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Politologue tops eight Clarence House contenders

Politologue is set to face seven rivals in the Matchbook Betting Exchange Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

Last season’s Queen Mother Champion Chase hero made a flying start to the current campaign when bagging a second victory in the Tingle Creek at Sandown – and he is a hot favourite to provide trainer Paul Nicholls with a sixth success in Saturday’s Grade One feature.

The Ditcheat handler also saddles Duc Des Genievres. The grey won the 2019 Arkle at Cheltenham when trained by Willie Mullins and has been placed twice since joining Nicholls, at Cheltenham and Kempton respectively.

Last year’s winner Defi Du Seuil returns to defend his crown – with something to prove.

Defi Du Seuil (right) on his way to winning last year's Clarence House Chase
Defi Du Seuil (right) on his way to winning last year’s Clarence House Chase (Bradley Collyer/PA)

The Philip Hobbs-trained eight-year-old was a red-hot favourite to win the Champion Chase after denying the now-retired Un De Sceaux a fourth Clarence House Chase success 12 months ago.

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However, Defi Du Seuil disappointed at the Cheltenham Festival and again failed to fire on his return at Prestbury Park in November.

Ruth Jefferson decided to supplement her stable star Waiting Patiently earlier this week, at a cost of £5,000.

The former Ascot Chase winner ran an excellent race to finish second to Frodon in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, and drops almost a mile in distance four weeks later.

Kim Bailey steps First Flow up in class following five consecutive wins at a lower level.

Bun Doran (Tom George), Fanion D’Estruval (Venetia Williams) and Le Patriote (Dr Richard Newland) complete the octet.

Williams told Sky Sports Racing: “I don’t see why the ground should adversely affect him any more than the others. It’s no bad thing, because a race like that is all about sheer speed and hopefully that might take a bit of the edge off it.

“He’s still a young horse, and I think that’s where a lot of the hope and promise comes from.

“It’s easy to forget he started off in a handicap, although winning it very easily at Newbury on his first run for us last season, and since then we’ve pretty much thrown him in at the deep end – this is going to deeper than anything he’s done before.”

Fanion D’Estruval was last seen falling three fences from home in the re-scheduled Peterborough Chase at Cheltenham.

“There were several travelling well. It was far enough out not to be making judgments at that stage,” Williams added.

“The last quarter of a mile was still to be run. We’ve yet to see how he deals with that in this company.

“He’s only just turned six, so I think we’re very much flexible on trip. I suspect in due course he’ll be stepping up in trip.”

All systems go for Politologue at Ascot

Paul Nicholls believes Politologue is at the top of his game ahead of Saturday’s Matchbook Betting Exchange Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

Last season’s Queen Mother Champion Chase hero picked up where he left off when landing a second victory in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December, and will be a hot favourite to provide his trainer with a record sixth triumph in the Grade One feature.

Harry Skelton was on board the John Hales-owned grey both at Cheltenham and Sandown, but with his brother Dan responsible for a Champion Chase contender this term in Nube Negra, Harry Cobden will be reunited with Politologue this weekend.

Harry Cobden will take over from Harry Skelton on Politologue
Harry Cobden will take over from Harry Skelton on Politologue (John Walton/PA)

Nicholls told Sky Sports Racing: “Harry is here every day and rides Politologue a lot anyway. He schooled him on Monday and won a Tingle Creek on him (in 2017), so it’s no big issue.

“The horse is in good form and the ground is ideal, so we’re looking forward to it. I think he’s in as good a place as he’s been for a long time – I don’t think Harry has ridden him in the form that he’s in at the moment, apart from when he won the Tingle Creek.

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“We changed things last season after he had that little bleed in the Tingle Creek and he’s not been beaten since. I’ve never known him look better and be so enthusiastic.

“He’ll go straight to Cheltenham after Saturday. It’s absolutely perfect timing for him.”

Politologue is set to be joined by stable companion Duc Des Genievres.

Winner of the 2019 Arkle when trained by Willie Mullins, the eight-year-old was runner-up to Put The Kettle On at Cheltenham in November, before placing third behind Nube Negra at Kempton over the Christmas period.

Nicholls added: “He’s won on soft ground, (but) I’m not convinced he wants it that testing.

“He ran out of petrol up the hill the first day at Cheltenham and the other day (at Kempton) we made a little bit more use of him and he finished tamely.

“He’s got it all to do. We’re going to take our chance as he’s not the easiest horse in the world to place.”

Harry Skelton has enjoyed two big victories with Politologue
Harry Skelton has enjoyed two big victories with Politologue (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The Ditcheat handler confirmed Danny Kirwan an intended runner in Ascot’s Better Way To Bet Holloway’s Handicap Hurdle, while Eglantine Du Seuil is set to contest the Matchbook Betting Podcast Mares’ Hurdle.

Of the latter, Nicholls said: “She’s a tough, genuine mare who ran very well at Cheltenham the last day.

“Strictly on ratings, she’s got it all to do, but she does get 6lb off Magic Of Light and also Roksana, who looks like she’ll be hard to beat.

“Our mare is in between the devil and the deep blue sea with her rating, but hopefully she’ll run well and get the trip.”

There will be one less rival for Politologue to face, however, with Kate Harrington, assistant trainer to her mother, Jessica, confirming that Impact Factor will not make the journey from Ireland.

Instead, the lightly-raced nine-year-old will stay closer to home for the Dublin Racing Festival.

“Impact Factor won’t go for the Clarence House and will instead run in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase at Leopardstown (February 6),” said Harrington.

Next Destination comes out on top in Hampton test

Next Destination maintained his unbeaten record over fences with a tenacious success in the McCoy Contractors Civils And Infrastructure Hampton Novices’ Chase at Warwick.

Having made a winning chase debut in a Grade Two at Newbury in November, the Paul Nicholls-trained nine-year-old added to that with victory at the same level in the three-mile contest.

Despite being the first off the bridle midway down the back straight, the 10-11 favourite responded well for pressure under Harry Cobden to take a slender advantage turning for home.

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As Golan Fortune dropped away on the run to the last, it was left to Fiddlerontheroof to thrown down a challenge, but the Colin Tizzard-trained runner old could not quite get on terms, with a length and a half separating the pair at the line.

Cobden said: “He is a little bit more relaxed now and when he has been asked he has jumped pretty well. He has jumped well on the whole.

“He is a bit older and is getting slightly lazier. I don’t mind pushing them for a bit if they keep finding and to be honest he plugged on really well. He swung into the straight and was the one to be shot at. He was long over two out and winged the last and stayed galloping.

“I think in a race where there are more runners you could run him third or fourth and it would be nice to have one to aim at with him. He looks like he stays very well and he has won here and at Newbury so the trip is not an issue.

“I’d say both were good races and he has come out and performed both times, so you have got to be pleased with him.”

Although Next Destination was made a 14-1 chance for what was known as the RSA at the Cheltenham Festival by William Hill and 12-1 for the same race by Coral, Cobden believes the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree could be a more suitable option.

He added: “I don’t known if he is an RSA horse. The three-mile race at Aintree might suit him. Paul might get him home tonight and think RSA it is, or say ‘right, we will take our time and go for Aintree’.

“One thing I do know is the be all and end all is not Cheltenham in Paul’s mind, so Aintree is on the cards.”

Nicholls targets Aintree for Monmiral

Leading juvenile hurdler Monmiral is already earmarked for Aintree in the spring, and will not even be entered in the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Paul Nicholls’ French import, who numbers Sir Alex Ferguson among his owners with Ged Mason and John and Lisa Hales, scored with ease on his British debut at Exeter.

He was then upped in class for the Grade Two Summit Juvenile Hurdle at Doncaster, where he was an even more impressive winner.

However, Nicholls views him as an embryonic chaser of the future – and Aintree’s Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle is by far this season’s preferred target.

“Monmiral goes to Haydock for the Victor Ludorum next, then on to Aintree,” said the champion trainer.

“He won’t even have an entry in the Triumph Hurdle.

“John Hales and the other guys are not interested in the Triumph Hurdle – they are interested in chasing.

“All those good horses I’ve had like Frodon and Clan Des Obeaux have finished down the field in the Triumph Hurdle – but they weren’t Triumph horses, and he is the same.”

Nicholls is confident Liverpool will suit Monmiral much better.

“The race at Aintree is worth a lot, and it will be a nice track for him,” he added.

“If you are going to be serious about chasing in the future, you have to mind him a bit. He wasn’t purchased for a Triumph Hurdle.”

Monday Musings: Trainer Titles

The frost relented at three of Paul Nicholls’ most productive racecourses on Saturday morning and the 11-times champion National Hunt trainer took heavy toll with a remarkable seven winners, writes Tony Stafford. Kempton, Chepstow and above all Wincanton are the three.

At the same time he was emphatically (albeit inwardly) announcing that his re-building of stable strength back to that of its heyday when Kauto Star and Denman were in their pomp, has been fully achieved.

I was half aware of somebody being quoted on the television last night – definitely not in my favourite French-language and subtitled detective show Spiral on BBC4. It was: “Men can lie, women can lie, but numbers can’t!” The numbers are there for all to see in the 2020-21 jump trainers’ championship.

The Nicholls decline, if you could call it that, was characterised last season by a first failure in 19 to reach 100 wins, when 96 victories from 445 runs brought total UK prizemoney of £2.34million. Nicky Henderson, his sole realistic challenger over the past decade, won his fifth title and third of the last four with 118 winners and £2.54million in prizemoney.

That said, the normal post-Cheltenham section of the campaign with its handsome prizemoney levels especially at Aintree, Sandown’s finals day, and the Ayr Scottish Grand National meeting distorted the figures. Nicholls’ routine century would have been assured and the relatively close money margin for Henderson could easily have been bridged.

Henderson’s first interruption of a near-Martin Pipe-like monopoly for Nicholls since his first title in 2005-6 came in 2012-13, 27 years after his own first Trainers’ Championship in 1985-6. Henderson, now 70, lacks nothing in energy and horse-power but the die is already cast for 2020-21.

While Nicholls has been serenely proceeding towards title number 12 with already 107 victories and £1.46m in money won, Henderson is languishing on less than half the monetary rewards with £673K and just over half the winners, 57 from 268 runs, both well down on his normal schedule.

Considering the jumps season didn’t begin until July 1, Nicholls’s pace has been remarkable but so too has Dan Skelton’s 74 wins and £823k from 408 runs even allowing for the fact that his customary summer starting splurge has been abandoned – for the better – with some potential stars in the pot.

Lower down, some interesting names follow and Evan Williams, after his emotional capturing of the re-scheduled Coral Welsh Grand National with the heavily-backed and well-named in the circumstances favourite, Secret Reprieve, just edged over the half-million mark from only 30 wins.

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Williams was talking up the prospects of Secret Reprieve’s tackling a Grand National at Aintree and he will be hoping on Tuesday morning to see the Ruckers’ seven-year-old getting a few pounds more than his present mark of 142 – he was able to run on Saturday off 8lb lower after his previous win.  Secret Reprieve would probably make it into the top 40 with 142 but 145 makes it a certainty - if Covid doesn’t intervene again.

The next three trainers in the list, all within a winner or two of getting over the half-million are Messrs O’Neill, Fergal O’Brien and Twiston-Davies. Fergal’s consistent form has brought him to 70 compared to a previous best of 63 and with expansion firmly in place, a first century is the aim and seemingly a realistic one with three months to go, subject to acts of God, God forbid!

Nicholls’ Saturday seven-timer was also a contributor to another multi-winning performance on the day. Daryl Jacob must have gone to Wincanton confident of winning the opener on Ben Pauling’s highly-regarded Malinello but found Nicholls’ Flash Collonges, one of two Harry Skelton winners for his former boss, much too good.

I’ve no doubt that when that one lost he didn’t expect to win on five of his remaining six mounts.

The Nicholls winner for Jacob was Capeland, a 6-1 shot in the second most valuable race of the day there, the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase and the jockey also won races for Robert Walford, Alan King, Pauling and Milton Harris.

Within that quintet, he collected the big race, the re-staged Dipper Novices Chase, just a three-runner affair, on Messire Des Obeaux, where Alan King’s gelding shocked odds-on Protektorat in a rare reverse for the Skeltons in recent times. Both Flash Collonges and Messire Des Obeaux are sons of the late-lamented Saddler Maker.

Jacob’s five-timer worked out at a massive 3275-1. Nicholls’ septet, while not quite his best - he’s had an eight-in-a-day before now – amounts to more than treble that at 10,418-1. Of course to get the latter up, you’d need to navigate the 11 losers that besmirched his record. Jacob has surged onto 39 wins for the season but the title-holder Brian Hughes, with 90, looks to have a strong grip on his trophy, currently having 15 and 19 in hand of the two Harrys, Cobden and Skelton.

It’s very unusual in the depths of winter that Ireland suffers more than the UK, but there has been a flurry of abandonments across the Irish Sea with frost as the principal factor. Whatever happened to the milder west winds picking up moisture as they sweep across the Atlantic?

The perennial struggle at the top of the table there between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott is as compelling as ever. Usually at this point in the season Elliott has been ahead but this time it’s the other way round.

Mullins has already gone past the century with 104 wins from only 326 runs to earn €2.18m at a spectacular 32% strike rate.  An impressive 76 of the 162 individual horses he’s run since racing resumed have won.

Elliott is only around €70k behind Mullins in winnings but it has taken 125 wins from a bumper exactly 800 runs – almost double both Nicholls’ and Skelton’s number and treble Henderson’s – to get that close. Equally he has needed 292 horses, 90 of which have won, to make it that far.

Mullins is having his normal effect on the jockeys’ title race. Since Ruby Walsh’s retirement Paul Townend has been in pole position, but third-placed Henry de Bromhead’s 69 victories have given a big boost to Rachael Blackmore, his stable jockey.

Townend leads on 69, all but five for the Closutton trainer, but is far from secure for another title as Blackmore’s 46 wins for her boss have been supplemented by another 19 from outside rides making the deficit only four.

Talking of jockeys, the 2021 Flat championship will be very interesting given Oisin Murphy starts the year under a three-month ban imposed by the French authorities. He managed to get it reduced from the original six months on appeal and while it doesn’t interfere with the championship which starts in May, or the first phase of turf racing or indeed anything after March 11, it could still have an effect on his confidence.

No need to go into how he got the trace of drugs in his system. In these perilous times I wonder how many people contracting Covid, like my mate Steve Gilbey who said it was the most frightening experience of his life, know where they caught it. He says maybe it was Christmas shopping in Sainsburys.

Steve, a one-time repo man and night club bouncer before his more acceptable roles as a bodyguard and then Ray Tooth’s much-valued right-hand man, has seen and heard of many friends and some family members who haven’t managed to stave off the effects of the virus. I pray – as does Ray – that he’ll get through, just as I do that my son, his wife and their son, whose symptoms are less severe, will all recover soon.

Back to Flat jockeys, though, and as I said it could be a pivotal year. One Whatsapp I received just the other day made very interesting reading. It claimed that Ben Curtis would be joining Mark Johnston as stable jockey. Now confirmed as true, his odds of 10/1 for the title have plummeted to 3/1.

Mark’s most active jockeys, Joe Fanning and Franny Norton, both celebrated their 50th birthdays last year. Norton is the older by eight weeks, his birthday coming on July 27 to Fanning’s on September 24th (the same as my son incidentally!).

Between them they rode 56% of Johnston’s winners and 55% of the stable’s runners. Fanning was the busier – well, he’s younger, it makes sense! – with 50 wins from exactly 400 rides in 2020. Old-man Franny was only 75% as busy but just as tidy with his 45 from 300 rides. No other jockey achieved more than the 15 wins of P J McDonald. Then came William Buick and Silvestre De Sousa with ten each.  Curtis had six wins from 35 rides for the stable.

Their longevity says much for their iron constitutions but even more for the amazing loyalty of the trainer. Had he not kept them on, riding many of the yard’s best horses as well as the majority of the lesser performers, they would probably have retired a while ago.

A second compelling item on the same Whatsapp message concerned Paul Mulrennan who it seems might be getting closer to a connection with Karl Burke. Interesting? Not many!

Hitman has Scilly Isles in his sights

Hitman will step up in trip for a crack at the Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown on February 6.

Hugely impressive on his British debut for Paul Nicholls at Ffos Las, he was far from disgraced behind leading Arkle contender Allmankind in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown last time out.

Nicholls is now keen to step him up in trip and he was entered for the rearranged Grade Two Dipper Novices’ Chase run at Wincanton on Saturday but he was not declared.

“I didn’t run him in the Dipper as the same owners were keen to run Protektorat (eventual second) which was fair enough but it was pointless them running against each other,” said Nicholls.

“He will go – I suspect – to the Scilly Isles where he would take on Dan’s (Skelton) horse Shan Blue. There is Grade Two race at Haydock on January 23 (Altcar Novices’ Chase) and I might possibly have a look at that but I’m quite excited about running him in another Grade One at Sandown.

“The step up in trip will be the making of him. He is a lovely horse that just wants plenty of time.

“It was a good run in the Henry VIII as he was a bit inexperienced and it was only his fifth ever run and second time over fences.

“He jumped the Railway Fences well and he stayed on strong and Dan’s horse (Allmankind) is a very smart horse. You may or may not see him at Cheltenham but I can’t see it this season.”

Nicholls celebrating following magnificent seven winners

Paul Nicholls reflected on another memorable Saturday after saddling seven winners across the three jump meetings in Britain.

Fixtures at Chepstow, Kempton and Wincanton were in doubt at the start of the morning following the recent cold snap, but Nicholls will have been relieved to see all three go ahead, allowing him to send out 18 runners in total from his Ditcheat base.

Nicholls was at Kempton, where he saw Barbados Buck’s (2-1 favourite) land a novice hurdle, before claiming Grade Two honours with both McFabulous (10-11 favourite) in the Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle and Master Tommytucker (2-1) in the Ladbrokes Silviniaco Conti Chase.

All three Kempton winners were partnered by Harry Cobden.

On Coral Welsh Grand National day at Chepstow, Bryony Frost was seen to excellent effect aboard the Nicholls-trained Pozo Emery (7-2) in the opening maiden hurdle, before doubling her tally for the 11-times champion trainer with Storm Arising (6-1) in a handicap hurdle.

Nicholls also claimed a double at his local track of Wincanton, with Harry Skelton steering Flash Collonges (7-4) to success in a novice hurdle and Capeland (6-1) striking gold under Daryl Jacob, who enjoyed a five-timer on the card.

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Speaking after the conclusion of racing at Kempton, Nicholls said: “We hadn’t had a winner in 2021 and now we’ve had seven in one day!

“We hadn’t had many runners so far this year, before today. It’s good to keep the strike-rate going.

“If you run 18, you would like to think four of them would win and we’ve had seven, so we are chuffed. If they are fit, healthy and well, you want them to perform well.

“All of these that have run today will have a flu jab on Monday and won’t run for three weeks to a month. We are never that busy in January. We still have a few to run, but we will be selective.

“The team will be readied and revved up to run from February through into March and April.”

Assessing some of his winners, he added: “I thought McFabulous ought to win and I was sweet on Master Tommytucker. I know he was lucky with the favourite (Imperial Aura) coming down, but our horse is a nice horse when he is right.

“We’d had three lovely novice hurdlers win in Pozo Emery, Flash Collonges and Barbados Buck’s and they are for the future. Whatever they achieve over hurdles is a bonus as they will all be great chasers.

“It is exciting times. We have a great team working behind the scenes at home and a great team of patient owners.”

Nicholls usually enjoys some winter sun in the Caribbean early in the new year, but those plans have gone by the wayside this season due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

He said: “Normally I’m away for a couple of weeks, but obviously we can’t go this year. I’d rather be here than watching the racing on television, though.

“I’d usually have gone to Barbados on Wednesday and I’m always there this weekend watching it with Andy Stewart over one or two glasses of champagne! He’s had two winners today with Barbados Buck’s and Pozo Emery, so it would have been riotous!

“With everything that’s going on in the country, I’d have been mortified if I was out there and there was a problem back home and I couldn’t get back, so I’m better off at home making sure we all keep safe and everyone keeps on top of things.

“This is a lovely start to the new year. If we can keep going until the end of the season, we ought be able to crack the 172 (171 is the record number of winners in a season for Nicholls).

“Although me and Clifford (Baker, head lad) might be 58 and 60, we are still as enthusiastic as ever and we absolutely love it – long may it continue.”

Master Tommytucker makes all for Conti honours

Master Tommytucker secured the biggest success of his career with a fine front-running performance in the Ladbrokes Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton.

The lightly-raced 10-year-old made it three wins from five starts over fences this season by taking his form to new levels with victory in the Grade Two.

All eyes were on Imperial Aura, who was bidding for a second success at the level, but the evens favourite was an early casualty after parting company with David Bass at the second fence.

Jumping well out in front, Master Tommytucker continued to extend his advantage with his two remaining rivals hard at work in behind him entering the home straight.

Despite getting the last all wrong, the 2-1 shot was quickly gathered in by Harry Cobden before crossing the line 12 lengths clear of Clondaw Castle.

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Nicholls said: “Apart from the last, he jumped great there. Harry nursed him down the back full of running. How many times do you see horses do that at the last?

“He has got a huge engine and he is definitely better on a track like this rather than Cheltenham. A small field suits him better as well.

“At Haydock he went a gallop in heavy ground – he would gallop all day. The trip is not a problem to him anywhere. I’ve got no doubt there is a Grade One in him.

“I kick myself for running him at Cheltenham (last month) as it was too soon after Haydock, but Harry got off him and said this will be the making of him.”

Although Master Tommytucker holds entries in both the Ryanair Chase and Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival, the Ditcheat handler believes he would be better suited by heading to Aintree instead.

Nicholls said: “He is the Ryanair and the Gold Cup. We will have a chat with the owners and I know they will dream to run him in a race like that.

“To me he would be awesome at Aintree in that two-and-a-half-mile race around there. That would be made for him and the last day at Sandown, the two-mile-six race there would suit him well.

“I could definitely see him lining up in next year’s King George. He likes it around here and he has got huge ability.”

As for Imperial Aura’s trainer Kim Bailey, he felt a shadow in front of the fence was the reason behind the favourite’s departure.

Bailey said: “David Bass said there was a great big shadow in front of the fence and that’s his excuse. He said there was a big shadow there and he took his eye off it.

“He will go to Cheltenham now, but for what race is rather difficult to work out. I’d imagine he will go straight there.

“There is only one other race to run him in and that’s the Ascot Chase, but that’s three weeks before Cheltenham which is too soon. The lucky suit is now out of the window!”

McFabulous back on winning form with Relkeel success

McFabulous stamped his class on the Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle at Kempton.

The Grade Two bumper winner was disappointing on his first couple of starts over obstacles last winter, but having got his act together in the new year with wins at Market Rasen and in the EBF Final at Kempton, he made a successful return in October’s Persian War at Chepstow.

The seven-year-old’s winning run came to an end in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury the following month, but he was far from disgraced in finishing third behind the top-class pair of Thyme Hill and Paisley Park, and he was the 10-11 favourite to land this Grade Two prize, rescheduled from Cheltenham’s abandoned New Year’s Day card.

There were a few worrying moments for his supporters during the early stages, with a couple of untidy leaps putting McFabulous on the back foot and briefly taking him to the rear of the field under Harry Cobden.

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But the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding made stealthy headway racing down the back straight and eased clear in the end – passing the post with just over two lengths in hand over On The Blind Side.

Nicholls said: “This trip (two and a half miles) suits him. He will have an entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, just in case it falls apart or something, but I guess I’d nearly keep him fresh for Aintree. I think Aintree over two and a half would suit him well.

“A fresh, flat track would suit him as well. We might then look at Sandown on the last day of the season as there is a lovely race for him there over two-five, then we can go chasing in the autumn as that is his job.

“We tried the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and he wasn’t beaten far, but I’m not convinced I want to give him a hard race against those horses at this stage of his career if he is going to be a super chaser.

“I see him as an ideal horse for the Kauto Star (Novices’ Chase, at Kempton) next season.”

Of more immediate plans, he added: “You could look at the National Spirit Hurdle as it is a valuable race, but it is usually desperate ground and I wouldn’t be keen to run him.

“If we go to Aintree we could do that. I will talk to the boys. They are keen to have an entry for Stayers’ Hurdle, but it doesn’t convince me after Newbury. I think Aintree would be really good for him.

“He has got loads of natural speed and ability. He has come back in the winner’s enclosure with his tail in the air and it hardly looked like he had a race.”

Thomas Darby ran with credit in defeat
Thomas Darby ran with credit in defeat (Mike Egerton/PA)

Olly Murphy was delighted with third-placed Thomas Darby, saying: “He ran an absolute cracker and is crying out for three miles.

“It was a very encouraging run. He missed three out, but he was travelling well throughout the race.

“I was desperate to run him at Leopardstown over Christmas, but we couldn’t get there for one reason or another.

“The three-mile Grade One at Aintree will be his ultimate aim, as opposed to the Stayers’ Hurdle. There was a lot of positives to take out of that.”

Politologue on course for Clarence House Chase

Politologue heads 12 entries for the Matchbook Betting Exchange Clarence House Chase at Ascot on January 23.

The Paul Nicholls-trained grey won the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March and took the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown on his reappearance last month.

Nicholls is also represented by Duc De Genievres, who has been placed in the Shloer Chase and Desert Orchid Chase since his move from Willie Mullins.

Jessica Harrington provides the two Irish-trained possibles in Impact Factor and Sizing Pottsie, who both won handicap chases at Fairyhouse on their latest starts.

Last year’s winner Defi Du Seuil could return to action for the first time since his disappointing run in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham on November.

The Philip Hobbs-trained gelding was pulled up before the last fence when beaten. Nothing came to light and the eight-year-old has either the Clarence House or the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury next month as the target for his comeback race.

“He seems fine. He didn’t perform on the day for some reason, but nothing showed up,” said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus.

“He’s had a bit of a break and hopefully he’ll be back in time for that (Ascot). He has an entry, but we’ll know nearer the time how he is.

“He has the Game Spirit as his other option.”

The Kim Bailey-trained First Flow, winner of his last five races, could be given this Grade One opportunity. Completing the list are Benator, Bun Doran, Esprit Du Large, Fanion D’Estruval, Le Patriote and Riders Onthe Storm.

Imperial Aura headlines Kempton card

Cheltenham Festival hero Imperial Aura is the star name among 11 entries for the Unibet Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton on Saturday.

Kim Bailey’s charge won the now defunct novices’ handicap chase at Prestbury Park in March and has continued in the same vein this term – winning the Colin Parker Memorial Chase at Carlisle before impressing in the Grade Two 1965 Chase at Ascot.

The eight-year-old disputes ante-post favouritism with last year’s winner Min for the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, and will be well fancied to enhance his claims in this weekend’s two-and-a-half-mile Grade Two contest.

Nicky Henderson has entered 2019 winner Top Notch, as well as Mengli Khan and Mister Fisher, who won the rescheduled Peterborough Chase at Cheltenham on his latest appearance.

Paul Nicholls saddled Frodon to win 12 months ago and could this year be represented by Master Tommytucker.

Other hopefuls include the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Riders Onthe Storm, Ann Hamilton’s stable star Nuts Well and Tom George’s Peterborough Chase third Clondaw Castle.

Nine horses are in contention for the Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle, which was saved and switched from the abandoned New Year’s Day fixture at Cheltenham.

George’s Summerville Boy could bid for back-to-back victories in the race, Bailey has entered Long Walk Hurdle fourth Younevercall, Nicholls could run McFabulous and Thomas Darby may represent Olly Murphy.

Paul Webber’s Cheltenham Festival winner Indefatigable also features.

The Unibet Lanzarote Hurdle is a race with plenty of history. An entry of 31 includes four Henderson inmates in Call Me Lord, Champagne Platinum, Glynn and The Cashel Man, while Nicholls has an interesting pair in Solo and Amour De Nuit.

Nicholls’ pair top 19 in Welsh National contention

Paul Nicholls’ duo of Yala Enki and Truckers Lodge remain at the head of the weights for Saturday’s rescheduled Coral Welsh Grand National at Chepstow.

Yala Enki has been third in the race for the past two seasons and is on a career-high handicap mark after a stirring comeback at Cheltenham when narrowly denied by Ramses De Teillee, who could reoppose. Yala Enki fell in the Becher Chase last time out.

Truckers Lodge proved his aptitude for marathon trips when second in this last season and winning the Midlands National at Uttoxeter just before racing shut down in March.

Evan Williams’ seven-year-old Secret Reprieve has been the ante-post favourite since winning a trial for this race last time out. He carries just a 4lb penalty for that success rather than running from his new mark.

Williams could also run Prime Venture.

Becher Chase winner Vieux Lion Rouge and 2018 Scottish National hero Joe Farrell are the two oldest runners left in the race at 12.

Lord Du Mesnil, placed at the Cheltenham Festival in March, and Venetia Williams’ Cloudy Glen are others towards the head of the weights.

Springfield Fox, The Two Amigos, who ran well in the race 12 months ago, and Christmas In April also feature among 19 confirmations.

Warwick target for Next Destination

Next Destination will put his unbeaten record over fences on the line in the Hampton Novices’ Chase at Warwick.

Trainer Paul Nicholls has earmarked the three-mile Grade Two prize on January 16 as the next target for the Malcolm Denmark-owned nine-year-old.

The former Willie Mullins-trained gelding made a winning debut over fences in the Grade Two John Francome Novices’ Chase at Newbury, having previously finished second on his first start for Nicholls in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby.

Nicholls said: “The plan is to run Next Destination in the Grade Two novice chase at Warwick later this month.

“It was a good start he made over fences at Newbury, but I didn’t want to take him to Kempton in the Kauto Star Boxing Day – I was conscious with the problems he has had of him switching from the grass to the bits of all-weather at Kempton.”

The 11-times champion trainer believes the dual Grade One-winning hurdler requires another run if he is make to the Cheltenham Festival and contest what was known as the RSA Novices’ Chase, for which he is as short as 10-1.

He added: “I’m keen to get one run into him before going for what was the RSA and timing-wise, Warwick works out well.

“He is fragile, but he has had a nice bit of time since his last run and he did a good piece of work the other morning.

“Hopefully he can keep on progressing.”

Honeyball looking to headgear to reignite Jepeck spark

Anthony Honeyball hopes the addition of cheekpieces and a tongue tie can help Jepeck bounce back to form and secure back-to-back victories in the Unibet Veterans’ Handicap Chase at Sandown.

The 12-year-old will bid to open his account for the season by repeating his success of 12 months ago in the three-mile final of the veterans’ series.

After pulling up over course and distance in November on his return to action, Jepeck suffered the same result on his most recent outing in last month’s Welsh National Trial at Chepstow.

Honeyball said: “He seems in good form at home – we’ve had this race in mind since he qualified at Carlisle at the end of last season and we have gone through similar paces to end up in the final.

“Last season he was coming into the race off some pretty good efforts over hurdles and his confidence was sky high.

“His two runs this season have been nothing to get excited about, but hopefully the addition of cheekpieces and a tongue tie can spark him up.

“He is back down to the same mark as last year’s race, but I think it is a tougher race this year. There are no signs at home to suggest why he won’t run well.”

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Crosspark has not won since landing the 2019 Eider Chase at Newcastle and has finished second in his three starts so far this season.

Caroline Bailey, trainer, said: “Crosspark is fit and well and he goes there in good form from his last run at the track.

“He has gone up 6lb since the start of the season as he is running so well, but you can’t ignore that (the rise) is frustrating when they aren’t winning.

“The handicapper thinks he is still improving from 10 to 11, but whether he has too much weight, only time will tell.

“He won’t particularly like it if it becomes sticky, but it was pretty horrible last time and he ran well and we know he stays well.”

Potters Legend will be out to gain a second success this season having made a winning return at Warwick (Adam Davy/PA)
Potters Legend will be out to gain a second success this season having made a winning return at Warwick (Adam Davy/PA)

Lucy Wadham expects recent Cheltenham runner-up Potters Legend to have no problems handling the testing conditions.

She said: “I thought we were going to get there at Cheltenham, but both he and third probably helped the winner pick up. However, he ran on well to the line.

“This race has been in the back of our mind, but he would have probably run at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, so it’s plan B.

“He is probably as good now as he has ever been as he has just matured as a chaser. He is a very strong horse, so he pretty much handles any ground.”

Sametegal and Sam Twiston-Davies (right) gets up to win the 2016 Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury (Jonathan Brady/PA Images)
Sametegal and Sam Twiston-Davies (right) gets up to win the 2016 Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury (Jonathan Brady/PA Images)

Paul Nicholls believes a day out hunting has sharpened up Sametegal, who will be seeking a first success since the 2016 Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury.

“This veterans’ race has been the target for Sametegal ever since he finished sixth in the Grand Sefton Chase over the National fences at Aintree,” said Nicholls in his Betfair column.

“He is so consistent he doesn’t get much help from the handicapper and he ran as well as ever when a close third behind Step Back at Sandown over three miles early in November.

“Sametegal loved his day out with the Blackmore and Sparkford Hunt the other day. I expect him to run his usual honest race, though he does find it hard to win.”

Sir Ivan has run well in both starts over two and a half miles this season, however trainer Harry Fry expects the 11-year-old to be equally effective stepped back up in trip.

Fry said: “He’s been running consistently well this season, which has always been his downfall really because he never moves much in the handicap.

“He ran his best race over fences in a long time the last day at Leicester.

“Obviously this is a step back up in trip, but he’s got form over the distance and takes his chance.”

Nicholls confident Stormy Ireland can regain winning thread

Paul Nicholls expects Stormy Ireland to make the most of a significant drop in class the Unibet “You’re On” Mares’ Hurdle.

The Jared Sullivan-owned seven-year-old will bid to strike gold on her fourth start since joining the Ditcheat handler from Willie Mullins when stepping back up to two and a half miles in the Listed contest at Sandown.

Although Stormy Ireland beat only one rival home in the Grade Two International Hurdle at Cheltenham last month, Nicholls believes the result was better than it looks on paper.

Speaking in his Betfair column, Nicholls said: “Chasing didn’t work out for her in two starts this season, so she was back over hurdles last time when she ran much better than her finishing position suggests in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham three weeks ago.

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“That has sharpened her and this Listed mares’ hurdle is a more suitable target for Stormy Ireland, who has a 4lb penalty to carry for winning a Grade Three race in Ireland.

“I’d say she should be hard to beat stepping up in trip against her own sex.”

Robin Gold has been in prolific form this season winning four of her last five starts, however, trainer Dan Skelton feels she will have to improve again if she is to add to that tally.

Skelton said: “Though Harry (Skelton) won on her last time, Bridget (Andrews) will get the ride on Robin Gold as she gets on very well with her.

“She has been very progressive this season, but this is a massive step up in class again though.

“The track will suit her as it is a track you can play late on. She has got a lot on her plate being realistic though, but we are looking forward to giving it a go.”

Harry Fry is confident testing conditions will play to the strengths of Whitehotchillifili, who finished second off top weight in a handicap over course and distance on her latest start.

He said: “Strictly on ratings, they’ve all got plenty to find with Stormy Ireland.

“Our mare ran a really good race there a month ago under top weight.

“Conditions will not be an issue for her and hopefully she goes there with a very strong each-way chance.”

The field is completed by Flow Away from the yard of Alex Hales, the Venetia Williams-trained Quick Wave and Desaray Girl, who will represent Micky Hammond.