Tag Archive for: Paul Nicholls

Nicholls remains confident ‘we will make it 15 one day’

Paul Nicholls has vowed to dust himself down and come back stronger after falling short in his bid for a record-equalling 15th trainers’ championship.

The master of Ditcheat had dominated the National Hunt landscape in Britain over the past couple of decades, topping the table 14 times in 18 years, with six-times champion Nicky Henderson the only man to deny him during that period.

For much of last season, Nicholls led the way again, but he was knocked off top spot after his former assistant Dan Skelton banged in four winners at the Cheltenham Festival, before Willie Mullins powered past both thanks to the Grand National success of I Am Maximus at Aintree.

Mullins subsequently pressed home his advantage with an Ayr four-timer featuring the Scottish National triumph of Macdermott, and he put the seal on an incredible campaign with a final-day double at Sandown courtesy of Minella Cocooner in the bet365 Gold Cup and Impaire Et Passe in the Select Hurdle.

Willie Mullins after being crowned champion trainer at Sandown
Willie Mullins after being crowned champion trainer at Sandown (John Walton/PA)

Mullins becomes the first Irish-based trainer to be crowned top dog in Britain since the legendary Vincent O’Brien, while Nicholls had to make do with an honourable third-place finish in the final standings – but has no doubts he will become champion again.

He said: “We’ve knocked on the door in quite a number of big races and that has made it hard, but I’ve been in the incredibly lucky position of winning 14 titles and we will make it 15 one day.

“No team can keep winning the Premier League every year and it all depends on the players you have – and we just need to get a few more players in the team and up the squad a bit and we will be back.

“It’s a near-miss this year, but we have had over 130 winners, which is our most, and at a good strike-rate. We have also won very nearly £3million in prize-money – if we did that every year, we would be very happy.”

Nicholls feels Mullins’ Grand National success was ultimately the decisive blow, adding: “I could see it happening and the Grand National was always going to be pivotal.

“The Grand National did me a big favour once with Neptune Collonges when I was trailing Nicky and Nicky looked like being champion – Neptune Collonges won and it was all over.

“I’ve been concentrating on making Harry Cobden champion jockey and that has always been my sole aim this year. It would have been great if I was champion again, but we’ll move on and next year is already another year and I’m already excited for next season.

“Poor old Dan (Skelton) is feeling it a little bit, as he always thought the first time he finished ahead of me, he would be champion trainer – and then Willie has come along and trumped us both.”

Ascot Chase hero Pic D’Orhy was one of Nicholls' big winners this season
Ascot Chase hero Pic D’Orhy was one of Nicholls’ big winners this season (Steven Paston/PA)

While confident he will one day regain his crown, Nicholls admits he needs to add more firepower to his string to compete at the very highest level.

“We will do our best next season with what we’ve got and we won’t be starting the season with the sole aim of winning the trainers’ championship,” he said.

“We just like to win as many races as we can and ultimately win as many big races as we can – and this year, we’ve just been a bit light on that and knocked on the door a little bit. But it’s sport and it just depends on the team you have got.

“We always end up close to £3million in prize-money and the Grand National has proved pivotal. I’m sure if Willie didn’t win that, you wouldn’t be seeing him and the battle between me and Dan would have been interesting. I imagine it will be the same again next year.”

Champion jockey Cobden salutes Nicholls’ contribution to title victory

Harry Cobden has hailed the influence of Paul Nicholls’ Ditcheat operation after fulfilling a childhood dream and becoming champion jockey.

Cobden held off his one-time stable comrade and friend Sean Bowen in a good-spirited title battle that went right down to the final days of the season.

The Ditcheat number one sealed the title with a double at Chepstow on Friday evening which took him seven winners clear of Bowen, who had four rides booked on the final day.

Harry Cobden (left) gets his trophy off AP McCoy
Harry Cobden (left) gets his trophy off AP McCoy (John Walton/PA)

“It’s a childhood dream and something I’ve always wanted to achieve and I’m delighted,” said Cobden.

“You can’t do this without a big trainer behind you and when you have a powerful yard with 140 horses, it makes things a lot easier.

“He’s got very strong owners and a good team, right the way from Clifford Baker to the girls who come in and ride out in the mornings, they are all an integral part of the team and I couldn’t do it without any of them.

“It’s not ideal and slightly disappointing that Paul hasn’t won (the trainers’ championship) but we have perhaps missed a few of our good horses this year and it would have been a good party if we could have both done it.”

Harry Cobden has thrived in the saddle this term
Harry Cobden has thrived in the saddle this term (Mike Egerton/PA)

At Christmas it looked as though Bowen would be crowned champion as he held a hefty lead, but that all changed after the 26-year-old suffered an injury on Boxing Day which kept him on the sidelines until early February.

Cobden took full advantage of Bowen’s absence, erasing the majority of the healthy advantage the Welshman had built up, with the duo then pushing themselves to the limits in the closing months of the campaign.

However, Cobden admits a title charge had not really crossed his mind until that defining Boxing Day moment, when he realised he had the right man behind him in Nicholls to give a championship tilt a good go.

“I was so far behind and Sean looked to have it in the bag and unfortunately Sean got injured and it levelled the table a bit,” continued Cobden.

“I’ve never had a cross word with Sean in seven years of sitting next to him and obviously we’re both going for the same thing, but it wasn’t until the first week in January that I thought I had a realistic chance.

“When he came back we were nil-nil and I had a really good spell through February and March was pretty good. There has been no tension between us at all and it’s been really good fun and something I’ve really enjoyed.

“We’re sat right next to each other and it’s been like that since time has begun really. We’re a similar age and we started a similar time.

“We’ve both ridden a lot more winners than ever before and ridden for a lot more people than we ever have done, but I just thought if he hit a little flat spot and Paul’s horses got into a gear, I could give him a run for his money.”

Harry Cobden tasted Cheltenham Festival success aboard Monmiral
Harry Cobden tasted Cheltenham Festival success aboard Monmiral (Adam Davy/PA)

Cobden also reserved special praise for his agent Sam Stronge, who has been a vital cog in his championship victory.

The 25-year-old has taken more rides than any previous year he has held a licence and he credits Stronge with enabling him to form vital connections with new trainers and owners in the closing months of the campaign.

He said: “It’s been an amazing year and I think previously the most rides I had ever had was just short of 600, whereas this season I’ve had over 720 rides and Sam Stronge has been fantastic for my career and put me on lots of very good horses.

“I’ve made lots of new connections with owners and trainers and Sam has put a lot of effort and work in and I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Harry Cobden and Paul Nicholls have formed a formidable combination
Harry Cobden and Paul Nicholls have formed a formidable combination (Steven Paston/PA)

Cobden’s boss Nicholls has made no secret of his desire to make his number one the first champion jockey based out of Ditcheat and feels this victory justifies the way he has embraced his hugely-pressurised position in recent years.

“It’s fantastic for the team and for Harry in particular, he’s been riding very well this year and he deserves it,” said Nicholls.

“He’s stayed injury free, ridden plenty of great winners for us and gone out and picked up plenty of spare rides, so it’s good he has won this for the team.

“He’s improved enormously with experience and he’s still a relatively young jockey and he’s only going to improve again with more experience. Experience in sport is a massive thing and he’s a complete jockey now who rides extremely well.

“He’s one of the best out there and there’s some good lads out there, but he’s one of the best and he’s come on well the last few years.

“There’s been lots of great days this year, a couple of rides he’s given Ginny’s Destiny when he’s won on him have been brilliant, but he’s been consistent all the way through. To be champion jockey there isn’t just one standout but lots of them and he’s been riding them very well this year.

“He’s great to work with and a good team player who everyone is fond of. I’ve never heard anyone have a cross word with him and I never have any owners saying they don’t want to use him, so he’s just the ultimate team player.”

Patrick Wadge, who is attached to Lucinda Russell’s yard, took the conditional riders’ title while JP McManus was the leading owner this term.

Nicholls needs Threeunderthrufive to tee-up late charge

Threeunderthrufive leads Paul Nicholls’ three-pronged assault on Saturday’s bet365 Gold Cup, with the Ditcheat handler admitting he needs a “massive day” as he bids to retain his British trainers’ title.

Nicholls has topped the table 14 times in the last 18 years, with six-times champion Nicky Henderson the only man to deny him victory during that period.

However, he will head into the final day of the current campaign only third in the race, having first been passed by his protege Dan Skelton following his Cheltenham Festival four-timer before Willie Mullins blew both out of the water by claiming Grand National glory at Aintree with I Am Maximus.

A subsequent Ayr four-timer, including the Scottish Grand National success of Macdermott, strengthened Mullins’ position in the lead and Nicholls feels he needs a minor miracle to overhaul the all-conquering Irishman on the final afternoon of the season.

Paul Nicholls receives the champion trainer trophy at Sandown last year
Paul Nicholls receives the champion trainer trophy at Sandown last year (David Davies/The Jockey Club)

“We’re up against it a little bit but we have some nice chances on Saturday, the horses are running well and we had three winners on Wednesday. We’re going to keep chipping away,” said Nicholls.

“Realistically, I think the only chance I’ve got is trying to beat Dan into second place, but you never know. Willie has got plenty of good horses to run and so have we, but I do think we’re up against it a little bit and we’re going to need a massive day.”

Given he is not represented in the other £170,000 feature on Saturday’s card, the Celebration Chase, winning the bet365 Gold Cup is likely to be Nicholls’ only hope of performing a last-gasp comeback.

Threeunderthrufive appears the stable’s number one hope, having been kept fresh since landing a lucrative prize at Ascot in February.

Nicholls added: “There’s a bit of rain forecast and I just hope with the watering, it doesn’t end up going against him, as he loves good ground.

“He’s in good shape, he’s very fresh and loves going right-handed. He has to carry 12st, but he won with 12st the last day.

“It’s not the hottest bet365 Gold Cup. They all take a lot of winning, but there’s no Gold Cup horses in there, it’s just a good handicap and that’s what he is good at.

“I would like to think he has a big chance.”

The nine-year-old will be ridden by Harry Cobden on the day he is set to be crowned champion jockey and he too fancies his chances.

Threeunderthrufive at Cheltenham
Threeunderthrufive at Cheltenham (Tim Goode/PA)

He said: “I think he has a really good chance. He will like the ground, I think he will stay and the trip won’t be a problem.

“He’s fresh and well, Paul has trained him for the race and I think it was a career best at Ascot last time, he’s going the right way.”

Nicholls is also represented by Enrilo, who passed the post in front in the 2021 bet365 Gold Cup before later being demoted to third due to causing interference, as well as Flash Collonges.

“Enrilo was an unlucky loser three years ago, he’s been running OK but needs to step up his game, while Flash Collonges has been a total disaster all season, with the ground being soft,” said the trainer.

“I don’t want to see any rain for him and he’s got blinkers on for the first time to sharpen him up, but he needs to improve on what he’s done so far this season.”

Nick Rockett in winning action at Navan
Nick Rockett in winning action at Navan (Damien Eagers/PA)

Mullins is also triple-handed, with Paul Townend siding with Nick Rockett over stablemates Minella Cocooner (Danny Mullins) and Aime Desjy (Sean O’Keeffe).

Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said: “I’d say it was a tough decision for Paul, there’s not a lot between Nick Rockett and Minella Cocooner if you look at their profiles.

“I think the nicer ground and maybe the softer fences will be a help to Nick Rockett, he’s not an overly big horse and hopefully that should help him improve on his Irish National run (finished seventh).

“Minella Cocooner ran an absolute cracker in the Irish National (finished third) and the trip will suit him and the ground is fine for him as well.

“Aime Desjy ran a cracker over the National fences in the Topham Chase at Aintree a couple of weeks ago and the step up in trip should suit him well. He’s got a lovely weight (10st 13lb) and he’d have to be a lively outsider.”

The likely favourite is Christian Williams’ popular defending champion Kitty’s Light, who is sent back into action just two weeks after a fantastic effort when fifth in the National at Aintree.

“He seems in good order, obviously another fortnight would have been nice. He did it off the back of a week last year, having won the Scottish National the week before, but I think he was probably well handicapped last year and he’s 5lb higher in the weights now,” said Williams.

“He obviously runs well in the race and it’s the last big race of the year. He’s run in it the last three years and seems to like the place, it’s a bit of a specialist race, so we were always going to try to go for it unless we had a major reason not to.

“He takes his races well usually and seems in good heart. It’s a hard race to win but we’ll be trying our best.”

Skelton relies upon the 2022 Coral Gold Cup winner Le Milos, who has disappointed since running in last year’s Grand National, while other contenders include Henry de Bromhead’s Amirite and Sam England’s stable star Kinondo Kwetu.

Impaire Et Passe and Langer Dan face Sandown rematch

Having both been part of a pulsating three-way finish at Aintree little over a fortnight ago, Impaire Et Passe and Langer Dan are poised to renew rivalry in the bet365 Select Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday.

The Willie Mullins-trained Impaire Et Passe, a top-class novice last season, had failed to lay a glove on esteemed stablemate State Man a couple of times in Ireland this winter, prompting connections to sidestep the Cheltenham Festival in order to keep their powder dry for the Grand National meeting.

That decision paid off in a dramatic renewal of the Aintree Hurdle, with Impaire Et Passe just about denying a rallying Bob Olinger by a nose, with Langer Dan only a short head further away in third.

A lengthy stewards’ inquiry followed and while connections of both of the beaten horses might feel they were unlucky losers on the day, the placings remained unaltered.

The first and third are set to clash again this weekend, both looking to do their bit for their respective trainers with the British title to be decided on the day, while Mullins has a second string to his bow in the form of the high-class Sir Gerhard.

Patrick Mullins, who rides Sir Gerhard, said: “Impaire Et Passe seems to have come out of Aintree very well. It’s a quick rematch for both horses, but our fellow travelled to the last hurdle on the bridle, so hopefully he can confirm the placings.

“If the main two are below par, Sir Gerhard has to have a big chance of stepping up. He didn’t stay in the Stayers’ Hurdle in soft ground and I think coming back to two-and-a-half on nicer ground will suit him very well.

“I was second on him in a Grade One novice chase this time last year (at Fairyhouse), so I’m delighted to get back on him and I’m expecting a big run from him, but it’s a very competitive race.”

Harry Skelton celebrates winning a second Coral Cup on Langer Dan
Harry Skelton celebrates winning a second Coral Cup on Langer Dan (Mike Egerton/PA)

Having proved himself capable of competing at the highest level on Merseyside, dual Coral Cup winner Langer Dan will look to take his revenge on Impaire Et Passe.

Asked if he is up for the rematch, trainer Dan Skelton told Racing TV: “Oh, definitely. It’ll tell us a little bit more. It was a great race up at Aintree, with its drama and everything else.

“There’s definitely three sides to the story but I didn’t come away from there wondering ‘what if’. That’s sport at the end of the day.”

The other Grade Two on the card is the bet365 Oaksey Chase, a competitive two-mile-six-furlong contest featuring the likes of Patrick Neville’s The Real Whacker, the Mullins-trained Easy Game and Hitman from Paul Nicholls’ yard.

Of the latter, Nicholls said: “I’ve kept him fresh this year and looking at the declarations, I would like to think he will have a nice chance. He’s run well at Sandown before and the ground will suit him.

“Looking at the opposition, Easy Game pulled up last time, Ga Law pulled up last time, The Real Whacker pulled up last time. The others are OK horses, but they’re not top-notchers and it’s not like a Ryanair Chase, so I would like to think he will have a lovely chance.”

Nicholls, who still has an outside chance of pipping Mullins and Skelton to the trainers’ title, also has high hopes for his two runners in the £100,000 bet365 Novices’ Championship Final Handicap Hurdle.

He added: “Fire Flyer is a very nice horse and he won well at Taunton when he qualified for this.

Trainer Paul Nicholls
Trainer Paul Nicholls (John Walton/PA)

“He was a bit disappointing in the EBF Final, but I don’t think he was right then and the ground was very testing over two and a half miles.

“This is more his trip and off 126, I think he has a nice handicap mark.

“Harry (Cobden) is very keen on Fire Flyer but I don’t actually think there is much between him and Panjari, who absolutely bolted in last week and the handicapper has put him up 9lb for winning an egg and spoon race at Ffos Las.

“He’s a class horse and with Freddie taking 5lb off, we have two lovely chances.”

Nicholls understands reasoning behind Frost’s French move

Paul Nicholls has backed Bryony Frost’s plans to ride in France during the summer, while reaffirming there will always be opportunities for the 29-year-old at Ditcheat when she returns in the autumn.

Frost confirmed in March that she was looking into splitting her time between Britain and France and embarked on a fact-finding mission by riding out for both Louisa Carberry and the team of Noel George and Amanda Zetterholm – the training duo behind crack chaser Il Est Francais.

A runaway success aboard Nicholls’ Sans Bruit at Aintree’s Grand National meeting kick-started an end-of-season purple patch that saw Frost partner four winners in 11 rides and she was on the scoreboard for the 14-time champion trainer at Perth this week aboard Ioupy Collonges.

She has enjoyed many great days in the saddle for the Ditcheat handler, famously winning both the Ryanair Chase and King George aboard Frodon, and Nicholls feels Frost remains at the peak of her powers as he ponders the limited outside opportunities she has received this term.

Bryony Frost celebrates winning at Aintree
Bryony Frost celebrates winning at Aintree (Bradley Collyer/PA).

“She’s riding well at the moment and I think the public like her more than some trainers do, because she doesn’t seem to get too many rides these days,” said Nicholls.

“But she’s still riding as well as ever and rode a nice winner up at Perth and a few last week – she’s going well and she takes the opportunities she’s given with both hands.

“It’s not for me to decide who rides other people’s horses, but it just strikes me she does ride well and she doesn’t get that many opportunities.”

With the French and English racing calendars running differently, it appears a prime opportunity for Frost to test the waters across the Channel, especially with female riders receiving a weight allowance when competing against their male counterparts.

Paul Nicholls and Bryony Frost have linked up successfully on many occasions
Paul Nicholls and Bryony Frost have linked up successfully on many occasions (David Davies/PA)

And Nicholls has given his support to the venture, feeling it is a prime opening to garner further experience.

He added: “I think she’s off to France until October to try to get some experience and opportunities there and then she will come back and she will always slot in with us. She comes and rides out twice a week and there will always be opportunities for her.

“The girls get an allowance out there (in France) and it could be a good opportunity for her. We’re not going to be busy between May and October, so I said go and enjoy yourself. It will be interesting to see how she gets on.

“I would say she is going to get out there pretty quickly and give it a good go, because ultimately I’m not going to have many for her during the summer, as Harry will ride most of them.”

Nicholls gives credit to Mullins – and sympathy to Skelton

Paul Nicholls has admitted he feels a pang of sympathy for Dan Skelton if, as looks likely, Willie Mullins goes on to beat the pair to become champion trainer.

Nicholls needs one more title to draw level with Martin Pipe on 15, while Skelton is chasing his first crown.

However, having won the Grand National at Aintree with I Am Maximus and the Scottish version with Macdermott, Mullins now has a cushion of almost £180,000 with a week to go.

Nicholls told Betfair: “All credit to him, he’s got a big team of people and horses, particularly horses, and it’s become a bit of a numbers game. The numbers they can produce to run across the board is immense really. It’s a job to compete with that.

Macdermott's win at Ayr put Mullins (right) in the driving seat
Macdermott’s win at Ayr put Mullins (right) in the driving seat (Robert Perry/PA)

“I remember back in the years I had all those good ones and you’d win the trainers’ championship just by winning those big races. The last few years, it has just been about getting the best out of your team.

“Now it’s very difficult. If you win all those big races, like Champion Hurdles and Gold Cups and Grand Nationals, you are going to be champion trainer with a small number of runners. It’s not going to get any easier with the number of horses and the class of horses they have at their disposal.

“It’s an amazing feat to do but with the ammunition they’ve got, and the numbers, we’re up against it.

“I feel a bit for Dan because he said to me on Saturday that he thought the first time he’d beat me in the trainers’ championship, he’d be champion – well he hasn’t yet, because we’ve got Saturday and I’m not too far behind him, so I’m not going to let him rest on his laurels – but in a normal year, he’d be champion trainer.

“He could end up finishing second having beaten me and I know he’s mortified, but he’s had a good season and he’ll get his chance another day.”

Mullins has ‘one hand’ on trainers’ championship after Ayr four-timer

Willie Mullins insists he will be taking nothing for granted in the jump trainers’ title race, despite building up a sizeable lead via an Ayr four-timer which included a crucial Coral Scottish Grand National triumph.

The Closutton powerhouse began the day £4,982 behind Dan Skelton but powered clear at the top of the table after Macdermott’s big-race success was backed up by wins for Sharjah, Chosen Witness and Quai De Bourbon.

“We’ve one hand on it, but there’s £650,000 in prize-money next weekend, so we can’t stop and we have to keep going – we’ll see you at Ffos Las on Monday,” said Mullins, who is bidding to become the first trainer from Ireland to add the British crown since the great Vincent O’Brien did it in successive years in the 1950s.

Tommy’s Oscar (15-2) gave everyone an early reminder that it was not all about just the big three trainers when kicking off proceedings with his 12th career victory in the Scotty Brand Handicap Chase for Ann Hamilton.

Mullins then struck the first significant blow when Sharjah was given a beautiful ride by Paul Townend to land the CPMS Novices’ Champion Handicap Chase at 7-1, securing £25,720 for his team.

The six-time Grade One winner over hurdles was being tried over three miles for the first time and had to shoulder top-weight of 12st, but he cruised through from the rear to hit the front approaching the last and survived a mistake at that obstacle to oblige.

Mullins told Racing TV: “I did say to David Casey ‘enter everything that’s qualified for anything’ and we’re here!

“Coming back to a handicap, he just found travelling much easier than the pace of Grade One races, so it probably felt like a bit of work for him at home just going at that pace, so that was a big help to get him home.

Scottish Grand National 2024 – Ayr Racecourse – Saturday 20th April
Sharjah (right) on his way to winning at Ayr (Robert Perry/PA).

“The logistics of bringing 18 horses over are pretty huge and they don’t let me near that side of things, or else none of them might arrive, but my drivers and people in the office are wonderful, so I’m thankful I don’t have any of those headaches.”

Mullins came closest to grabbing Coral Scottish Champion Hurdle glory when Bialystok was produced for a strong late challenge by Townend, but they had to settle for second best behind Alan King’s Favour And Fortune.

It was still a nice £21,200 boost, with Nicholls saddling Afadil and Rubaud to finish fourth and sixth respectively, with Dan Skelton’s 11-4 favourite L’Eau Du Sud sandwiched in between.

Skelton must have had high hopes of hitting the target with Coco Mademoiselle when she surged ahead between the final two flights in the Jordan Electrics Ltd Seafield Trophy Mares’ Handicap Hurdle.

However, Czech Her Out soon emerged from the chasing pack and went on to score an emphatic victory for Lucinda Russell, leaving Coco Mademoiselle in the runner-up spot and Saylavee third for Mullins.

Macdermott then helped Mullins to take command by getting the better of Surrey Quest in a thrilling finish to the Scottish Grand National, a narrow triumph under the trainer’s nephew Danny which was worth a whopping £112,540 to his connections.

Scottish Grand National 2024 – Ayr Racecourse – Saturday 20th April
Danny Mullins and Willie Mullins after Macdermott’s victory (Robert Perry/PA).

“It’s fantastic and I’m delighted Danny did it,” said Mullins. “Well done Pat Gallagher for letting me bring the horse here and all my other owners, plus David Casey back at home, who plans all this and puts all the entries in.

“I’d say we’ve a bit to go yet, there’s still a lot of prize-money to play for, but we’re in pole position and it looks very good.”

Mullins had lost two of his six runners early on, but the others all did their bit to boost his tally, with Klarc Kent, Ontheropes and Spanish Harlem ending up fourth, fifth and sixth for another £18,580.

Chosen Witness rammed home the advantage when edging out the Skelton-trained Major Fortune for a 16-1 win in the Let Good Times Roll With Stagecoach Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.

Quai De Bourbon then justified odds of 8-11 when galloping on strongly to take the Tennent’s Novices’ Hurdle by six lengths.

There was a minor disappointment for the Mullins team when 11-10 favourite C’est Ta Chance could only manage fourth behind Gordon Elliott’s Jazz De Cotte in the concluding Golf Inn Prestwick Open National Hunt Flat Race but spirits will still have been high on the journey home.

Paddy Power had taken the decision to pay out on a Mullins title triumph before Friday’s card at Ayr and their spokesman Paul Binfield said: “We thought it was all over yesterday, it probably is now.”

Skelton edges in front of Mullins in epic trainers’ title tussle

Dan Skelton edged back to the top of the table for the British jumps trainers’ championship after a crucial treble at Ayr.

The Alcester trainer was a little shy of £31,000 adrift of Irish champion Willie Mullins on the leaderboard ahead of the meeting, the first day of the valuable Coral Scottish Grand National fixture which could prove so pivotal in the destination of the title, in which Paul Nicholls will also have a big say.

Shakeyatailfeather finished second in the Abbott Risk Consulting Mares’ Maiden Hurdle and Catch Him Derry landed the Get Home Safe With Thistle Cabs Handicap Hurdle as the 5-6 favourite to kick off Skelton’s afternoon, after which Punta Del Este outran odds of 25-1 to take the feature Coral “We’re Here For It” Handicap Hurdle, which was worth £16,338 to the winner.

Theformismighty finished fourth in the same race to add another £1,884 to the total, with Presenting Nelly duly providing another victory at 5-1 in division two of the GS Group ‘Hands & Heels’ Handicap Hurdle that brought the day to a close.

For that win she pocketed £5,281, putting Skelton back in front by just under £5,000 heading into Saturday, where he has 10 entries across Ayr and Bangor and when Mullins will play his hand with three horses in the Scottish Champion Hurdle and six in the Scottish Grand National.

Speaking to Racing TV after Punta Del Este’s win, Skelton said: “I’m sure all the mathematicians will be calculating it all, but tomorrow’s the important day for the championship.

“The three of us are in the Scottish Grand National and in all the races really, tomorrow will be a big day.

“It’s a privilege to have the owners come up here and be looked after Ayr, the track is always in as good condition as it can be and given the winter we’ve had I think they’ve done a great job with that.

“Every course has its unique atmosphere and the Scottish Grand National is unique indeed.

“L’Eau Du Sud is the obvious one for the Scottish Champion Hurdle, he’s the favourite for the race after a very good run at Cheltenham.

Nicholls, meanwhile, claimed his share of the prize-money on offer to keep himself competitive ahead of the two big weekends to come, with the season drawing to a close at Sandown in a week’s time.

Nicholls was in fact the first trainer to strike a blow at Ayr as Outlaw Peter won the Hillhouse Quarry Handicap Chase under Harry Cobden as the 7-2 joint-favourite.

Nicholls also took home some of place money on offer, with Beau Balko finishing third in the Seko Logistics Scotland Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase and Don’t Tell Su the runner-up of the GS Group “Hands & Heels” Handicap Hurdle.

Mullins looking to hit title rivals for six in Scottish National

With the British trainers’ title on the line, Willie Mullins sends a six-strong squad to contest the Coral Scottish Grand National at Ayr on Saturday.

Mullins is not only seeking his first win in the £200,000 feature, he has never had a single winner at the track. But that could all change this weekend, as he saddles 18 runners across the afternoon.

His National team consists of Macdermott, Mr Incredible, Spanish Harlem, Ontheropes, Klarc Kent and We’llhavewan and assistant trainer Patrick Mullins ran the rule over the sextet in a Zoom call organised by the racecourse.

“Macdermott is an improving horse, he was always going to be a big chaser, he’s a strong type and was always going to improve for a fence and over a trip,” he said.

“He was good the last time out at Fairyhouse and he’s the kind of horse who improves with racing, we struggle to get him fit at home, to be honest, he needs racing to get the weight off him.

“He’s running off a much higher mark (12lb) and that’s going to be a big ask in a far more competitive race.

Patrick Mullins rides Mr Incredible
Patrick Mullins rides Mr Incredible (Adam Davy/PA)

“I ride Mr Incredible, he didn’t get very far at Aintree, he’s fresh and well, so he’ll take his chance.

“Off a mark of 153, with 11st 9lb, it’s going to be difficult but if he could run into a place, that would be fantastic. We’re hoping he jumps off, that’s the first thing!

“Paul (Townend) was keen to ride Spanish Harlem and he’s a horse we’ve always thought an awful lot of. He has disappointed us a little because his work at home has been far superior to his form on the track.

“It’s his first handicap, so he’ll have to jump pretty sharp, but we’d like to think he’s better than a mark of 140. Paul just thought he had more room for improvement than Macdermott.

“Sean O’Keeffe rides Klarc Kent, very much an old-fashioned chaser, a horse who really should come into his own over four miles. He’s a novice off a low weight but he needs to improve.

“Brian Hayes rides Ontheropes. He got a leg after he won the Munster National and has been disappointing since but he was coming back to form last time and could be just coming to form at the right time.

“We’llhavewan was second in the Grand National Trial at Punchestown and ran well in the Irish National when perhaps he didn’t get home, but I think he just made some crucial jumping errors which just knocked him back.

“We’ve put the cheekpieces back on and that should help him jump sharper. He’s a little out of the handicap but Kieran Callaghan is our claiming rider, a local guy and he’s very good. I could see him running into the money.”

Dan Skelton is battling with Mullins for the title and is represented by Ballygrifincottage.

“He’s a horse that just recently has done really well. He had a bad autumn and winter but his form as a novice hurdler and early novice chaser looked very good,” said Skelton.

“For whatever reason, we lost him completely and everything just went to pot but he’s back in great form now and it was a good run at Ascot on his comeback and an even better run at Sandown when second the last day.

“I don’t think four miles will be a problem, but you never actually know until you try it – there is a slight unknown with that, but I go into it with the expectation that he’ll stay the trip.”

Trying to cling on to his title is Paul Nicholls, who runs top-weight Stay Away Fay and Broken Halo.

Paul Nicholls with top weight Stay Away Fay
Paul Nicholls with top weight Stay Away Fay (Adam Davy/PA)

Nicholls told Betfair of the former: “He’s a class horse but life isn’t going to be easy for him running off top weight of 12st off a mark of 158.

“It just didn’t happen for him in the Turners at Cheltenham, where he was never happy, didn’t travel in the ground and his jumping let him down.

“We’ve removed the cheekpieces he wore there, as they didn’t seem to work, and I’ve felt for some time he would be suited by marathon trips. The track at Ayr should be much more suitable for him.

“Broken Halo was in with a shout when falling two out in the London National at Sandown in December and won at Taunton last month. He looks an interesting outsider.”

Brian Ellison’s Anglers Crag arrives chasing a five-timer and proved his stamina when winning the Eider Chase.

“This has been the plan since the Eider and he’s in good form. He’s been blood tested and scoped, everything looks clean and he looks a million dollars, so we just want a bit of luck in running now,” said Ellison.

“A bit of soft ground would help keep the job right for him. He’s gone up again in the weights, but you deserve to when you win, don’t you? It’s when you finish second and you go up that I don’t like!

“Willie Mullins obviously runs six, he’s struggling for winners!”

The form choice is arguably Jamie Snowden’s Git Maker, second to subsequent Grade One winner Inothewayurthinkin at Cheltenham.

“He ran a blinder to finish second at Cheltenham, pulling a long way clear of the third horse, and the winner has obviously come out and won a Grade One at Aintree, so the form has certainly been franked,” said Snowden.

Git Maker caught a tartar at Cheltenham
Git Maker caught a tartar at Cheltenham (Adam Davy/PA)

“We’re up 1lb for that and we go there in good form. Obviously, it’s a highly competitive race, as you’d expect, but we couldn’t be happier with our chap and he gets in off 10st 3lb.

“I think he’ll stay well. They’ve had a bit of rain there and you would certainly hope the ground would be on the softer side, as he would definitely want a bit of cut in the ground.

“With a little bit of luck in running, hopefully he’ll have a chance.”

Emma Lavelle’s My Silver Lining has been consistent in long-distance chases all season, winning the Classic Chase at Warwick.

“She seems in great order. I was sort of looking for reasons not to go – was she flat, or was the ground not soft enough, or whatever, and none of the reasons came,” said Lavelle.

“I’m really happy with her, of course it’s a competitive race and with the championship the way it is, it’s probably more competitive than some years, but she’s really well, she’s as honest as they come, she’ll keep galloping and jumping and we’re just hopeful that she’ll put up another personal best.”

Successful Ayr raid could go a long way to clinching title for Mullins

The last time Willie Mullins had a chance of winning the British trainers’ title, Paul Nicholls landed the Coral Scottish Grand National with Vicente before going on to secure top spot in the table at Sandown.

This time around, the all-conquering Mullins is throwing everything at it, with 18 runners on the big card at Ayr on Saturday, as he attempts to emulate the legendary Vincent O’Brien, something the Closutton handler’s son and assistant Patrick acknowledges would be “incredibly special”.

While the victory of I Am Maximus in the Grand National at Aintree put Mullins in the driving seat, the team are taking nothing for granted, based on what happened in 2016.

This year, they are involved in a three-way battle with Dan Skelton joining the fray, and Mullins jnr thinks if any of the three manage to win either the National or the Scottish Champion Hurdle this weekend, it will go a long way to deciding the outcome.

“We find ourselves in a position we weren’t particularly expecting, so we’re going to be putting everything we can towards it now,” he said.

Willie Mullins is aiming to emulate the great Vincent O'Brien
Willie Mullins is aiming to emulate the great Vincent O’Brien (PA)

“It’s 70-odd years since Vincent O’Brien was the only Irish trainer to win the British jumps title, so to emulate him would be something that would be incredibly special.

“In 2016, we actually came into this weekend ahead as well, I think, but Paul Nicholls pulled a rabbit out of the hat and won the Scottish National with Vicente at 14-1 and that was the difference in the end.”

Despite Mullins’ total dominance over the National Hunt scene, his victory last weekend was only his second Grand National, 19 years after Hedgehunter provided him with his first.

“There were a few sore heads on Wednesday after the (homecoming) parade, but you have to celebrate the good days,” Mullins told a Zoom call organised by Ayr Racecourse.

I Am Maximus on his homecoming in Leighlinbridge
I Am Maximus on his homecoming in Leighlinbridge (Niall Carson/PA)

“It was 19 years since we won the Grand National and to win a second is great. We had seven runners, but if I Am Maximus had come down, we wouldn’t have had any in the first six, so you need a bit of luck. I wasn’t sure if he’d adapt to the course, but he did very well.

“We’ve celebrated but we’re back on track now and focussed on Ayr, trying to bring home some sterling.”

There has never been an Irish-trained Scottish National winner since the race moved from Bogside to Ayr and Mullins has never had a winner at the track either.

He went on: “It’s an incredible statistic. I can’t wait to come over to Ayr, it always looks a brilliant crowd for the big racedays there.

“Every year, I watch the Scottish National and it looks a fantastic race with a huge crowd, we’re very excited to be coming over and hopefully we can break one, if not two of those statistics.

“We’ll be stopping off in Perth and one or two other places during the week before Sandown.

“I think Saturday will be a pivotal day. I keep thinking back to 2016 when Paul won the National. If we can get out of Ayr still ahead, that is going to be huge for us.

“If Paul or Dan win the Champion Hurdle or the National, that’s going to make it squeaky bum time as such, but if we can get out ahead, that will be huge.”

Mullins runs six in Scottish National as championship hunt intensifies

Willie Mullins will saddle six runners in the the Coral Scottish Grand National at Ayr on Saturday as he looks to extend his lead in the race to be crowned champion trainer in Britain.

The Grand National success of I Am Maximus at Aintree saw Mullins sweep past perennial champion Paul Nicholls and his former pupil Dan Skelton and he is now a hot favourite to become the first Irish-based trainer to claim the British title since Vincent O’Brien did so in successive seasons in the 1950s.

The Closutton handler is represented in each of the eight races on Saturday’s Ayr card and is responsible for six of the 26 declared for the £200,000 feature.

The trainer’s two leading contenders appear to be recent Fairyhouse scorer Macdermott and Mr Incredible, who turns out just seven days after unseating his rider at The Chair. Ontheropes, Spanish Harlem, Klarc Kent and We’llhavewan complete the sextet.

Mullins is unlikely to have things all his own way, however, with Nicholls represented by the high-class top-weight Stay Away Fay and Broken Halo, while Skelton will be hoping Ballygrifincottage can put him back on top of the table.

Brian Ellison’s Eider Chase winner Anglers Crag and the Jamie Snowden-trained Git Maker also feature.

Rubaud winning last year's Scottish Champion Hurdle
Rubaud winning last year’s Scottish Champion Hurdle (Jane Barlow/PA)

The title-chasing trio all fire major bullets at the £100,000 Coral Scottish Champion Hurdle, with Mullins running Westport Cove, Bialystok and Alvaniy, Nicholls saddling last year’s winner Rubaud and his stablemate and Afadil with Skelton relying upon County Hurdle runner-up L’Eau du Sud.

Also among a total of 18 runners on the afternoon for Mullins are Uncle Phil in the opening Scotty Brand Handicap Chase, popular veteran Sharjah in the CPMS Novices’ Champion Handicap Chase and impressive Punchestown winner Billericay Dickie in the Tennent’s Novices’ Hurdle.

Skelton adds Cheltenham winner to championship prize-money haul

Dan Skelton edged further ahead of Paul Nicholls in pursuit of Willie Mullins, as the battle for the jump trainers’ championship continues to look like it will go down to the final day of the season.

Skelton picked up a 113th victory of the season, with Doyen Quest winning the Kingston Stud Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham, and then saw Nicholls’ Rare Middleton just headed close home in the concluding Cheltenham Pony Racing Authority Graduates Handicap Hurdle.

Skelton picked up a winning prize of £13,007.50 with that win and Nicholls now trails his former assistant by just under £80,000.

Mullins leads the title by around £50,000, with this weekend’s Scottish Grand National meeting at Ayr and the season-ending Sandown fixture pivotal for the destination of the crown.

Doyen Quest was two lengths down heading to the final hurdle along the stand side rail, but shifted inside after clearing the obstacle.

Harry Skelton then kicked for home on the six-year-old and got up to land the race by half a length from Whatsupwithyou at 4-1, backing up his victory at Newbury from last month.

Nicholls’ Lallygag was prominent throughout but weakened after clearing the final hurdle, coming home 12th of the 15th finishers.

In Excelsis Deo justified favouritism at 3-1 to land the feature Matt Hampson Foundation Silver Trophy Handicap Chase for Harry Fry and Jonathan Burke.

The Nicholls-trained Il Ridoto was pulled up by Harry Cobden, while Skelton’s Sail Away and Our Jet both finished well down the field.

In Excelsis Deo gained two lengths on Hang In There and Scarface going over the final fence and galloped clear up the hill to win by four and three-quarter lengths.

Skelton’s Grade Two-winning Proschema returned after nearly a year off the track in the Safran Landing Systems Handicap Hurdle but finished out of the money down in eighth, as Zain Nights (9-2) took top honours for Lucy Wadham and Bryony Frost.

Nicholls clawed back some prize-money in the final race on the card, with Rare Middleton prominent throughout and having the beating of 13-8 favourite Our Champ up the run-in, only for the fast finishing 11-1 shot Tintintin to come up the rail to collar him on the line.

Skelton’s pair A Law Of Her Own and In This World finished out of the money, alongside Nicholls’ other runner Wild Max.

Fry backing In Excelsis Deo to strike Silver gold

In Excelsis Deo will not be winning out of turn if he can belatedly open his account for the season in the Matt Hampson Foundation Silver Trophy Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.

Although winless since making a successful British and chasing debut for Harry Fry at Hereford in December 2022, the JP McManus-owned six-year-old has run several good races in defeat and his trainer feels he is due a change of fortune.

Placed on his first two starts of the current campaign at Cheltenham, the Saddex gelding may well have secured top honours on his next appearance at Sandown but for unseating Jonathan Burke at the final fence.

He then did well to finish as close as he did when fifth at the Cheltenham Festival last month after being hampered by a faller four fences from home.

Harry Fry at Cheltenham in January
Harry Fry at Cheltenham in January (Nigel French/PA)

Fry feels In Excelsis Deo has more than enough ability to claim victory in Wednesday’s Grade Two feature if getting the rub of the green.

“He bumped into Madara in December, who then went and won at the Dublin Racing Festival, and we obviously unseated when with every chance at the last at Sandown on his next run,” said the trainer.

“I think it’s fair to say he hasn’t necessarily had luck on his side or the rub of the green this season, but he’s been running well in defeat and, with a bit of luck in running, hopefully he won’t be too far away in this.

“Hopefully he can put it all together and he’ll be in there with every chance.”

Sail Away winning at Ayr last season
Sail Away winning at Ayr last season (Jane Barlow/PA)

The title-chasing pair of Dan Skelton and Paul Nicholls are both represented in the £70,000 contest, with Skelton saddling Sail Away and Nicholls running course-and-distance winner Il Ridoto.

Sail Away returns to handicap company after finishing last of four in the Grade One Ascot Chase, while Il Ridoto has been placed in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, the December Gold Cup and on Festival Trials day at Cheltenham this season, but could finish only eighth in the Plate on his latest visit.

“He’s a standing dish at Cheltenham and usually runs very well in these two-and-a-half-mile handicaps,” Nicholls told Betfair.

“It didn’t quite happen for him last time at the Festival, when he was towards the rear in the early stages before staying on at the finish. He has his chance, but is probably still on a stiff enough handicap mark.”

Scarface in action at Sandown
Scarface in action at Sandown (Steven Paston/PA)

Scarface has won three of his last four starts over fences for Joe Tizzard and faces a rise in class.

Tizzard said: “He’s done nothing wrong and we were tempted to wait for Sandown next week, but the forecast is drying out all the time and we thought we’d have a go here.

“It’s a step up, but he’s in cracking form and he’s on the upgrade.”

Walsh remembers the magic of O’Brien, as Mullins goes for British crown

Ted Walsh believes even if Willie Mullins does not manage to emulate Vincent O’Brien by being crowned champion trainer in the UK when based in Ireland, both have played their part in changing the face of National Hunt racing.

Given the feats will be over 70 years apart – O’Brien was champion trainer for successive seasons in the early 1950s – Walsh feels it is difficult to compare their achievements.

However, he is left in no doubt that just like O’Brien, Mullins is destined to be remembered as a man who changed his sport.

“It’s very hard to compare anything like that because the prize-money was totally different,” said Walsh.

Ted Walsh says it is hard to compare the achievements of Vincent O'Brien and Willie Mullins
Ted Walsh says it is hard to compare the achievements of Vincent O’Brien and Willie Mullins (Brian Lawless/PA)

“Willie has never been that bothered about it, he admits it, but now he’s in front he may as well have a good go. He was very close one year when Vautour fell at Aintree (2016), if he had won Willie would have been champion.

“Whether Willie is champion trainer in England or not – it would be a great achievement, but he’s the real deal whether he does it or not.”

O’Brien was a pioneer who after dominating the National Hunt scene in the 1950s and 1960s, later switched his attentions to the Flat, winning the Triple Crown with Nijinsky in 1970. He remains the last man to win the Triple Crown.

“Vincent won three English Nationals with three different horses three years in a row (Early Mist 1953, Royal Tan 1954 and Quare Times 1955), three Champion Hurdles with Hatton’s Grace (1949–1951), the Gloucester Hurdle at Cheltenham used to divide and in 15 years he won 11 of them!” said an incredulous Walsh.

Arguably Vincent O'Brien's greatest horse, Triple Crown winner Nijinsky
Arguably Vincent O’Brien’s greatest horse, Triple Crown winner Nijinsky (PA)

“Of course after doing all that he went and did the same on the Flat!

“He told me once that he always travelled first class on the train because there was a chance of meeting someone with money! He met John McShane on a train going to Doncaster for the sales and he bought him Ballymoss and Gladness. Ballymoss he won an Irish Derby, the Leger and the Arc and Gladness won the Ebor and the Ascot Gold Cup the following year.

“Vincent set the standard. I knew him, but whenever I saw him I would say ‘Hello Mr O’Brien’ – it was never Vincent. My father knew him well, he was from a similar area to us.”

The victory of I Am Maximus in Saturday’s Grand National means Mullins holds an advantage over Dan Skelton and Paul Nicholls, setting up a fantastic finale with Closutton set to be well represented at Ayr and Sandown over the next two weekends.

Paul Townend punches the air after I Am Maximus wins the Grand National
Paul Townend punches the air after I Am Maximus wins the Grand National (Mike Egerton/PA)

“Like Willie is now, Vincent was a hero, everybody looked up to him. I remember growing up as kid listening to my dad and my uncle Ted talking about Vincent,” said Walsh, who won the National with Papillon in 2000.

“I’d say it was pretty similar in those days of people getting sick of Vincent winning, he didn’t quite dominate Cheltenham like Willie does – but I’m sure people were sick of it!

“It was a huge achievement Vincent winning the UK title, I don’t know if he was the first man to try, but he was the first to do it. But Vincent did so many things first.

“He was the first to fly horses from Ireland, the first person to put in an all-weather gallop in Ireland and now everybody has them. He was a pioneer, he brought the sport forward years.

“Like Willie really, Willie has changed it as well but the scale of what he is doing makes it different. Transporting the horses now is different, they have lovely lorries with air conditioning, the roads are so much better so that makes it easier. Everything has moved on.

“I wouldn’t say one fellow was better than the other, but Vincent set the ball rolling and it hasn’t been done by anybody since Vincent.

“When I was growing up Vincent was inaccessible, he was almost treated like royalty, but Willie is the most approachable fellow, he’s very good for the sport and he’s a great ambassador for racing.”

Mr Incredible set to be part of powerful Ayr raid for title-chasing Mullins

Having made it no further than The Chair in the Randox Grand National at Aintree on Saturday, Mr Incredible is set to make a swift reappearance as part of Willie Mullins’ assault on this weekend’s Coral Scottish Grand National meeting at Ayr.

The victory of I Am Maximus in the world’s most famous steeplechase put Mullins in pole position in the race to be crowned Britain’s champion trainer in less than a fortnight’s time, and the Closutton team are keen to press home their advantage by sending a formidable squad to Scotland.

Mullins has made 33 entries across this weekend’s eight-race card, with six standing their ground for the £200,000 main event.

Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, told the PA news agency: “We had a good look at what we could enter and what could be competitive and what races were worth nice money. We’ll definitely be doing our very best after the position we find ourselves in now.

Patrick Mullins is looking forward to heading to Ayr
Patrick Mullins is looking forward to heading to Ayr (Niall Carson/PA)

“We’ve just got to find the right horses for the right races. Obviously Punchestown is very high in our thoughts as well.

“We were in a very similar position eight years ago and Paul Nicholls came back and beat us, so we’re not taking anything for granted just yet.”

The sponsors make the Mullins-trained Fairyhouse scorer Macdermott their 6-1 favourite for the Scottish National, with Mr Incredible’s odds slashed from 8-1 from 16-1 after he was left in the race at Monday’s confirmation stage.

As short as 10-1 at Aintree, the talented but not entirely predictable eight-year-old was slow to start at Aintree, was impeded by the fall of the loose Corach Rambler at the second fence and then again by Mahler Mission when eventually unseating his rider at the 15th.

Mullins said: “He started slowly and only did a lap before he came down, so he didn’t exert himself too much. He’ll probably take his chance again on Saturday.

“He actually jumped The Chair perfectly and ran into the back of a horse that made a mistake.

“He didn’t get a great start and nothing went right, but it might be all for luck.

“It’s a huge step up in class for Macdermott, but he has always looked a staying chaser and the extended trip should bring out the best in him.”

Ontheropes, Spanish Harlem, Klark Kent and We’llhavewan are the trainer’s other Scottish National hopefuls, while Westport Cove, Bialystok, Ocastle Des Mottes and Alvaniy are all possible representatives in the £100,000 Coral Scottish Champion Hurdle.

Sharjah is another potential runner at Ayr for the Mullins team
Sharjah is another potential runner at Ayr for the Mullins team (Niall Carson/PA)

Other Mullins-trained entries on the card include the popular veteran Sharjah, who is in the opening Scotty Brand Handicap Chase and the CPMS Novices’ Champion Handicap Chase, both worth £50,000, with impressive Punchestown winner Billericay Dickie one of 10 in the £20,000 Tennent’s Novices’ Hurdle.

“I don’t know what will run at this stage, we’ll have to have a look at the weights when they come out, but at the moment everything is possible,” Mullins added.

“There’s a chance Paul (Townend) will be over and there’s a chance plenty of our jockeys will be over, I’d say. I’ve never been to Ayr, but I’m thinking I’ll be travelling over this weekend anyway.”

The only previous Irish-based trainer to be crowned champion in Britain was the great Vincent O’Brien, who claimed back-to-back titles in the 1950s.

On the prospect of emulating the legendary handler, Mullins said: “To me Vincent O’Brien is the legend of the game, not a legend of the game, so to match something Vincent O’Brien did would be an extraordinary achievement and one everyone would be very proud of, but it won’t be easy.”