award. At least the belated campaign put a few quid in the bookmakers’ coffers and a nice boost for British Telecom, although I’m sure the BBC will take a chunk of the phone receipts to help pay their quartet of highly remunerated presenters.

What Hollie will need now to be competitive in this rarefied arena is a step up, a job like stable jockey to John Gosden – move over Frankie, your time is up, maybe? Then she can ride steering jobs in Group races around the big tracks and leave the travelling to the gaffs to stack up the numbers to her fiancé, Mr Marquand! Alternatively, in true “promising debut, should win next time” racing tradition, she could even win it, as long as she gets her first championship in the meantime.

While all the talk around racing circles concerned the possible win against the odds of Hollie and the implications of Tier 4 for those of us in the now most contagious part of the country, Ascot provided two wonderful examples of talented hurdlers coming back from adversity.

The new normal won’t make much difference to me, for although I did make it to Newmarket on Thursday morning and actually saw a couple of horses, since March I’ve pretty much stayed at home. Others around where we live are not so compliant.

Later on Thursday evening, police cars swarmed past our block as they sought out the actual venue where hundreds of people, reckoned to be mainly in the 20-30 age bracket, were having an illicit drinking party. Helicopters were right overhead for at least an hour. Wasn’t us, guv’nor!

The Paisley Park story and its connection to his owner Andrew Gemmill was one of the strongest themes of the 2018-9 jumps season. The Emma Lavelle-trained hurdler went unbeaten through a five-race campaign triumphing emphatically in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, all the time accompanied by pictures of his enthusiastic owner who, as is well documented, has been blind from birth.

As a result, when at the track he relies on race commentaries and insights from his friends as to how his horses are going. It must have been a dreadful shock at Cheltenham this March when, with a second consecutive championship and another unblemished season in the offing, he first realised something unusual was happening. Where normally he would hear, “Paisley Park is starting to improve”, instead his star made no impression between the last two flights and finished a very tired seventh.

Initially all the stable representative could tell the stewards, understandably like the owner and many thousands of his supporters around the country wanting an explanation of what did go wrong, was he had lost two shoes during the run; but, soon after, a heart issue was discovered.

While such a finding might be alarming, it would at least be enough to explain what happened and probably why. Emma Lavelle went back to the beginning with Paisley Park after the shock had been accepted and, to her and her staff’s credit, she had him ready for the Grade 2 Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, the race in which he began his previous campaign.

Whereas 2019 brought a five-length win over Thistlecrack, new contenders lined up, understandably sensing a chink in the previously impenetrable armour, making it double the field size of the previous renewal. As well as Lisnagar Oscar, the horse that now it seems may have “borrowed” rather than taken his crown, there were a number of regulars on the staying circuit but, more tellingly, two of the new generation at the top level in McFabulous, who started favourite and Thyme Hill.

McFabulous proved unable to beat Paisley Park, but the latter in turn was unable to match the speed between the last two jumps by Philip Hobbs’ Thyme Hill. One of the best novices of his generation he was unluckily beaten out of the frame in the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle a year after his close third to Envoi Allen (still unbeaten and frankly untroubled) in the Festival Bumper of 2019.

Thyme Hill was getting 3lb from the old champion at Newbury and made the most of it, winning by a length and a half but Paisley Park was staying on very well at the finish. When they renewed rivalry on Saturday in the Long Walk Hurdle, a race Paisley Park won two years ago, this Grade 1 was a level-weight affair. Understandably, Thyme Hill, better off, and very much the progressive animal, was favourite to maintain his edge.

If Andrew had been nervous at any stage in the 2020 Stayers’ Hurdle, I’d hate to have been the one to tell him, apart from commentator Simon Holt, what his chances were. Until they were well into the straight Holt didn’t have the best of news to report.

After suffering some interference on the bend, he was in an unpromising sixth place coming to two out as Aidan Coleman guided him to the wide outside. By now Thyme Hill was going up to challenge Younevercall and Roksana. Holt said: Paisley Park is under pressure, who is responding, in sixth. At the last he said, “Only three lengths back is Paisley Park, still staying”, and then after the last, “Paisley Park is storming home and he’s got him. He’s pulled it out of the fire!” Thirty or more seconds of agony turned to ecstasy for the owner.

And that’s exactly what it was, a champion showing all his best abilities when everything seemed to be against him, not least his first experience of truly heavy going. After this the regaining of his Cheltenham Festival title must be a strong possibility.

The second back from – if not the dead, then certainly from adversity – was provided by Not So Sleepy, who also made a return win on the track; but, whereas Paisley Park’s first Long Walk was two years ago, Not So Sleepy had been the wide-margin winner of the concluding Betfair Exchange Trophy only last December.

Previously, Not So Sleepy had finished a creditable fourth in the Cesarewitch behind the Willie Mullins-trained Stratum and then won off what at the time looked a gift jumping mark of 122 at the November meeting on the Royal course. A 5lb rise never appeared enough to stop him on his return for the Betfair Handicap Hurdle and he duly romped home by nine lengths as the 9-2 favourite.

Trainer Hughie Morrison, who has managed the one-time Dee Stakes (more than once a precursor to Derby success) winner through seven full campaigns and 49 races, aimed higher after that. The Betfair Hurdle itself at Newbury in February was the plan despite a further, this-time restrictive, hike of 17lb.

Several false starts meant a farcical melee on the outside where Tom O’Brien lined him up in that handicap and, thereafter, he was never in contention. Morrison then took him to the Champion Hurdle and again false starts and interference at the gate precluded against his showing his merits.

So to post-lockdown and a Flat return at Pontefract in late September where he was a ridiculously-easy winner of a two-mile handicap off 94. The 4lb rise which followed in this year’s Cesarewitch could not prevent a repeat fourth place, this time to another Mullins ‘job’, Great White Shark, a six-year-old mare lined up for the purpose and a ridiculously-easy winner under Jason Watson.

Graham Lee set off at the front of the 34-strong line-up and Not So Sleepy did nothing to suggest his powers had declined. Less positive were my feelings after his abortive challenge for the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle last month when he jinked and jettisoned Paddy Brennan at the first flight of the race won so impressively by Epatante.

Lastly to Ascot at the weekend, off 2lb lower than in the “real” Betfair in February and, inexplicably with hindsight, Not So Sleepy was allowed to start at 20-1. I, like many others, was fooled by the trio of hurdles mishaps and temporarily forgetful of his Ascot hurdles and solid Flat form. Fortunately, some less short-sighted members and a few pals reading the From The Stables newsletter I edit every day, kept the faith and profited accordingly.

‘Twas ever thus, don’t do as I do, do as I say, or vice versa!

- TS

Not So Sleepy silences critics with second Betfair romp

Not So Sleepy repeated his front-running tactics to win the Betfair Exchange Trophy at Ascot for the second year running.

Hughie Morrison’s talented dual-purpose performer has been called a few names in recent months because of his antics on more than one occasion.

He has been reluctant to race in the past and only recently decided to unseat his jockey at the first flight in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, before running loose and carrying out Silver Streak at the next.

Ironically Silver Streak’s jockey at Newcastle was Tom O’Brien, yet this time he got the leg-up off Morrison in the Ascot paddock – hoping the 20-1 chance would behave himself.

To his credit Not So Sleepy then never put a foot wrong, and nobody has ever denied his talent – he even ran in last year’s Champion Hurdle.

Having strung the field out, he began to tire having jumped the last – but O’Brien had saved just enough and held off top weight Buzz by a length and three-quarters.

Lightly Squeeze was third, with the well-backed Benson flying home for fourth to pip Belfast Banter.

O’Brien told ITV Racing: “He cost me a few quid at Newcastle – but he’s paid me back now!

“He has his quirks but he seems to love it here. I thought I was pressing on soon enough, but I didn’t want to disappoint him turning for home. He tried so hard.”

The competitive 17-strong race clearly suited Not So Sleepy, and O’Brien added: “It’s different at the start of a big-field handicap.

“We all wanted him to make the running at Newcastle, but he didn’t want to. Five wanted to make it today, so he had to fight for it.”

Morrison had observed before the race that Not So Sleepy won with a stone in hand last year, and just might have to fight a bit harder this time.

After he had done so, the Berkshire trainer was already planning a second Champion Hurdle attempt this season.

“He’s an absolute star, isn’t he?” he said.

Trainer Hughie Morrison is planning to run Not So Sleepy in the Champion Hurdle for a second time
Trainer Hughie Morrison is planning to run Not So Sleepy in the Champion Hurdle for a second time (Julian Herbert/PA)

“He’s in good form and was in great form going into Newcastle – it was just that things went slightly wrong there.

“But he didn’t quicken past (Champion Hurdle and Fighting Fifth winner) Epatante for nothing after the last with no jockey, having been halfway round Newcastle.

“So we were hopeful.”

Not So Sleepy’s route back to Cheltenham in March is set to be a quiet one through the remainder of the winter.

Asked about that date, Morrison added: “I think so, probably – we might as well go straight there, no messing around this year.

“I’ll give him a bit of a break – he obviously runs well fresh. We won’t be tempted by any other races, I don’t think.”

Buzz tops market for Ascot’s big Betfair Exchange handicap

Nicky Henderson’s Buzz has been installed as the 5-1 favourite for this month’s Betfair Exchange Handicap Hurdle at Ascot after 44 entries were received.

The grey bolted up on his last visit to the Berkshire venue, but will have an 11lb rise to contend with if taking his chance on December 19.

He is one of eight entries from Henderson’s Seven Barrows yard, last successful with Brain Power in 2016 – with Call Me Lord, Mister Coffey, Verdana Blue and Allart among his team.

Paul Nicholls has also entered eight – including Solo, Eglantine Du Seuil and Thyme White.

Last year’s winner Not So Sleepy has been given the option by Hughie Morrison, having caused carnage in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle last weekend when he unseated his rider at the first before carrying out Silver Streak at the second.

Anthony Honeyball will be hoping a return to Ascot sparks Kid Commando back to his best – because having won easily there first time out this season, he was only sixth next time at Haydock.

“Kid Commando is entered in the Betfair Exchange Trophy, and we will make a decision about his participation closer to the time,” said Honeyball.

“We are not really sure why he disappointed at Haydock last time out, but he has been fine since.

“He has winning form at Ascot and was impressive in October, so the Betfair Exchange Trophy is something to think about.

“He did have a tough race on heavy ground at Haydock – and while he may want something a week or so after Ascot, we have made the entry for the moment, and we will think about it. The fixtures haven’t been released for 2021 yet, and this race may come too soon – but I couldn’t find much else for him, so I have made the entry.”

Not So Sleepy was an easy winner last year but caused havoc in the Fighting Fifth
Not So Sleepy was an easy winner last year but caused havoc in the Fighting Fifth (Julian Herbert/PA)

Royal Ascot winner Scarlet Dragon, Neil Mulholland’s Milkwood and Dan Skelton’s novice Third Time Lucki are sure to have their supporters.

Mulholland will consider the race for Milkwood, who looked an unlucky third behind Floressa in the Listed Intermediate Hurdle at Newbury on Saturday.

“He’s very good – I’ve entered him for the Betfair Hurdle in Ascot on the 19th,” said the Wiltshire trainer.

Trainer Neil Mulholland
Trainer Neil Mulholland (David Davies/PA)

“He’s come out of the race no problem. We’ll have a look at that and see.”

Betfair spokesman Barry Orr said: “Nicky Henderson is the most successful trainer in the race with four wins to his name – and Buzz, who was so impressive over course and distance when landing a handicap last month, is our clear market leader at 5-1.

“Not So Sleepy, up 15lb from his winning mark last year, didn’t get past the first hurdle in the Betfair Fighting Fifth. But at 25-1, he could be a popular pick again with punters.”

Cesarewitch aim for Not So Sleepy

Hughie Morrison is eyeing a second tilt at the Together For Racing International Cesarewitch with Not So Sleepy following his successful return at Pontefract last week.

The eight-year-old was having his first outing since being pulled up in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March, but Morrison feels that effort can be excused as it came at the end of a long season.

Prior to that he had shown himself to be very versatile, winning a big handicap hurdle at Ascot by nine lengths, but lost all chance in the Betfair Hurdle following a false start.

Making his first appearance on the level since finishing fourth in last year’s Cesarewitch, he beat a good yardstick in Dark Jedi over a mile and a half in West Yorkshire.

“All being well, it will be the Cesarewitch next, as long as the ground isn’t too quick,” said Morrison.

“He has actually won over a mile and a quarter on the Flat – albeit three years ago!

“Given the way we’ve campaigned him recently, you’d have to say we think he’s a hurdler, but we’ll take in a Cesarewitch any day – plenty of dual-purpose horses have won it.

“Winning seems to have done his mind good. I’m not sure he really stays two-mile-two, but if he relaxes, you don’t know what you’d get with this horse – you don’t know what’s going to turn up on the day.

“We intended to give him a rest last autumn but didn’t, he then had a couple of serious bites at the cherry before Christmas and come Cheltenham, I think it was just at the end of a long season and he’d had enough.

“He’s tricky, but we know how to deal with him now. With a hurdles mark of 142 there might be another handicap in him, but we might be brave and go for big races with small fields.”