Exitas scores emotional success for Middleton at Southwell

An emotional Phil Middleton recalled how Exitas twice overcame life-threatening injuries in the last two years to return to winning form at Southwell.

Middleton, who owns as well as trains the 13-year-old, managed to  hold his composure as he greeted his winner after the Dapper Spaniel Gastro Pub Rolleston Handicap Hurdle.

Ridden by 5lb claimer Tabitha Worsley, the 17-2 chance showed he retains all his enthusiasm for racing as he came home eight lengths clear of Hattaab.

It was a first success for Exitas since a veterans’ handicap chase at Aintree in October 2018.

“He ran here a couple of years ago and put his foot in a hole,” Middleton told Sky Sports Racing.

“He ripped his shoe off, and the shoe was dangling in his tail. He came back and couldn’t get off the horse box.

“He had torn all his ligaments through his pastern. We stood him for six months in agony. We nearly had him put down.

“We nursed him back. On his comeback run, he struck into himself, burst his joint capsule. The vet said he will get an infection. It’s 50-50. You might want to put him down.

“We sent him off to Newbury vets hospital for two weeks, and they saved him.”

After that second major scare, Middleton thought it best to retire Exitas – but the horse had other ideas.

“I retired him. He was as miserable as sin. He stood at the gate asking to come in – ‘I want to be a racehorse’,” said the Aylesbury permit holder.

“We ran him at Warwick, and he pulled up two out. The jockey got off him and said he was lame. I thought ‘not again’.

“I leapt over the rails and got down there. He was soon trotting as sound as a bell. The vets were there, there was nothing wrong with him, so I thought we’ll carry on.

“I can hear people thinking he’s cruel carrying on, but it’s not about greed. He loves the game – and I love him!”

Retirement could finally be imminent for Exitas – but he is first likely to make a quick reappearance in a handicap hurdle at Worcester on Saturday.

“He’s going to be retired,” added Middleton.

“When he wins he usually wins three. I think he’ll win at Worcester on Saturday night – and I’ve got the best home ever for him after.”

Jockey Jonathan England, on fourth-placed Wishfull Dreaming, received a two-day suspension for careless riding.

Golan Fortune seeks Midlands National riches

Golan Fortune will bid to vindicate trainer Phil Middleton’s judgement in the Marston’s 61 Deep Midlands Grand National.

Buckinghamshire trainer Middleton rerouted the durable nine-year-old to Uttoxeter after deciding against an engagement in the National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham this week.

Run over a trip of four and a quarter miles, Saturday’s marathon offers an alternative to next month’s Grand National at Aintree – a race for which Golan Fortune holds an entry but may not make the final field of 40.

Golan Fortune and Kielan Woods (right) win the Lady Buttons Memorial Beginners’ Chase at Ludlow
Golan Fortune and Kielan Woods (right) win the Lady Buttons Memorial Beginners’ Chase at Ludlow (David Davies/PA)

“I entered him for Cheltenham and I changed my mind and thought this was the race for him, so I cancelled his Cheltenham engagement so I wouldn’t get tempted,” said Middleton.

“He’s absolutely buzzing at home – I think he’s the best I’ve had him all season.

“I’m pretty sure he’ll get the trip. He jumps well, (and) I really, really fancy him – he’ll run a massive race.”

Middleton has not abandoned all hope either that Golan Fortune may yet be granted a run at Aintree.

“The plan all along was to go to the Grand National,” he added.

“I’ve always thought he was a Grand National horse – but rated 142, he’s about a 4-1 shot to get in.

“There’s nine on 142 – and if he got to the top of the pecking order on 142 he might just scrape in. If he won the Midlands National he would be at the top of that pecking order.

“It’s a nice race to win and I could not be more pleased with him.”

Golan Fortune was last seen finishing fourth when reverting to hurdles at Kempton last month, after a spell over fences which included one victory and some very creditable performances in high-calibre contests.

Winning his first chase at Ludlow in December, he was swiftly upgraded to top-flight company in Kempton’s Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase.

He finished fourth there behind Dan Skelton’s Shan Blue, as the 40-1 outsider of the field, and went on to be third of three but beaten under seven lengths in the Hampton Novices’ Chase at Warwick.

The form of both races was boosted in Wednesday’s Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham, with Warwick runner-up Fiddlerontheroof finishing second behind Monkfish and in third The Big Breakaway – who was four and a quarter lengths ahead of Golan Fortune in the Kauto Star.

“He was only beaten about six lengths in the Kauto Star when Kielan (Woods, jockey) fired him at the last,” said Middleton.

“I think he made a bit too much use of him there, or we’d have finished close to The Big Breakaway, and I’m sure we’d have beaten Fiddlerontheroof at Warwick if he hadn’t made a howler at the third-last.

“I think it’s a hell of a boost.”

Among Golan Fortune’s weekend rivals is Lucinda Russell’s Mighty Thunder a proven winner over a long-distance trip after triumphing in the Edinburgh National at Musselburgh.

Victorious by 20 lengths on that occasion, the eight-year-old turns his attention to the Uttoxeter prize after sidestepping the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir at Cheltenham to take on this extreme trip.

“We had the option of here or Cheltenham, but I think the four miles should should suit him,” said Russell.

“He’s been in very good form since Musselburgh. I think the distance is right, and the flat track at Uttoxeter will help.”

Mighty Thunder has run four times over fences and won three, his only chasing defeat coming when he was a distant sixth at Kelso in December.

“He’s a funny horse because there’s three completed starts he’s won over fences, but equally he’s thrown in a real shocker at Kelso when he seemed to sulk,” added Russell.

“He’s got a bit of brain there and he’s a smart chap, but I think that over four miles he loves it because he’s not under so much pressure.

Nick Williams' 2018 Cheltenham Festival winner Coo Star Sivola is among the contenders at Uttoxeter
Nick Williams’ 2018 Cheltenham Festival winner Coo Star Sivola is among the contenders at Uttoxeter (Mike Egerton/PA)

“Although he’s a novice, I think it’s worthwhile giving him the chance.”

Russell is sure the forecast soft ground will suit her charge after his recent performances in similar conditions.

“As a hurdler we always felt he needed it to be good or good to soft, yet he’s actually won on heavy ground round Hexham,” she said.

“They’re still calling it soft at the moment, and that’s just perfect.”

Also due to line up in the race is last year’s hero Truckers Lodge, with Paul Nicholls also represented by 13-2 chance Highland Hunter.

Jonjo O’Neill’s Time To Get Up heads the market, while Nick Williams’ Coo Star Sivola and Venetia Williams’ Achille are also both prominent – and Nicky Martin’s regular marathon contender The Two Amigos is back for more, over the longest trip he has yet faced.

Golan Fortune seeking to book National ticket with big Warwick effort

Golan Fortune will attempt to enhance his Randox Health Grand National prospects by claiming victory in the McCoy Contractors Civils And Infrastructure Hampton Novices’ Chase at Warwick on Saturday.

The seven-year-old bids to resume his progression over fences in the three-mile Grade Two prize – and move a step closer to giving trainer Phil Middleton his first runner in the Aintree spectacular.

Having made a winning debut over fences at Ludlow last month, Golan Fortune out-ran his 40-1 price tag upped to Grade One level when finishing fourth in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Middleton said: “If he does run a big race I would like to go for the Grand National.

“He is off 142 at the moment and you need to be about 145 to get in, so hopefully the handicapper would put him up a few pounds if he goes well.

“He has won and finished in the first four of a race over three miles and this will be his third three-mile chase run, which qualifies him for the Grand National.

“I had Exitas miss the cut a few years ago for the National and I might not get another chance for a runner in it, so I’d like to go for it.”

Middleton reports his stable star, who claimed Listed glory over hurdles at Cheltenham last season, to be in excellent order.

He said: “I was chuffed to bits at Kempton and he will be better for that. We go there full of hope.

“When you look at the ratings he has not got a lot to find with Next Destination and the horse he beat at Newbury (Kalooki) was behind us at Kempton, while Fiddlerontheroof has been second a good few times.

“Kielan Woods is full of hope, he popped him over a few obstacles this week and he jumped fantastic.”

Next Destination will attempt to maintain his unbeaten record over fences after making a winning debut over them at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)
Next Destination will attempt to maintain his unbeaten record over fences after making a winning debut over them at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Jockey Harry Cobden is confident dual Grade One-winning hurdler Next Destination will have no problem handling the testing conditions.

The nine-year-old secured his first victory since joining Paul Nicholls from Willie Mullins when making a winning debut over fences in a Grade Two at Newbury.

Cobden said: “It was his first time over fences last time and he jumped really well and travelled great. He did everything right.

“The ground was better at Newbury, but that shouldn’t make much of a difference at Warwick as he won on quite testing ground over in Ireland.

“I schooled him on Monday and he was fine. He seems great at the moment. He has lots of class for sure.”

Fiddlerontheroof will step up to three miles for the first time under rules (David Davies/PA)
Fiddlerontheroof will step up to three miles for the first time under rules (David Davies/PA)

Connections of the Colin Tizzard-trained Fiddlerontheroof expect the step up in trip to suit the seven-year-old, who has filled the runner-up spot on three of his four starts over fences this season.

Assistant trainer Joe Tizzard said: “Stepping him up to three miles is something we have had on the back of our mind for some time, and he looks like he wants every yard of it.

“He has been consistent all season long, he has lost nothing in defeat – he has just come up against some decent horses.

“This looks the right race to run him in and I think Warwick will suit him as he is a very good jumper of his fences. He has just got to prove he gets the trip and if he does he will be right there.”