Darling Maltaix primed for Summer Plate

Paul Nicholls already has his eyes on a major prize with Darling Maltaix in Market Rasen’s Betway Summer Plate, as preparations for the new National Hunt season begin to step up a gear.

The eight-year-old, owned by the Old Gold Racing syndicate, won comfortably at Newton Abbot last month on his return from a lengthy break, having also had another wind operation.

Nicholls hopes that should have put him spot-on for Saturday’s assignment, but he is aware the competition will be much tougher.

“It’s a race everyone targets in the summer,” said the multiple champion trainer.

“We schooled Darling Maltaix this morning (Thursday). He’s been trained for this race, and I’m very happy with his prep – his run and win at Newton Abbot last month has really tightened him up.

“Saturday’s one of the toughest races he’s ever run in, and it promises to be a competitive contest, but Darling’s ready for it.

“He looks brilliant in his skin, he’s fit, he’s relaxed and he’s working well – there’s lots of little crumbs to make a cake!”

This weekend’s big handicap has long been on the agenda for Darling Maltaix.
“The Summer Plate has always been his aim, but we did want to get one run in before it, so it worked out really nicely,” added Nicholls.

“He only went up 3lb, so you couldn’t complain about that too much.

“He has won on the soft – it was soft the other day. But good ground does suit him well – the faster the better really.”

Nicholls, not really known for his summer jumpers, reports most of his big guns for the winter have now returned to his Ditcheat yard after their breaks.

“We’ve got 120 in now and we’ll just go quietly, quietly until Chepstow in October,” he said.

“Chepstow is still a long way off, and that is where we always aim. We’ve got a lot of nice horses in.”

The likely favourite for the Summer Plate is Dr Richard Newland’s novice Captain Tom Cat, who has won his last three starts by 12, 11 and 29 lengths respectively.

Peter Bowen has already won the race on six occasions and saddles both Francky Du Berlais and course-and-distance winner Lord Bryan in his bid for further success.

Bowen said: “We do target the race every year, because lots of our horses run very well at this time of year. It is also a good race for novices coming through.

“We sent (Francky Du Berlais) up to Cartmel the other day, but that track didn’t suit him at all. He was always on the back burner and he couldn’t really get into the race, but he stayed on really well and he was only beaten by about five lengths – I’m quite hopeful with him.

“Lord Bryan goes well fresh. He did a nice piece of work on Tuesday and he is a strong traveller, which is what you want around there.”

Solomon Grey and Danse Idol give Dan Skelton a strong hand, while Laura Morgan steps Fire Away up in class following his victories over fences at Cartmel and hurdles at Worcester.

Amy Murphy, who landed last year’s Summer Plate with Really Super, is this year represented by stable stalwart Mercian Prince.

“He’s been with us from day one, and we are really fortunate to have him,” she said.

“He’s just been unbelievable, and to have him going into another Grade Three is very exciting. We’ve been trying to protect his mark over fences, hence why he hasn’t been seen over them of late.

“He is such a yard favourite – if he did win I don’t think there would be a dry eye in the house.”

Clan Des Obeaux flies high for Britain in Punchestown Gold Cup

Clan Des Obeaux put up a brilliant performance to strike for Britain in the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup following Ireland’s domination at Cheltenham.

The decision by Paul Nicholls to bypass that meeting with Clan Des Obeaux – who is co-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson – has paid a handsome dividend, with victory in the Betway Bowl at Aintree and again at Punchestown.

Al Boum Photo (6-4 favourite) did his best to keep the prize on home soil, but Willie Mullins’ dual Cheltenham Gold Cup hero was no match for Clan Des Obeaux.

The 100-30 shot was given a positive ride by Sam Twiston-Davies from the start of the extended three-mile showpiece.

Melon led in the early stages with Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy on his heels, but he was struggling when pulled up some way out.

Kemboy also gave way as Clan Des Obeaux increased the tempo, leaving Al Boum Photo and Fakir D’oudairies to try to haul back the leader.

Al Boum Photo put in a game effort – but dual King George hero Clan Des Obeaux maintained the gallop to cross the line a length and a half to the good, to give Nicholls a third win in the race after Neptune Collonges in 2007 and 2008.

Fakir D’oudairies was 17 lengths away in third, with Kemboy, the winner in 2019, last of the four finishers.

Nicholls said from his Ditcheat base: “A great performance. I always thought Punchestown would suit him. A great race and a good performance.

“Cheekpieces just woke him up and he’s done a good job – a good positive ride. We changed tactics with him and it worked well. It’s great for Sam and everybody involved.

“I’ve spoken to Ged (Mason, fellow owner). I think Sir Alex was with him. They are well pleased, as you can well imagine.”

Clan Des Obeaux answered every call for Sam Twiston-Davies
Clan Des Obeaux answered every call for Sam Twiston-Davies (Brian Lawless/PA)

Nicholls was represented at the track by assistant trainer Harry Derham, who said: “We’ve tried Cheltenham twice and he just doesn’t act around there.

“The cheekpieces have worked wonders and a big thanks to Harry Cobden on that as he wanted them on and they obviously worked fantastically at Aintree. I’m gutted for him (out injured), but delighted for everyone else.

“Sam gave him a fantastic ride. Paul was insistent that he wanted him to go a good gallop the whole way and try to kick off the last bend.

“Paul always said that Punchestown might suit him and it couldn’t have worked out better. I’ve only watched it once, but it looked like a proper Gold Cup in that they went a relentless gallop and that’s how you want those Grade One races to be run.

“We said we’d come out here and be brave, ride him really positively and if it works it works. I’m absolutely delighted.”

A big day for Sam Twiston-Davies
A big day for Sam Twiston-Davies (Brian Lawless/PA)

Twiston-Davies was thrilled, saying: “It’s tough because Harry Cobden would normally be sat here and he’s a good friend. He has my (former) job (stable jockey to Nicholls), but still you got to love the lad!

“Even after everything to have a relationship like this with Paul and all the team – it’s just very special and I couldn’t really thank them all enough.

“I feel a bit childish, but it is the stuff that dreams are made of. To come over here and to do it like that – being aggressive everywhere – is great.

“When you don’t know the track as well as the other lads you’re half worrying you’re going a stride quick, but Paul assured me he was fit and would keep going.

“Coming over you’re incredibly hopeful and when it was actually happens you’re stuck for words.”

Monday Musings: A Controversial End

The jumps season 2020/21 ended with controversy when the heavily-backed favourite Enrilo finished first past the post in the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown Park, but was disqualified and placed third after hanging left and hampering the challenging Kitty’s Light up the run-in, writes Tony Stafford.

Meanwhile, as newly-crowned champion Harry Skelton struggled to keep his mount straight, up the inside steamed the Alan King-trained Potterman. His spurt under Tom Cannon got him into a narrow second place just before the line and, following a lengthy stewards’ inquiry, Paul Nicholls and owners Martin Broughton and friends were left with a £52k shortfall as Enrilo was put back to third.

Nobody, least of all Alan King, believes Potterman deserved to pick up the money and it was almost in the Nureyev mould of verdict. Back in 1980 that French-trained son of Northern Dancer interfered with Posse some way from home when a hot favourite for the 2,000 Guineas, beat Known Fact by a neck, but afterwards he was disqualified and placed last by the stewards.

Posse had recovered well enough to finish third and while I’m sure owner Stavros Niarchos would not have been any less unhappy had a similar outcome to Saturday’s left Nureyev in the minor position, it had real reverberations at the time. Nureyev was due to return for the Derby but missed the race, never appeared again and was retired to stud, where he was a great success.

In those far off days I loved an ante-post punt – any punt really! – and had quite a chunk at 20/1 about Nureyev after his six-length debut victory in Paris the previous autumn. My memory in the interim had played its usual tricks, the recollection being that he’d won by far more than the actual margin. For the outrage to last well into this century as it did, he needed to have done so!

If the stewards of the BHA do not overturn the verdict at the appeal Paul Nicholls plans to lodge, it will not take too much gloss off the stellar seasons of either trainer or rider. Nicholls for now ends with 176 wins, five more than his previous best achieved in 2016/7. Skelton finished with 152, ten ahead of last year’s champion, Brian Hughes. A late flurry of winners, 17 in the final fortnight compared to five by his rival, clinched the deal with much more comfort than could ever have been predicted.

What did alter the dynamic was the readiness for Harry to accept more rides for outside stables. Of the 152 wins – not his best, he got to 178 when Richard Johnson had 201, his second double-century, but this was a delayed start due to Covid last summer – 136 were for Dan. Of the 558 mounts during the season, only 68 were for other trainers, yet in that last fortnight, six wins were hewn from 16 outside rides.

When Nick Skelton sent his two sons to learn their trade with Nicholls 15 or so years ago, he will have had lofty ambitions for them. One day, walking past Raymond Tooth’s Mayfair office, Nick bumped into the lawyer who at the time had a powerful team and indeed had already won his Champion Hurdle with Punjabi. “When are you going to send a horse for Dan to train?” asked Nick.

It was probably a couple of years on that Notnowsam, whose trainer Noel Quinlan was about to hand in his notice, arrived in the Skelton yard. A few days later, on May Bank Holiday Monday six years ago, he duly trotted up first time in a novice handicap chase, not a bad effort for a four-year-old.

Sadly Notnowsam proved much better at finishing second than winning after that bright start and when eventually he was sent to the sales, he was bought by Micky Hammond, for whom he was little short of a disaster.

At the time I hadn’t been aware of it, but later I learned that before Dan had arranged to collect Notnowsam he called Noel Quinlan to check that he was happy for the horse to leave and join him. “That’s a gentleman!” said a delighted former trainer, after the Warwick win.

This time of year always coincides with Punchestown and the conclusion of Ireland’s jump season. For four consecutive years I made the journey to Ireland and in 2009 drove via the ferry as Punjabi attempted a third successive win at the fixture.

As a juvenile in 2007 he was third in the Triumph Hurdle behind Katchit but won the Grade 1 juvenile race at Punchestown. The next year, he was again third to Katchit, this time in the Champion Hurdle before winning the Irish Champion at Punchestown.

After his win at Cheltenham in 2009 hopes obviously were high for the three-timer, but he missed the last hurdle when narrowly ahead and, in the testing ground, just failed to hold off the stayer Solwhit who got up on the line.

As I said, I’d driven over this time, and where I had to park the car, the ground was absolutely sodden. A few days later my ankle became very swollen and I ended up spending almost a week in hospital – my first since having my tonsils removed 56 years previously.

The diagnosis was that I’d probably been bitten by insects and the poison had got into my bloodstream so badly that I needed to be on a drip for the first few days of my stay. It was so frustrating because I’d wanted Nicky Henderson to try to win the Chester Cup. Punjabi had won the only two Flat races he ever contested since joining from previous trainer, Geraldine Rees. I’ve no idea if he’d have been good enough to win it but at the time my reasoning had been, we’ve already won twice over there, whereas winning the Chester Cup would always be special for an English owner.

Nicholls and the Skeltons will both be in action at Punchestown this week, but UK-trained raiders will hardly make a ripple, certainly nothing to compare with the steamrollering domination of the Irish at Cheltenham and Aintree.

Kim Bailey runs First Flow and Skelton Nube Negra in the William Hill Champion Chase tomorrow where the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Put The Kettle On will be missing as she tried unsuccessfully to win at Sandown on Saturday. For once the raider was blown away as Nicholls’ new star, Greaneteen, a valiant Altior, and Sceau Royal all finished ahead of the mare.

In a seven-horse race, this still means the Queen Mother Chase’s beaten favourite, Chacun Pour Soi, will be out to repair his slightly-tarnished reputation on a day that Paul Townend’s title challenge enters a crucial stage.

Passed fit to ride after his recent injury, his absence has allowed Rachael Blackmore to get to within four as she seeks the first championship. Her list of achievements is already overwhelming, but a jockeys’ title would in terms of merit be the pinnacle.  Willie Mullins isn’t making it that easy for Townend as his mount is only one of three in the race for the trainer in a field of seven and Blackmore retains the ride on her easy Ryanair Chase winner, Allaho. I reckon that horse’s stamina will have the Cheveley Park colours to the fore at the line.

The first handicap of the day, a 0-145 hurdle is a typical full field of 25 with reserves. Mullins has seven in that, including three that came over for the Festival, running respectively in the 0-155 County Hurdle, the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ race. What chance Gentleman De Mee, the beaten favourite who set up the Martin Pipe for stablemate Galopin Des Champs when making the running, will have his day in the sun tomorrow dropping back to two miles?

With 19 runners on the opening day then 42, 23, 22 and 40 entered for the rest of the week it might look a foregone conclusion that Townend will hold on. The snag with Mullins though is that there’s multiple entries in so many of these races and they are all “off for their lives” – “up to a point” as William Boot, the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious novel “Scoop” might say. And that is as it should be.

Not everyone thought that a certain race at Lingfield the other day was totally kosher. Last Wednesday, seven horses lined up for a mile and a half novice race and Polling Day, trained by John and Thady Gosden and ridden by Frankie Dettori, was the 2-9 favourite following a smooth debut win over the course a month earlier.

Also in the line-up for the Gosdens was 16-1 shot Stowell, a Nat Rothschild-owned son of Zoffany making his debut under Rab Havlin. In an almost comic-cuts exhibition, Havlin managed to get his mount to finish a close second when it looked from the sidelines that he should have won comfortably.

The post-race interview by the local stewards provided lengthy ammunition for the Racing Post comments writer who reported Havlin’s saying that Stowell is a fragile colt with a high knee action. He said John Gosden had instructed him not to use his whip but that he should be ridden to get the best possible position.

I’ve spoken to plenty of trainers and they are all adamant. One said: “If those two horses had been trained by me, I’d have been looking at a lengthy ban!” Have a look yourselves. Seriously, it can seem in racing there’s often one rule for the chosen few and another for everyone else.

Paul Nicholls rules out appeal against Enrilo demotion

Paul Nicholls has confirmed connections of Enrilo have decided against an appeal following his demotion in Saturday’s bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown.

The seven-year-old passed the post in front in the traditional end-of-season feature for the 12-times champion trainer and newly-crowned champion jockey Harry Skelton.

However, the stewards deemed the 7-2 favourite had interfered with the Christian Williams-trained Kitty’s Light and placed him behind that rival in third.

Kitty’s Light was promoted to the runner-up spot, while Alan King’s Potterman, who passed the post in second, was named the winner.

Immediately after the race, Nicholls said: “It’s a bit of a strange result really, but it’s just frustrating because the best horse in the race by miles didn’t win the race.

“He did cause him some interference, but would that horse he interfered with have definitely won the race?

“I don’t know. I thought straight away after watching on my phone that he’d keep it – even though he’s caused interference – and that’s what I said to the owners.

“I’ve just said to the owners we’ll look at it and see if it’s worth an appeal.”

Potterman (left) and Kitty's Light at Sandown
Potterman (left) and Kitty’s Light at Sandown (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

However, the Ditcheat handler posted about the situation on Twitter on Sunday lunchtime.

The post read: “Just had a long discussion with the owners of Enrilo and we are as it were, going to take it on the chin, move on and not appeal the amended result in the @bet365 Gold Cup @Sandownpark yesterday and look forward to next season with him.”

Connections of Kitty’s Light also appear unlikely to challenge the result, but hope there may be a change to the rules going forward.

Williams remains adamant his charge would have won had he not been impeded on the run-in.

“We’re obviously disappointed, but I’m trying not to be too downbeat,” said the Welsh handler.

“We ran two horses in the race (Kitty’s Light and Cap Du Nord, finished fifth) and both have probably run career-bests and the jockeys were exceptional on the two of them.

“We’d love to have won a Whitbread (bet365 Gold Cup), but we’re at that stage of our career where we’re hoping we’re going the right way and we’ll be able to compete in many more. We’ll try to take the positives out of it and keep marching on.

“I just don’t think it’s right going forward. Three horses went into the stewards’ inquiry and the only horse who couldn’t win was the moral winner of the race, which doesn’t quite sit right.

“For us it’s not so much about yesterday, it’s about making sure things are right going forward for the good of racing.

“I wouldn’t have thought we’ll be appealing, but you’d like to think the BHA will act without us having to say anything – to make sure it’s fair for the next man.”

Trainer Christian Williams has high hopes for Kitty's Light
Trainer Christian Williams has high hopes for Kitty’s Light (David Davies/PA)

Williams is hoping compensation awaits for Kitty’s Light next season, adding: “He’s strengthened up all year and I’m looking forward to getting him back in next year as a bigger, stronger horse.

“He’s improving all the time and I think he’ll have learnt a lot yesterday. He’s got a great mind and we just don’t know where the ceiling is with him.

“He always finishes his races well and knows where the winning line is, which I think would have been proven again yesterday.”

Frost finds magic touch on afternoon to savour at Sandown

In a season where Rachael Blackmore has understandably grabbed all the headlines, Bryony Frost reminded everyone of her talents as the campaign came to a close at Sandown.

Frost’s historic achievement in winning the King George VI Chase aboard Frodon has been overshadowed by Blackmore’s spectacular Cheltenham and Grand National efforts – but reunited with her favourite horse at Sandown, a partnership that just seems made to measure came home in front once more.

Paul Nicholls’ nine-year-old answered every call in the bet365 Oaksey Chase, simply refusing to give in to Nico de Boinville and Mister Fisher.

Frost – the first woman to ride a winner over jumps at the Cheltenham Festival – said: “What he’s done for me is incredible.

Frodon and Bryony Frost in full flight
Frodon and Bryony Frost in full flight (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“We went a right good gallop the whole way – I wondered if he’d enjoy letting himself on this ground, but Sandown have done a great job in making it safe.

“What a battle – Mister Fisher was all over us, but this lad won’t go down without a fight.

“He’s everything you want, you dream of horses like him.”

Reflecting further on the victory of the 4-5 favourite, who prevailed by a neck, Frost said: “On form, you’d call us a certainty but nothing is in racing.

“He’s had a long season and Paul’s done a fantastic job along with everyone at home to make sure he’s here and have enough energy levels to take this race on.

“Yes, he’s plenty good enough to be seeing them all off but we were tired and they took us on down the back and I thought we were beat when Nico loomed up like that on us, but he is the definition of brave and the definition of determination.”

As it turned out, Frodon was to prove the hors d’oeuvre for Frost and Nicholls.

All eyes were on Altior in the bet365 Celebration Chase, and the former champion set off as if meaning business – shooting into the lead and putting in some magnificent leaps in the process.

A beaming Bryony Frost with Greaneteen
A beaming Bryony Frost with Greaneteen (PA)

But Frost was alert to every move with Greaneteen (13-2) and at pains to make sure De Boinville did not get too much rope as things started to hot up, not needing a second invitation when Altior came off the rail.

Quickening very smartly, he had Altior coming back at the line but was ultimately a comfortable three-and-three-quarter-length winner.

Frost said: “I said coming in the car I hoped it was going to be a good day for us and thankfully it really has been.

“Altior is a force to be reckoned with on a bad day or a good day. I used how my horse travels very forward on his bit. He likes to get on with his job so I just allowed that gap to come down going down the hill so I thought we better take it and hunt him and close him down so we don’t have to do the hard work on the uphill part of the course. Luckily it worked out to our fortune.

“He has really progressed and he is a horse that has probably been overlooked a little bit this year.

“This horse has one chink in his armour in that he can be a bit too keen, but he’s learning to settle and I have a 100 per cent strike-rate on him from winning a novice hurdle on him to winning the Celebration Chase today.”

Looking back on her season, Frost added: “There have been some serious lows and brilliant highs. For me personally I’ve ended up on 47 so I’ve been so close to matching my best season and with the two months short and being out for those couple of days after Aintree I’m happy with how it has gone.

“We’ve won a King George with Frodon and we’ve been able to put the icing on the cake as it were today with him with a massive battle which he is known for and to get Greaneteen his Grade One is huge.

“It has been a massive turn of the clock this afternoon and getting a Grade One with the little ‘Grean Machine’ as we call him it’s just epic, it’s awesome.”

Frost was out of action after being unseated from Yala Enki in the National and suffering concussion. She was quick to pay tribute to the staff at the Injured Jockeys Fund’s Oaksey House.

She said: “I was in a dark room with the sun shining outside and you are looking at the racing going past you, but it is what it is and you have only got one head and you have got to look after it and make sure you come back 110 per cent.

“The IJF and Oaksey House have been amazing to me. Emma, who has been my physio through this head injury, has been brilliant. She contained me and said don’t take your test too soon as we have a further 10 days off if we fail and that would have meant missing today.

“I felt sharp out there today, but then again I’m on the winners and when you ride the winners it is the easiest place to ride, it is when you are second or third that is sometimes the hardest.

“When I won the conditional title and got 50 winners I said I didn’t know how I would match that. I never knew how I would match winning a Grade One on Black Corton at Kempton, then I went and won a Ryanair and we did the King George.

“When you surround yourself by good people and intelligent people and that are very good at their job it allows you to be the best you can be and get to the levels you dream of.”

Greaneteen has Celebration sparkle at Sandown

Greaneteen lowered the colours of Altior with a stylish success in the bet365 Celebration Chase at Sandown.

Not beaten far into fourth in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, the seven-year-old showed he will be a real force to be reckoned with next season as he showed a very smart turn of foot.

Nico de Boinville adopted different tactics on 9-4 favourite Altior, who was wearing first-time cheekpieces. He shot into an early lead and on the way round put in some spectacular leaps.

Approaching the Pond Fence, though, Greaneteen and Sceau Royal both closed in to challenge and when De Boinville drifted off the rail, Bryony Frost did not need asking twice to take the invitation on Greaneteen.

Just 35 minutes after partnering Frodon to victory in the Oaksey Chase, Frost was full of confidence on the 13-2 shot who scampered clear.

Just like a true champion, Altior stuck to his task and was closing again at the line, but he was unable to match Paul Nicholls’ charge for speed at a crucial period of the race and went down by three and three-quarter lengths.

Nicholls said: “He ran very well in the Tingle reek here behind Politologue when the ground was soft enough and he was too free in the Game Spirit, but he’s now starting to relax.

“Today Bryony realised what Nico was doing and she had the sense to follow Altior. It was a great move by her getting a lead into the straight.

“I’m not in a mad hurry to go over two and a half miles with him and his target will be back here for the Tingle Creek.”

Frost said: “I said coming in the car I hoped it was going to be a good day for us and thankfully it really has been.

“Altior looked to be on a going day and that he wouldn’t be coming back to us in a hurry, so I allowed the gap to reduce coming down the hill.

“This horse has one chink in his armour in that he can be a bit too keen, but he’s learning to settle and I have a 100 per cent strike-rate on him from winning a novice hurdle on him to winning the Celebration Chase today.

“The season has had its brilliant highs and serious lows, but I’ve ended up on the 47-winner mark which is close to matching my best.”

Altior in full flight
Altior in full flight (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Although beaten, Nicky Henderson was delighted to see Altior run with much more zest, on his first start since a lacklustre outing Christmas.

He said: “It’s a long time since he’s had a run and he just got a bit tired in the end, but he’s done nothing wrong at all and really enjoyed himself.

“I think he still has that old spark. All things are up for discussion.

“We were all set for Cheltenham, then came that nasty tracheal wash and it was a rush to get him here, but as you could see he still jumps and can still go a rare old gallop.”

When asked if Altior would return next season, Henderson said: “I see no reason why not.”

Fabulous Frodon records battling Oaksey Chase success

King George hero Frodon showed all his renowned battling qualities to end his season on a winning note in the bet365 Oaksey Chase at Sandown.

Frodon and jockey Bryony Frost provided one of the stories of the season when winning at Kempton on Boxing Day and he was the 4-5 favourite against just three rivals.

Frost had been out of action after a bad fall in the Grand National and only returned on Thursday – with a winner – but it would have taken something out of the ordinary to stop her from partnering her favourite horse.

As usual Frost set out to make all on the bold jumper – who was last seen finishing fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup – but approaching the Pond Fence the final time none of the quartet could be ruled out.

When Militarian and Born Survivor cracked after that obstacle, Mister Fisher loomed up looking to be travelling much better under Nico de Boinville.

Nicky Henderson’s charge also got away from the last quicker, too – but if any horse mirrors champion trainer Paul Nicholls’ attitude it is Frodon as he simply would not accept defeat.

With a length to make up Frodon stuck his neck out and began gaining with every stride up the hill, eventually crossing the line a neck to the good.

Nicholls said: “It was a real challenge getting him ready for today because he took a hell of a lot out of himself at Cheltenham and had a hard race in the Gold Cup.

“But he’s tough and he’s class. He jumped well and even though he looked a little bit flat out, he stayed on up the hill to get back on the line.

“He will have a lovely holiday now and we’ll train him for the King George, as there’s no point training him for the Gold Cup because he doesn’t get the trip.

“I will, all being well, give him one run in the autumn before Kempton and then have a look at a race at the Dublin Festival because I think Leopardstown would suit him.”

Frost said: “What he’s done for me is incredible.

“We went a right good gallop the whole way – I wondered if he’d enjoy letting himself on this ground, but Sandown have done a great job in making it safe.

“What a battle – Mister Fisher was all over us, but this lad won’t go down without a fight.

“He’s everything you want, you dream of horses like him.”

Frodon was left unchanged at 16-1 for the King George by Betfair.

Nicholls takes pride in ‘phenomenal season’ as he lifts championship again

Paul Nicholls will not be resting on his laurels despite being crowned champion National Hunt trainer for a 12th time in what has been a record-breaking season.

The Ditcheat handler surpassed his previous best total of 171 winners in a year when Threeunderthrufive emerged victorious at Perth on Wednesday, despite the campaign not getting under way until July 1.

Nicholls has bagged over £2.3million in prize-money with an admirable 25 per cent strike-rate to boot, in what the trainer described as a “phenomenal” season.

He said: “You never get time to stop in this game – you’re always looking forward.

“It’s been a phenomenal season for us. It’s been a 10-month season, rather than 12 months, and we’ve won some good races. Everyone in racing did so well and worked so hard to keep it going safely.

Frodon's King George win was a highlight for Paul Nicholls
Frodon’s King George win was a highlight for Paul Nicholls (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“To win a 12th King George and the Tingle Creek again has been brilliant. We didn’t have a Cheltenham winner this year, but you can only win with what you’ve got – you’ve just got to do your best with what you’ve got in your team.

“It goes in cycles, and while the best horses are in Ireland right now, it will come back, but we need to be patient.

“The next target I’ve got in my mind is to train 4,000 National Hunt winners in the UK. If we keep going at the rate we are we should be able to crack that 4,000 mark which no one has done before in jumping.”

Frodon’s King George VI Chase win was a particular highlight for Nicholls, with Bryony Frost doing the steering in what has been a landmark year for female riders, topped by Rachael Blackmore winning the Grand National.

Paul Nicholls with his assistant Harry Derham
Paul Nicholls with his assistant Harry Derham (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Nicholls said: “You enjoy all those Grade Ones, but Frodon winning the King George was special.

“To win a 12th King George was incredible for the team and Frodon has always been a bit of an underdog. I love the King George and it was a very good performance on the day.

“Bryony and Rachael and lots of other lady jockeys have done very well this year. They ride as well as the lads do and are very much part of the team now.

“I also have to mention Harry Cobden. He’s ridden over 100 winners for the yard and was right in the mix for being champion jockey (before injury). He’s a big part of the team and his progress this year is a big highlight for me.”

Bryony Frost is congratulated by Paul Nicholls
Bryony Frost is congratulated by Paul Nicholls (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Nicholls’ nearest challenger in the championship, albeit nearly £500,000 behind, was Dan Skelton, who learnt his trade at Ditcheat before striking out on his own in the 2013/14 campaign.

The current champion expects Skelton to continue to pose a potent threat for the foreseeable future, and has no doubts the apprentice will one day top the master.

Nicholls said: “I call him ‘mini me’! He’s just like I was all those years ago.

“His next challenge will be trying to be champion trainer, which will be fun. I think we’re £500,000 in front of him this year, which is not an awfully big gap to close, but obviously we’re not going to lie down.

“I do think over the next few years he will be the biggest challenge to me being champion trainer. He’s got a big team and the enthusiasm is there and they’ve got the capacity to train a lot of horses with great facilities.

“If he is champion trainer, which he will be one day, I’ll be very proud of the fact that both he and his brother (champion jockey Harry Skelton) came through our academy, as it were.”

Dan Skelton (right) learned his trade with Paul Nicholls
Dan Skelton (right) learned his trade with Paul Nicholls (Barry Batchelor/PA)

There is a short break in the National Hunt action now, with the new season starting on May 1, and Nicholls is already champing at the bit for the autumn action.

He said: “I think we’re as strong as we’ve been for a long time and we’re building up a really good team.

“I can’t wait for October time to come along and start all over again.

“It’s like putting together a football team. You have those really top players and after a few seasons it all changes – no team wins the Premier League every single year.

“These things work in cycles and you can only compete with the players you’ve got, but you’re always trying to get those best players and I think at the moment we’ve got some really smart young players, as it were, and we’re looking forward to the future.”

Cheltenham victor Minella Indo tops 11 in Punchestown mix

Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Minella Indo will face a maximum of 10 rivals when he bids to follow up at Punchestown on Wednesday.

Henry de Bromhead’s charge led home stablemate A Plus Tard to win the blue riband at Prestbury Park last month under Jack Kennedy, who will once again be on board in the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup next week.

The eight-year-old is set to renew rivalry with the Willie Mullins-trained pair of Al Boum Photo and Kemboy.

Al Boum Photo will bid to get back to winning ways
Al Boum Photo will bid to get back to winning ways (PA)

Al Boum Photo finished an honourable third when bidding for a Gold Cup hat-trick in the Cotswolds, while Kemboy – who had previously beaten Minella Indo when landing the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown – was only ninth.

Kemboy famously sent Ruby Walsh into retirement when beating Al Boum Photo in the last running of the Punchestown Gold Cup in 2019.

Mullins has also left in Ryanair Chase winner Allaho, Easy Game and Melon, while British hopes will be carried by Clan Des Obeaux, who was supplemented on Thursday morning at a cost of 25,000 euro.

The dual King George winner got back on the winning trail in the Betway Bowl at Aintree earlier in the month – and trainer Paul Nicholls is looking forward to seeing him take on the Irish in a race he won with Neptune Collonges in both 2007 and 2008.

“This is weather is ideal for him, this time of year suits him and the track should suit,” said Nicholls.

“He’s in good shape and looks fantastic, so we’re really looking forward to it.

“We’ve been very successful at Punchestown in the past, with Neptune Collonges and Master Minded and others.

“It’s all about having the horses that are good enough to be competitive in those races.”

Denise Foster’s pair of Tiger Roll and The Storyteller, Joseph O’Brien’s Fakir d’Oudairies and the Tom Mullins-trained Court Maid are the other hopefuls.

The feature event on the opening day of the Punchestown Festival on Tuesday is the William Hill Champion Chase.

Willie Mullis has already stated his intention to run both the aforementioned Allaho and Chacun Pour Soi in this Grade One contest, along with Cilaos Emery.

Fakir d’Oudairies also has this option, while Kim Bailey and Dan Skelton hope to send First Flow and Nube Negra across the Irish Sea.

Castlegrace Paddy (Pat Fahy), Daly Tiger (Noel Meade) and De Bromhead’s Queen Mother Champion Chase heroine Put The Kettle On complete the nine confirmations, although the latter is set to contest Saturday’s Celebration Chase at Sandown.

The Mullins-trained Appreciate It is the star attraction among 13 still in the mix for the first Grade One of the week – the eCOMM Merchant Solutions Champion Novice Hurdle.

Appreciate It was a wide-margin winner at Cheltenham
Appreciate It was a wide-margin winner at Cheltenham (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

A runaway winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, the seven-year-old will be a warm order to follow up back on home soil.

Echoes In Rain and Blue Lord are also part of a strong Mullins team in the same race, while De Bromhead has confirmed Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle winner Bob Olinger, although he appears more likely to run later in the week.

The third and arguably most exciting of the three Grade One races on day one is the Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase, which is set to stage a mouthwatering clash between the Mullins-trained Monkfish and De Bromhead’s Envoi Allen.

The champion trainer also has Cheltenham Festival heroine Colreevy and Franco De Port in a field of eight.

The main supporting races to the Gold Cup on Wednesday are the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle over three miles and the ITM – Supporting Irish Store Sales Champion I.N.H. Flat Race.

Flooring Porter winning the Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham
Flooring Porter winning the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Gavin Cromwell’s Vanillier will bid to supplement his win in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in the former, while Mullins is ready to let Champion Bumper one-two Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard lock horns again in the latter.

Cromwell also trains the likely favourite for the big race on Thursday – the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle.

Flooring Porter made every yard of the running to win the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and will be well fancied to follow up.

A 19-strong entry also includes Paul Nolan’s Pertemps Final winner Mrs Milner, Denise Foster’s Stayers’ Hurdle runner-up Sire Du Berlais and Noel Meade’s fourth Beacon Edge.

Energumene, who disappointingly missed the Arkle Cheltenham after suffering a setback, is one of eight remaining contenders for the Grade One Ryanair Novice Chase.

Envoi Allen also has the option of running in this two-mile contest.

Nicholls has long-term Grand National plan for Topofthegame

Paul Nicholls has identified next year’s Randox Grand National as a long-term target for his sidelined stable star Topofthegame.

Winner of the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, the Flemensfirth gelding finished second to Lostintranslation at Aintree the following month but has not been seen in competitive action since.

Just as was the case this season before injury intervened, Nicholls hopes to see his charge return to action in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury at the end of November.

However, while he once considered him a serious contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he now views the world’s most famous steeplechase as a more suitable aim for the nine-year-old.

The Queen feeds carrots to Topofthegame on a visit to Ditcheat
The Queen feeds carrots to Topofthegame on a visit to Ditcheat (Matt Keeble/PA)

Speaking on a call hosted by Great British Racing ahead of being crowned champion trainer for a 12th time at Sandown on Saturday, Nicholls said of Topofthegame: “He’s fine and the plan would be for him to come in on July 1 and aim him again at the Ladbrokes Trophy.

“Now he’s a bit older this year and has had a few problems – in my view, the race to train him for would be the National.

“I think he would be fantastic round Aintree as he’s got some class.

“My aim is to try to get him back on track and have a good crack at trying to win the National with him.

“It’s not going to be easy – it’s a challenge – but he’s in good shape at the moment.”

Paul Nicholls sets new personal best with Perth triumph

Paul Nicholls beat his best ever tally of winners for a single season as Threeunderthrufive gave him his 172nd victory of the campaign at Perth on Wednesday.

The Ditcheat handler, who will be crowned Britain’s champion National Hunt trainer for a 12th time when the season comes to a close at Sandown on Saturday, equalled his previous record of 171 when Samarrive struck gold at Kempton on Monday.

And while he did not saddle any runners on Tuesday, he moved onto the 172-winner mark by landing Wednesday’s Listed feature in Scotland.

Unbeaten in his first three starts over hurdles before finishing sixth in the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival last month, Threeunderthrufive was a 15-8 chance for the British EBF William Hill Gold Castle “National Hunt” Novices’ Hurdle.

After travelling well for much of the three-mile contest under Adrian Heskin, the six-year-old pulled clear in the straight and passed the post with nine and a half lengths in hand over Castle Rushen.

What makes the trainer’s achievement particularly impressive is the fact that the season did not get under way until the start of July, rather than late April, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Nicholls, whose figure of 171 winners was achieved in the 2016-17 season, said: “You always want to better what you’ve done and to get the record in a short season is really good.

“It’s been a 10-month season, rather than 12 months, so it’s a good effort by everybody.”

Paul Nicholls with Frodon after winning the King George
Paul Nicholls with Frodon after winning the King George (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

While Nicholls did not manage to saddle a winner at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, he has still enjoyed plenty of highlights, including a 12th win in the King George VI Chase at Kempton with the Bryony Frost-ridden Frodon.

Nicholls also landed a Grade One double on the opening day of the Randox Grand National Festival at Aintree courtesy of Monmiral and Clan Des Obeaux, while in early January he sent out seven winners across three jumps meetings in Britain.

“It’s been a fine season and we’ve won a lot of good races and won a lot of prize-money,” the trainer added.

“We started off winning the Charlie Hall (with Cyrname) and the Haldon Gold Cup (with Greaneteen) and went on to win the King George and the Tingle Creek (with Politologue) again, so we’ve been winning big races consistently.

“We obviously didn’t have a Cheltenham Festival winner this year, but that will come – we’ll get a few more better horses and we’ll be away again.”

Clan Des Obeaux to be supplemented for Punchestown

Clan Des Obeaux will run in the Punchestown Gold Cup next week rather than this weekend’s bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown.

The dual King George VI Chase winner, who was third in the latest renewal of the Kempton showpiece, returned to winning ways with a smooth victory at Aintree.

His 26-length triumph in the Betway Bowl was one of three winners on the opening day of the Grand National meeting for his co-owner Sir Alex Ferguson.

Trainer Paul Nicholls had been considering the big end-of-season handicap at the Esher track, where he would have been giving upwards of 12lb to all his rivals.

But the Ditcheat handler tweeted on Tuesday evening: “After discussions with the owners of Clan Des Obeaux we have decided that we are going to supplement him for the Punchestown Gold Cup next Wednesday and run him there and not at @Sandownpark.”

The decision to run in Ireland sets up a clash with Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo, among others.

Clan Des Obeaux still in Sandown contention

Clan Des Obeaux heads 20 horses confirmed for the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown on Saturday.

The dual King George hero was last seen bouncing back to winning ways in the Betway Bowl at Aintree earlier this month – one of three winners on the card for co-owner Sir Alex Ferguson.

In the immediate aftermath of that Grade One victory, trainer Paul Nicholls raised the possibility of the nine-year-old contesting the traditional end-of-season highlight.

Should he take his chance, Clan Des Obeaux will carry 11st 12lb and concede upwards of 12lb to his rivals, including stablemates Soldier Of Love and Enrilo.

Welsh trainer Christian Williams has a couple of contenders for the three-mile-five-furlong contest in Kitty’s Light and Cap Du Nord, while Neil Mulholland is set to saddle both The Young Master and Doing Fine.

Williams said of his pair: “The plan is to run the two of them.

“I’m not sure if Clan Des Obeaux will run or not. Paul does like to run them, but it’s a question of whether he’ll run him on that ground.

“It probably won’t make much difference to us if he runs or not. If he does we’ll be slightly out of the weights, which isn’t ideal, but Kitty’s Light isn’t over-big, so if he carries 10st it wouldn’t hurt.

“If Clan Des Obeaux does come out, then he’ll nudge up in the weights, but I wouldn’t be too worried either way.”

The Young Master won the race in 2016 and was second when the race was last run two years ago, while Doing Fine also has winning form over the course and distance.

Mulholland said: “The plan is to run both horses, all going well.

“It’s five years since The Young Master won it, but he’s still going strong and is as fit as we can get him.

The Young Master (left) on his way to winning the 2016 Bet365 Gold Cup
The Young Master (left) on his way to winning the 2016 Bet365 Gold Cup (Julian Herbert/PA)

“He hasn’t had a run for a while (since August), but he’s had a couple of away-days and this has always been the plan for him.

“Doing Fine won the London National at Sandown earlier in the season and likes it around there – he’s run well in this race in the past.

“The Young Master is 12 and Doing Fine is 13. It’s a pity they’re getting on in age, but it happens to us all!”

Henry de Bromhead’s Plan Of Attack and the Sean Doyle-trained Crosshue Boy could travel from Ireland.

Other hopefuls include Kim Bailey’s El Presente and the Venetia Williams-trained Cepage.

Paul Nicholls’ sights set on 12th trainers’ title

Paul Nicholls stands on the verge of being crowned champion trainer for the 12th time, following his profitable Aintree.

A Grade One double on the first day of the Grand National meeting – with Monmiral and Clan Des Obeaux – and then a Grade Two bumper win for Knappers Hill in the hands of Nicholls’ daughter Megan added up to a highly successful trip north for the yard.

It was not seamless, though, because jockeys Harry Cobden and Bryony Frost were both injured in falls on Saturday.

“Heading to Aintree with fresh horses made a big difference,” said Nicholls.

Megan Nicholls celebrates winning on Knappers Hill
Megan Nicholls celebrates winning on Knappers Hill (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“The first day of Aintree was absolutely superb, and I was thrilled for Ged Mason and Sir Alex Ferguson (owners who also won with Dan Skelton’s Protektorat) on landing a Grade One treble.

“Obviously, Megan winning on Saturday after both my jockeys got hurt, eased the day.”

Nicholls is more than £500,000 in front of nearest challenger Skelton, so a 12th British jumps trainers’ title appears almost his.

“After Aintree, you’d have to say it would be difficult to get beat for the title,” he told Great British Racing.

“I’m currently £500,000 plus in front of Dan, and recouping those winnings doesn’t happen in two weeks. We’re just carrying on as normal and having plenty of runners – it’s all but in the bag really.

“It will be nice to regain the title. I was a bit frustrated last season, which ended prematurely because of Covid. Nicky (Henderson) was obviously in front after the Cheltenham Festival, but we had a big team lined up to run at Aintree and then on to Ayr and Sandown.

“We never had the chance to challenge him. So to get the title back this year, what with all the issues, will be fantastic.”

Despite the Irish dominating the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National, Nicholls is pleased with the performance of his own yard.

“Numerically, our record last season was 171 winners, and we’re only nine off beating that statistic, so that’s another milestone that I’m aiming for,” he said.

“If we can crack 172 winners and secure my 12th champion trainer title it would be awesome – and it reflects so well on the whole team.

“There’s all this talk about the Irish this and the Irish that, but we’ve not exactly had a bad season and will hopefully land 172 winners with over £2.5 million in prizemoney.

“My biggest battle over the next few years will be Dan Skelton, without a doubt. Then, the two Harrys (Skelton and Cobden) will challenge one another – that will be interesting!

“I keep Dan on his toes and I’m proud of the fact that he was with me for nine years and is achieving so much.”

Clan Des Obeaux oozes class in Betway Bowl

Clan Des Obeaux made it third time lucky in the Betway Bowl Chase at Aintree with a superb performance.

It was also a red-letter day for Sir Alex Ferguson and his fellow owners, after the same colours were earlier carried to victory in the two previous Grade Ones by Protektorat and Monmiral.

The Paul Nicholls-trained nine-year-old was third in this race in 2018 and second in 2019. He finally got his just reward in some style to give Nicholls and jockey Harry Cobden a double after Monmiral.

Mister Fisher made the running to the 12th fence, where he unseated Nico de Boinville after making a bad mistake.

Clan Des Obeaux soon led after that and stretched the opposition. Clondaw Castle was the only horse able to lay down a challenge, but he could not live with the 5-2 favourite, who drew well clear to win by 26 lengths. Clondaw Castle was 18 lengths ahead of Native River.

Dual Grand National hero Tiger Roll was fourth, a further 48 lengths away as the field finished well strung out.

Nicholls said: “When he’s been here before he’s had two hard races in the Gold Cup so the best thing we did was not take him there (Cheltenham), it makes such a big difference as it’s hard to do both.

“Perhaps he was disappointing at Newbury, but he did give 6lb to a good horse. It woke us up though as we realised we were probably getting the tactics wrong. We know to be positive on him now.

“Obviously next season the King George will be his number one aim, then back here and I’d like to go for the Denman again. If the ground is decent the Betfair at Haydock is a nice race for him – as is the Charlie Hall.”

He added: “He’s actually in the Bet365 Chase at Sandown and he doesn’t get a penalty, so that could be interesting. I’ve always thought that race would suit him. We didn’t put him in at Punchestown, but I did say if we could win this we could always supplement.”

Owned by Gigginstown House Stud, Tiger Roll was withdrawn from the National and the chance to join Red Rum as a three-time winner, as connections were unhappy with his handicap mark.

And while racing manager Eddie O’Leary is hoping the handicapper reacts by dropping Tiger Roll a few pounds, he is not holding out much hope.

“He ran exactly like I thought. He jumped out, we tried to be positive, which is when he runs best, but they just went too fast for him,” said O’Leary.

“That’s what happens in a Grade One when you haven’t got a Grade One horse.

“Once he finished sound and he gets home happy, that’s all we want. I just hope the handicapper takes note.

“The handicapper wanted us to run him in a race like that and he’s been beaten over 90 lengths. He wanted to see him on the track.

There was no triumphant return to Aintree for Tiger Roll
There was no triumphant return to Aintree for Tiger Roll (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“The handicapper took him out of the Grand National, not us. Easysland came out of the National for the same reason, the problem is the ridiculous ratings the cross-country horses have. They’ve lost the star of the show and Easysland.

“Cross-country ratings should be different, just like turf and all-weather – you have to treat cross country differently, as today showed.

“That was as close as he could finish, there was no way he wasn’t off.”

The stewards did hold an inquiry into the running and riding of Tiger Roll, interviewing Kennedy and trainer Denise Foster.

In the stewards’ report Kennedy said his instructions were to make the running but that he felt the gelding was never really travelling due to the fast early pace, a fact which he reported at scales, and that following a mistake at the third fence, where his mount may have lost confidence, he was never able to hold his position.

Foster spoke to officials by telephone and confirmed both the instructions given and also that Tiger Roll may have been unsuited by the fast pace. She further added the race may have come too soon after the recent run at Cheltenham.

Their explanations were noted.