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Aintree Delights

Though the Grand National is undoubtedly the headline act, next week’s Aintree meeting has plenty more to offer, with eye-catching renewals on each of the three days.

The Grade One Aintree Hurdle is run at 2m4f and never fails to deliver. Buveur D’Air was mightily impressive in winning last year, comfortably accounting for My Tent Or Yours and The New One.

Since its inception in 1976, the race has been won by some of the best hurdlers in the business. Dual Cheltenham Champion Hurdle hero, Comedy Of Errors, was a gutsy winner of the first running. The following year, Night Nurse and Monksfield dead-heated in an absolute epic. The pair were two of the all-time greats in a golden period for hurdling. Both went on to win the Champion Hurdle a couple of times apiece, with Monksfield returning to Liverpool to take the Aintree Hurdle three years in-a-row.

The wonderful Irish mare, Dawn Run, captured this race soon after landing the Champion Hurdle and a couple of years before her dramatic victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Morley Street became the most successful hurdler in the history of the event, winning four times from 1990 to 1993. He also landed the Champion Hurdle in 1991.

Another hurdling great, Istabraq, captured the Aintree Hurdle in 1999, though failed in a thriller 12- months earlier, when losing out in a prolonged duel to Pridwell, under an inspired ride from AP McCoy.

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Al Eile was an Irish raider that loved both track and trip. Trained by John Queally, he achieved a trio of victories in 2005, 07 and 08. Oscar Whisky was similarly suited by the trip. Never quite quick enough to land a Champion Hurdle, he was at his best at two-and-a-half-miles. His two Aintree victories in 2011 and 2012 proved dramatic, as on both occasions he had to hold off a sustained threat from the Willie Mullins-trained Thousand Stars, each time hanging on by a neck.

In a race where horses regularly return to win again, it’s hard to envisage a Buveur D’Air defeat next Thursday.
Another Aintree highlight will be the Grade One Melling Chase. This is a personal favourite and has been won by Jump racing giants. Introduced in 1991, this wonderful race has gone to numerous Queen Mother Champion Chase winners. Remittance Man, Deep Sensation, Viking Flagship and Martha’s Son, all landed the big one at Cheltenham before capturing this.

But it was Moscow Flyer that won over the hearts of so many National Hunt racing fans. Hugely talented, he undoubtedly had his quirks. But from being sent over fences in 2001, until the end of his 2005 campaign, Jess Harrington’s chasing superstar was virtually unbeatable. He hit the floor on occasion, but whenever Barry Geraghty was able to retain the partnership, this formidable chaser swept all-comers aside.

Twice a winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, his win in the Tingle Creek of 2004 will live long in the memory. Then a 10-year-old, he proved himself ‘the daddy’ at two miles, when fighting off two top-class chasing youngsters in Azertyuiop and Well Chief. He travelled to Aintree to land the Melling Chase in 2004 and 2005.

Undeniably one of the most talented, Moscow Flyer dominated for years. But for a period from 2012 to the end of the 2013 campaign, Sprinter Sacre surely surpassed anything that had been previously achieved over fences.

Nicky Henderson’s chaser was poetry in motion. Seemingly created to jump a fence, Sprinter Sacre was as good a jumper as there’s ever been. Blessed with perfect physical attributes, he was a truly glorious sight leaping an obstacle. Destructive in the Queen Mother of 2013, he then went to Aintree and proved himself a class apart when defeating the wonderful Cue Card. Wishing to show him off to the Irish racing public, Nicky Henderson then sent Sprinter to Punchestown to win their Champion Chase. He was to return from a heart condition and famously win another Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 2016.

It would be lovely to see Henderson’s latest star, Altior, compete in the Melling Chase next week. This outstanding racehorse is building a reputation to rival the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Moscow Flyer. It would be fitting if he was to match their Aintree achievements.

De Bromhead novice can Sparkle in the Arkle

It’s possible that the Arkle Novices’ Chase could prove the highlight of this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Both the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup have a wonderfully competitive look to them and are likely to provide thrilling finishes. But it’s the Arkle that has Jump racing purists smacking their lips in anticipation.

The front four in the betting have made a seamless transition from hurdles to fences. Footpad has been dominant in Ireland, though defeated a ring-rusty Petit Mouchoir last time at Leopardstown, with the pair expected to be more closely matched at Cheltenham. Sceau Royal has set the standard in the UK and was particularly impressive when slaughtering the opposition in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. And then there’s Saint Calvados – the beast from the south-east (just over the English Channel in France), now under the guidance of Harry Whittington and fresh from three destructive performances over the larger obstacles.

Money has come in recent days for Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power, suggesting that this is not merely a battle of the Fab Four, but possibly a clash of the Famous Five. This fella certainly looks a chaser, though has blotted his copybook of late with mishaps at Sandown and Ascot.

So, which of these can add their name to a stunning roll of honour that includes two-mile chasing goliaths Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre?

Six and seven-year-olds have proved dominant in recent years, though Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were both eight, whilst Voy Por Ustedes and Well Chief were just five when landing this prestigious prize.

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Of the main protagonists, Saint Calvados is the ‘spotty-faced teenager’, though arguably arrives with enough experience to do himself justice. Three from three over fences, he’s a sizeable unit for a baby, and has been simply sensational in romping to victory at Newbury (twice) and then in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick. Those wins came in testing ground and there had been a concern as to whether he’d adapt to a sounder surface at Cheltenham. However, the great British weather has done its best to accommodate this French-bred son of Saint Des Saints. He’s sure to be bounding along at the head of affairs, more than likely shadowed by race favourite Footpad. The pair have been electric over obstacles thus far and could provide a spectacular display for an expectant crowd.

Footpad has been foot-perfect throughout the winter and would make it three wins from the last four renewals for Willie Mullins. He forms part of two-pronged assault from owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede along with the Alan King-trained Sceau Royal. This fella was slightly better over hurdles and has the requisite size and scope to excel. He’s demonstrated the ability to stand-off a fence but also the aptitude to ‘shorten-up’ when required. He looks to have a high cruising speed, which was seen to great effect when accounting for Petit Mouchoir last time. There’s the potential for a heated battle at the front end, with the possibility that this may benefit a contender that sits a little off the pace.

One that looks sure be held up is the Munir/Souede UK entrant, Sceau Royal. This fella isn’t the biggest but has been wonderfully slick over fences this winter. He jumped as well as any novice when simply sensational at Sandown in December. His only defeat over fences came at Cheltenham when runner-up to North Hill Harvey. He was giving the winner 5lbs, though looked in control approaching the last, before being out-battled during the final climb to the finish. He certainly wasn’t stopping that day, but connections would have been a little disappointed that he couldn’t nail the winner late on. Sixth in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Petit Mouchoir third, Footpad fourth, Brain Power eighth), I have a feeling he may find one or two of these possess a little more firepower during that final climb.

Henry De Bromhead saddled Sizing Europe to win in 2010 and has a leading contender in Petit Mouchoir. Brilliant on his chasing debut in October, the seven-year-old then suffered a minor joint injury which kept him off the track for almost four months. He returned at Leopardstown and was thrown in at the deep end when trying to keep tabs on Footpad in the Irish Arkle. Certainly rusty early on, he undoubtedly warmed to the task, jumping well for the main part despite Footpad setting a searching gallop. Fitness surely played a part in the five-length defeat and after the race connections looked thrilled. The question is whether he can improve enough to turn the tables at Prestbury Park.

Nicky Henderson’s attempt at four wins in the last seven renewals rests with Brain Power. He’s failed to finish in two of his three starts over fences and has undergone wind-surgery since his fall at Ascot in January. Something of a ‘bridle horse’, he’s often looked a little weak in a finish. If the operation is successful, he has the talent to be a major player. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if he powers up the famous hill to victory.

North Hill Harvey remains an interesting contender should the ground at Cheltenham dry-out enough prior to the off. He has a terrific record at Prestbury Park and has won both his chase starts at the track. He probably lacks the gears to beat the main protagonists, though could pick up the pieces as warriors fade up the final hill, or should one or two of the favourites underperform.

This looks a fabulous renewal and I’ve spent many hours considering the likely outcome. Footpad has looked exceptional over the winter, sweeping up the races that tend to point to an Arkle winner. But I was impressed with Petit Mouchoir’s return and will put my trust in De Bomhead’s ability to produce high class two-mile chasers. Best of these in last year’s Champion Hurdle, it’s Petit Mouchoir for me. If testing conditions prevail on the opening day of the Festival, I would fear the relentless power of Saint Calvados. His age and lack of Cheltenham experience are a negative, though he has looked mightily impressive over the winter.

Best of luck to those having a punt. I think we’re set for an absolute thriller.

The Festival looms large on the horizon

Though I know it upsets a fair few folk when Cheltenham becomes the only topic of conversation, I must admit that it’s becoming a little difficult for me to think of anything else.

Admittedly, there’s still plenty of top-class racing between now and March 13, though most of the racing news will be dominated by ‘Festival Fever’. At this point in the National Hunt calendar, even races that carry huge prestige, tend to be viewed more as Prestbury Park pointers.

This weekend’s Clarence House Chase is such an example. The Grade One is worth £85,425 to the winner, and the race has a stunning roll of honour. Desert Orchid won an epic 1989, when the race was still a handicap. Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre were modern day two-mile goliaths, with the former winning this twice. Un de Sceaux has captured the last two, but should he make it a magnificent three in-a-row, much of the post-race chat will focus on his form as he heads to defend his Ryanair crown in March.

Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power is also in the line-up on Saturday, with Nicky Henderson hoping for an improved performance in a race he feels should suit his novice chaser. Via his Unibet blog, the champion trainer said: “With Un De Sceaux, the race is likely to be run at a decent gallop. He wants dropping-in and doesn't want to be doing silly things like going out and making the running like he did at Sandown. It was the wrong way to ride him in the Henry VIII Novices' Chase, so a good gallop around Ascot might well suit him better than if you run in a small four-runner novice at a little track. The Arkle is obviously where we'd like to end up.”

In little more than a week we have the aptly named Festival Trials Day from Cheltenham. The Grade Two Cotswold Chase is the feature, and though the roll of honour is another tasty one, its timing lends itself to the role of Gold Cup prep-race. It’s fair to say that in recent times it’s rarely given many clues towards the blue riband in March.

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The same cannot be said of the Cleeve Hurdle, which takes place on the same card. Inglis Drever, Big Buck’s and Thistlecrack have all won this prestigious staying hurdle in recent years, prior to heroic performances when returning to the track in March.

From Cheltenham, attention will turn to Ireland in early February, when Leopardstown play host to the Dublin Racing Festival. The two-day event has certainly captured the imagination, and is a terrific effort by organisers to make this a ‘stand-alone’ treat for Irish racegoers. Indeed, there’s plenty of Jump racing fans from the UK who, if not travelling over this time, will be watching with interest and making a note in diaries for future reference.

The Irish Champion Hurdle headlines on day one, a race that both Istabraq and Hurricane Fly made their own. The following day’s showpiece is the Irish Gold Cup, won last year by Sizing John, prior to his glorious excursion to the Cotswolds. The card is packed with high-class action, and of course those vital Cheltenham Festival pointers. Nevertheless, the quality of racing is such that those attending may give little thought to the looming presence of the Prestbury Park gathering. Along with the equine talent on display, racegoers will be treated to comedy, music and the best of Irish food and drink. It sounds like a cracking event.

Newbury is next on the radar, with the valuable Betfair Hurdle its centrepiece. Established in 1963, this is rarely a race won by elite hurdlers, though Make A Stand took this in 1997 en route to Cheltenham glory. My Tent Or Yours was another high-class winner, when landing the spoils in 2013.

Far less valuable though arguably of greater significance, is the Denman Chase, which takes place earlier on the Newbury card. In its relative short history, the race has been won by See More Business, Kauto Star, Denman, Long Run and Coneygree. Native River landed the pot 12 months ago, prior to going close in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. I’d expect another powerful line-up come February as trainers look to ‘fine-tune’ their talented staying chasers.

Buckle-up as we accelerate to the inevitable. Outstanding racing is still to be had, as Cheltenham looms on the horizon.

Cue a Glorious Finale

Could Thursday at Aintree be the last time we see the wonderful Cue Card on a racecourse?

Though nothing has been said publicly, the 11-year-old’s trainer Colin Tizzard, and proud owner Jean Bishop, must be mulling over the option of retiring the wonderful chaser. And should he repeat last year’s success in the Betway Bowl, it would prove a perfect way to bring the curtain down on a dazzling career.

Cue Card launched his long and illustrious career with victory in a Fontwell bumper back in January 2010. The four-year-old had ‘quickened clear’ to win ‘readily’, in the style of a talented young horse. A few weeks later, Tizzard and his team were celebrating a Cheltenham Festival success, as the youngster ‘romped clear’ to win the Champion Bumper at odds of 40/1. It was a stunning victory.

A year later he returned to Cheltenham, and was far from disgraced when fourth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. In a stellar renewal, the race went to Al Ferof, with Spirit Son second and a young Sprinter Sacre in third. A month later, he then chased home the talented Spirit Son at Aintree in the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, with Rock On Ruby eight lengths back in third.

A decision was then made to send him over fences, and he opened his account with a comfortable win at Chepstow in October 2011, beating Silviniaco Conti in the process. Tizzard had to decide whether to campaign Cue Card at the minimum trip, or target the RSA the following March. A defeat to Bobs Worth at Newbury, when appearing to be out-stayed, and getting tagged on the line, sealed the deal. A young Cue Card was not short of gears, and the Arkle Chase looked the right fit at this stage of his development.

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Unfortunately for Team Tizzard, a certain Sprinter Sacre was lying in wait, and when the pair met in March there could be only one winner. Cue Card ran a cracker in defeat, just seven lengths off the winner, and miles clear of the remainder.

The following season started with a romp in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter, before a failed first attempt at three miles in the King George. He took the Grade 1 Ascot Chase en-route to Cheltenham, and understandably dodged a clash with Sprinter, instead taking in the Ryanair Chase. It proved the right decision, as he ran-out an impressive winner at his fourth festival.

His next outing, though ending in defeat, was arguably one of his best. He again locked horns with the greatest chaser of his generation, as the pair clashed in Aintree’s Melling Chase. Many remember the race for the way Henderson’s fella performed, but Cue Card was awesome that day. He finished just four lengths adrift of one of chasing’s all-time greats, with the rest of the field out of sight.

A stunning victory in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase later that year, saw him arrive for the King George of 2013 as joint-favourite. A certain winner two fences from home, became a three-length defeat at the line, with Cue Card appearing to run-out of gas. Injury prevented him from attempting to retain his Ryanair crown, and when he returned to action, his 2014-15 campaign proved disappointing.

A wind-op prior to his return in late-2015 turned his career around, and the nine-year-old Cue Card became unstoppable. With the Charlie Hall and Betfair Chase in the bag, he headed to the King George, and a shot at redemption. In a thrilling renewal, he mugged Vautour in the shadow of the post for a sensational victory. He may have added a Gold Cup to the CV but for a fall three-out, though Don Cossack was a terrific winner. He then hammered a strong field in last year’s Bowl, before a tired looking finale at Punchestown.

This season has again proved profitable, thanks to Grade 1 victories at Haydock and Ascot. He was runner-up to his talented stablemate Thistlecrack in the King George, and again came down at the third-last in the Gold Cup.
He retains tons of ability, and is the short-priced favourite for Thursday’s showpiece. But with £1,340,230 in the bank, it’s possible that we may be witnessing the final chapter in Cue Card’s incredible National Hunt story. A victory this week at Aintree would without doubt, be one of the season’s highlights. Loved by all, it would surely prove a fitting finale to the career of a jumping legend.

Tough Times for Henderson at Cheltenham

Cheltenham has a knack of producing drama aplenty, and this weekend proved no exception.

The three day ‘Open Meeting’ has a habit of showcasing the talent of champions; past, present and future. This proved the case once again, yet it was a shock announcement off the track, coupled with a tragedy on it, that will undoubtedly have grabbed the headlines.

On the opening day, the Nicky Henderson trained O O Seven brushed aside a talented field, to win the Steel Plate And Sections Novices’ Chase in the fashion of a potentially top-class chaser. A natural over the fences, he finished 10 lengths clear, despite taking the scenic route from the last. His victory was made somewhat easier when favourite Barters Hill pulled-up injured after the seventh.

Thankfully Ben Pauling’s stable star lives to fight another day. As for the winner, Henderson said: “He's a gorgeous-looking horse and this is what we've been waiting for. This is where his life really begins. It's a long wait but you have to be patient. He's always been very good since we started schooling him over fences earlier in the year. His technique was always very special and he had to be good to come here first time.”

Day two opened with a facile victory for the talented juvenile hurdler Defi Du Seuil. Owned by JP McManus and trained by Philip Hobbs, this classy French import was adding to his hurdling debut success at Ffos Las. He travelled powerfully throughout, and quickened to put the race to bed with the minimum of fuss. As short as 8s with one firm for the Triumph Hurdle in March, he looks an exciting prospect.

Next up, was for many the most eagerly anticipated event of the weekend; ‘Thistlecrack’s Road To Gold Cup Glory – Take Two’. His chasing debut at Chepstow had been widely acknowledged as a triumph, and many expected much of the same at Cheltenham. Clearly many were getting a little ahead of themselves. Though still winning impressively, Tizzard’s latest star remains a novice, and should be judged as such. His jumping was patchy, with one or two ‘hairy’ moments leading to loud gasps from the packed grandstands.

Thistlecrack is incredibly brave, and clearly has a huge engine. Mistakes are nevertheless inevitable, and I seem to remember Kauto Star regularly making a hash of a final fence on his way to glory. Some experts pronounced that he would need a clear, error-free round if he was to have any chance in the Gold Cup. Yet once again, I seem to remember Synchronised hitting any number of fences on his way to victory in 2012. Of course, errors at fences can prove crucial, especially in the latter stages of a race, when any loss of momentum can be extremely costly.

After Thistlecrack’s thought provoking performance we were treated to a resurgent Taquin Du Seuil taking the BetVictor Gold Cup. Jonjo O’Neill had the favourite for the valuable race, in the form of 2014 World Hurdle hero, More Of That. But it was his stablemate that performed best in testing conditions, getting the better of Village Vic in a thrilling finish.

Of the winner, O’Neill said: “The rain suited him last night. He was flat to the floor but he just stays, he loves this place and Aidan gave him a great ride. It's nice to win a nice race.”

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Of the disappointing race favourite, O’Neill added: “I was more worried before the race about More Of That because I believe he is a very good horse and it's unfortunate the way he's ran. He's obviously got his problems. I haven't spoken to Barry (Geraghty) yet, but it's disappointing.”

Sunday proved to be the most dramatic of the three days, with Nicky Henderson having to endure an emotional roller-coaster.

On the track, Moon Racer for the Pipe team and Le Prezien for Paul Nicholls, were impressive winners of the Supreme and Arkle trials. The former looks a realistic contender for the main event back at Prestbury Park in March. Three times now Moon Racer has visited Cheltenham, and he is yet to taste defeat. Nicholls’ young chaser is a gutsy performer, and has a bright future over fences.

The Shloer Chase is always a highlight of the meeting, and proved to be the most dramatic, before, during and after the race.

The first bombshell came with the announcement that we would never again see the glorious Sprinter Sacre in a competitive race. A tearful Nicky Henderson clearly struggled, as his ‘horse of a lifetime’ paraded before his adoring public. Injury had once again struck, and the decision was made to finish at the top.

In a press conference prior to the parade, an emotional Henderson spoke of the great champion: “He’s been a great part of our lives. What happened last year was something that will never be repeated in my lifetime. In terms of emotion it took us all to the brink. He will be here today and he looks as well as he's ever done. He's in staggeringly good form. The sad thing is that he is doing everything right.

“If you saw him now, you wouldn't know which leg it was, but there's a little bit of heat in his near-fore that has shown up on the scan. If he was seven, you'd say give him a year off and he'd be back. I'm sad for him because he's come here today thinking he's going to have a race and he's all excited and ready to show his public what he can do, but at least people will have the opportunity to see him again today.”

See him they did, as he strutted around the parade ring with an air of invincibility, befitting of a great champion. Sprinter Sacre is undoubtedly the best racehorse of the modern era. A phenomenon on the racetrack during his astounding campaign of 2013, when he was victorious at all three major spring festivals. His success at Aintree in the Melling Chase, was for me the outstanding performance of our time. The way he breezed past Cue Card took your breath away.

His return to the top last year was one of the great stories of National Hunt racing. His victory at last season’s Shloer raised hopes of a renaissance, and we were not to be disappointed. ‘The swagger is back’ became a common phrase throughout the winter, culminating in his astounding victory in the Champion Chase. Anyone who loves Jump racing will struggle to hold back the tears when taking a look at ‘Sprinter Sacre – The Season A Champion Resurrected’ on YouTube.

For Henderson, the retirement of such a champion would inevitably pull at the heart strings, but the Shloer itself was to see the return of another stable star in Simonsig. The classy grey had endured injury upon injury since his Arkle Chase success of 2013. Yet the team at Seven Barrows had finally had a smooth preparation with the 10-year-old, and must have been hopeful of a more favourable campaign. Yet tragedy was to strike just three fences into his comeback, and another huge equine talent was lost.

Simonsig had to be ‘put-down’ after breaking a leg. It’s hard to imagine the emotional state of Nicky Henderson and his team, after such an afternoon. Simonsig had been victorious at two Cheltenham Festivals, and at one time was thought by many to be heir-apparent to the mighty Sprinter himself.

A mention for Fox Norton who took the Shloer in impressive fashion. Now with the Tizzard’s, he is fast improving, and himself undoubtedly now a live contender for the Champion Chase in March. For Colin Tizzard, dreams of Festival glories remain intact, and one of his most exciting winter campaigns remains a realistic possibility.

For Nicky Henderson, he’ll likely take a moment to reflect over several wonderful seasons for two of his outstanding stable stars. He knows more than most how tragedy and glory are inextricably part of the wonderful sport.

Monday Musings: The High Price of Jumping

Sprinter Sacre has been retired due to a tendon injuryYesterday afternoon, as usual I had no idea which direction this article would be taking, writes Tony Stafford. Switching between channels, it was by chance that I caught Nicky Henderson’s emotional interview with Lydia Hislop on Racing UK in which he revealed that Sprinter Sacre had sustained a tendon injury and had been retired forthwith.

So after a career of 18 wins from 24 starts, more than £1.1 million in prizemoney and a string of improbably authoritative performances, the 10-year-old’s future appearances would be limited to ceremonial parading at racecourses, beginning yesterday.

How awful then was it that just an hour later, Simonsig, his contemporary and for a couple of years, potentially the nearest to him in ability at Seven Barrows, should be dead. His immediate predecessor in the parade for the Shloer Chase, Simonsig got only as far as the third fence where he fell and broke a leg.

There is far too often in jumping the reality of “the king is dead, long live the king”. Unfortunately in many cases, his reign may be of limited duration. Anyone watching the Shloer Chase would have been impressed by the winning effort of Fox Norton, trained by Colin Tizzard. The West Country farmer is the jumps trainer of the moment, with his influx of horses owned by Ann and Alan Potts, as well as recent acquisitions like Fox Norton, a big-money buy out of the Neil Mulholland string.

But having suggested the Tingle Creek Chase as the obvious initial target, Tizzard later revealed his new star had a cut on a leg, but “right on the tendon”, something which will exercise the trainer’s thoughts before any more concrete plans can be laid.

The Potts family’s decision to switch so many horses from Ireland, principally from Henry de Bromhead, and mostly to Tizzard, continues the actions of a number of major owners. Much publicised moves by the even bigger strings of Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud, away from Willie Mullins and generally to Gordon Elliott and a year or so previously, Paul and Clare Rooney from Donald McCain had to produce an effect.

McCain struggled for a while to recover, not least because the amount of investment needed to upgrade his facilities had been considerable. He seems in better form now and started 2016 with more than 100 named horses in his string. Even Mullins, shorn of 60 Gigginstown animals, many among the better ones in his stable, is demonstrably playing catch up with Elliott, who had an amazing 18 runners on the one Naas card yesterday.

Such overwhelming numerical domination can be counter-productive, such as Elliott’s having five of the seven runners in the main race, the Lismullen Hurdle while Mullins had a single candidate, Shaneshill, the favourite. De Plotting Shed did best of the Elliott quintet in second, caught late by Noel Meade’s Snow Falcon, while Shaneshill plodded on for third.

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As with the two Henderson stars, injury always threatens jumpers, often the best of them, as with the recent news that Vautour had been found with a broken leg after being turned out in his paddock after exercising.

One of the best of the Rich Ricci horses over the past three seasons, Vautour had struck a chord with Ruby Walsh who regards him as one of the best he’s ridden. Unlike Mullins, Gigginstown House do not seem to hold any argument with Walsh, who in the absence of the injured pair Bryan Cooper and Jack Kennedy, has been employed selectively, especially on former Mullins inmates.

Another high-profile horse to suffer at least temporary injury over the Cheltenham Open meeting was the Ben Pauling-trained Barters Hill, pulled up after leading to the seventh fence of his chase debut. The six-year-old was unbeaten in seven races (four bumpers, three hurdles) until fading into fourth behind Unowhatimeanharry in the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle last March.

Pauling, a former Nicky Henderson assistant, had a good third season with 26 wins, after nine and then 20, and another nine so far this term suggests the upward trend will continue. He is one of the many trainers to have secured some of the Rooney horses, but will need the likes of Barters Hill to return to help continue the upward trend.

For a while on Sunday, it looked as though Pauling’s A Hare Breath, who landed a spectacular gamble at last year’s Open meeting, was going to do the same again in the Greatwood Hurdle, but he had a little difficulty in getting a run as four came to the last with equal chances.

In the end it was the Skeltons’ North Hill Harvey, confirming once again that Dan can lay one out for a valuable Cheltenham handicap hurdle, who showed the best battling qualities. Skelton’s skyward mobility is even more obvious than Pauling’s, figures of 27, 73 and last season 104 seemingly vulnerable again as he already has 43 on the board this time round.

The most obvious requirement, apart from talent, human and equine, is numbers and as with McCain in his busiest phase, Lodge Hill, near Alcester has been a place of constant renewal. That said, if recent (and indeed historical) results are anything to go by, nobody is going to threaten Paul Nicholls’ supremacy. He won four races yesterday, 12 in the past fortnight and with 69 wins at 32% this term, is running at the best-ever percentage of his amazingly consistent career.

Nicholls is probably the best among leading trainers at bringing horses back successfully after an absence and Aerial at Fontwell made light of a 17-month absence to win the 15-runner Southern National.

Smaller stables are less able, or indeed willing to go the jumping route. One trainer I’ve known for many years, made his living 25 years or so ago principally with jumpers, but now is almost pathologically against running horses over obstacles.

One horse he has at the moment, won a hurdle race for his previous trainer, but despite this, he prefers to keep him to low-grade Flat races, especially now that he has Newcastle all-weather on the doorstep. “I’ve lost so many good horses over the years, some killed outright, but almost all of them get knocked to bits just running over jumps”, he says. “I won’t do it anymore.”

Thankfully, Sprinter Sacre will not be asked to make another wonderful comeback, but sadly Simonsig and his owner Ronnie Bartlett no longer have that option to consider.

Monday Musings: Mullins Minus Mag

Monday musings

By Tony Stafford

Willie Mullins may not have won the main prize last weekend, failing by just over £100,000 to prise away the British trainers’ championship from now 10-time winner Paul Nicholls, but he did end one unhelpful statistic on the way to that ultimate and - unusual for him - disappointment.

From April 5 2005 when the Ruby Walsh-ridden Hedgehunter won the Grand National for Mullins and owner Trevor Hemmings, until last Friday at Perth, a track that had never previously been on the trainer’s agenda, he’d had 95 runners in handicap chases over here without a winner.

Step up Rolly Baby, an 11-year-old veteran of six seasons’ action but still a novice over fences after a total of eight races. Faced by three opponents, Rolly Baby won easily. Just as well he did as the two Mullins candidates for the following day’s Bet 365 Gold Cup (still the Whitbread for most old stagers) at Sandown were never at the races and a round ton would have been in the offing come next season.

The failure of unplaced Measureofmydreams and pulled up Sir Des Champs to add to the Mullins stable haul in that big race, where Nicholls collected the best part of 40k for second and fourth with short-head vanquished Just a Par and Southfield Theatre, was the final turning point in an epic struggle.

That prompted a final controversial act from Ireland’s finest – withdrawing Vroum Vroum Mag from what looked a penalty kick in the £28,000 Select Hurdle, allowing Nicholls to collect with P’tit Zig.

The stewards took umbrage, fining the trainer £1,000 for disregarding the interests of racegoers and punters almost certainly because of the lateness of the scratching, nine minutes before the advertised off time.

Mullins was reportedly angered at the sanction, but with a full crowd his action was tantamount to the richest boy in the park taking the (his) ball home because things haven’t gone to his liking.

It wouldn’t have stuck quite so sharply into the craw of those racegoers and punters but for the fact that Ascot and Cheltenham winner Vroum Vroum Mag, unbeaten in nine starts, six over fences and the last three hurdles for Mullins, had not been the second major attraction on the card after Sprinter Sacre.

He’d already done the business, as had champion (at the time –elect) Richard Johnson on Menorah, in their case for the third year in a row in the two-mile chase.

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In the lead up to Cheltenham, nobody was more visible in his slightly silly suits and indefinable mid-Atlantic accent than Rich Ricci, husband of nominal owner Susannah. With 48 of the best of Mullins’ 231 listed in Horses in Training, the Ricci’s made their money from banking and now live in the Cotswolds.

It was seemingly rare for a Cheltenham Preview evening – apart of course from the Monday night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club – not to be graced by Ricci, and no doubt where he stated his belief that jump racing is a much more sporting environment than its money-grabbing relation on the Flat.

So in that context it is hard to sympathise with Mullins’ assertion that part of the reason Vroum Vroum Mag was withdrawn was the option of Punchestown, with one possible opportunity each day from Wednesday to Saturday.

Three of those races, the Gold Cup Chase (wed), Champion Stayers’ Hurdle (thurs) and Champion Hurdle (fri) are worth €118,000 to the winner against the £28k ‘real money’ at Sandown. Saturday’s Mares Champion Hurdle is worth half the sum of the first three at just short of €60k.

But such is Mullins’, and to an extent Ricci’s, along with Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House – for the first time UK Champion owners - dominance, that “Mag” is merely one of six of twelve for her trainer on Wednesday. Mullins has six of twenty in Thursday’s race, five of thirteen in the Champion Hurdle and ten (!) of 21 in the Mares race. I reckon he might have been able to cope without her.

It would have been more satisfactory and easier for the stewards and the celebratory crowd that kept the atmosphere going all day at Sandown, if a little more emphasis had been made of the mare’s preference for easy going before the meeting. She’s never run for Mullins in any of her nine races since November 2014 on anything faster than good to soft.

But to delay the announcement until the punters were already swarming towards the pre-parade ring was guaranteed to take away a decent chunk of the goodwill and admiration connections built up during a wonderful winter season.

In the event it was all down to a couple of high-profile falls at the major festivals of Cheltenham and Aintree and the post-Aintree organisation and astonishing April form of the Nicholls brigade that prevented Mullins from being the first Irish trainer since Vincent O’Brien in his pre-Flat race days to win the trophy.

With little sign of diminution of dominance in Ireland, and the ability to produce raw and largely unsuspected talent such as 41-length Aintree Grade 1 juvenile winner Apple’s Jade, Mullins would probably be favourite to win next season unless the umbrage factor simmers for more than the few quiet months before autumn.

The problem with days like Saturday is that when you are caught up in the excitement of horses like Menorah, Sprinter Sacre and the like – great that Nicky saw fit to mention the absent Corky Brown (another knee operation) - you can miss what’s going on elsewhere.

So it was not until I got home that I saw Home of the Brave had sloshed in for Hugo Palmer at Leicester and much later that the stable earlier brought out a likely Ascot juvenile contender in Hyperfocus, five-length winner of the novice median auction.

Hyperfocus was bought at the Tatts Ireland sale by Amanda Skiffington, one of the best known and most respected talent spotters at the sales. She got the nod at €55,000, so considerably less than the 220,000gns it cost her to buy dual Guineas third Ivawood, now a first-season Coolmore stallion along with his conqueror Gleneagles.

Ivawood was the cause of one of the funniest moments of 2015 when Matt Chapman was desperate, in the true sense of that over-used word, to talk to someone about the horse. Richard Hannon had already moved away to confer with his jockey and the owners were less than keen, so it was left to Ms Skiffington to field the intrepid reporter’s questions.

“What’s your name?” said Matt. “Amanda,” said Amanda, who agreed with Chapman, who still had no clue who she was, that they hoped the horse would run well. Reporting of the highest order!

Hugo Palmer has 90 two-year-olds this year and I’ll be going up with the boss, Ray Tooth, and Steve Gilbey tomorrow morning to Newmarket to monitor the progress of two of them, a home-bred half-sister to Harry Champion called Jean Harlow, and a Delegator filly named Betty Grable – Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t come out to play!

Hugo’s ease of communication matches the skill level of his training so it is perhaps hard to believe he’s yet to make a career total of 100 wins. Last season’s 34 was his best so far, but Classic winner Covert Love and talented three-year-olds Galileo Gold and Gifted Master are evidence enough that his expanded string will leave that figure miles behind.

Nicholls Crowned King After Thrilling Finale

In the end it was a case of ‘so near and yet so far’ for Willie Mullins, as Paul Nicholls maintained his stranglehold on the UK Trainers’ Championship.

The writing was on the wall when Mullins hit the runners-up spot in the opening two races; Voix Du Reve unable to peg back Wolf Of Windlesham in the juvenile event and then Menorah rolling back the years with yet another success in the Oaksey Chase, beating off Valseur Lido in the process.

The win for Menorah gave Richard Johnson a thrilling success on a day when he was crowned Champion Jockey. How fitting that the victory should come on the Philip Hobbs trained star, owned by Diana and Graham Whateley. Many of Johnson’s greatest moments in the saddle have come when carrying those familiar silks. Menorah at the age of 11, continues to shine with conditions to suit. He was winning the Oaksey Chase for the third year on the spin. Valseur Lido probably found the ground a little lively, and getting in close at the last did him no favours.

When Un De Sceaux found Sprinter Sacre far too hot to handle in the Celebration Chase, Mullins’ title challenge was all but over. Henderson’s superstar was simply stunning, and though he’s not quite the Sprinter of old, he’s still head and shoulders above all other two mile chasers. His 15 length romp was aided by a horrible error at the third last from his main challenger, yet the result was looking a formality, even at that stage of the proceedings.

Nicholls will have been pleased with the improved performance of Dodging Bullets. He was badly outpaced for much of the race, but warmed to the task, and stayed on strongly to take third.

When The Young Master took the Bet365 Gold Cup Chase, with Nicholls’ pair second and fourth, the championship race was over, and Nicholls could celebrate his tenth title. He was almost crowned in style with Just A Par getting within a short-head of repeating his success of 2015.

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With the rare taste of defeat still fresh on the palate, Willie Mullins decided to take Vroum Vroum home, and caused something of a rumpus in the process. The mare will undoubtedly now appear at Punchestown, but for those hoping to see her mixing it with the boys, it was somewhat disappointing.

Nevertheless, the incident could in no way take the gloss off a terrific Jump racing finale. Nicholls was understandably thrilled with the outcome: “I'm hopeful it has been really good for racing. We have all got stuck in, worked hard and got some great results. I thought I had no chance after Aintree to be honest. Vicente (Scottish Grand National) was a big day last week and all the horses have been going really well, just when you think it is over.”

Of his relationship with Mullins the Champion trainer said: “Some in the media say there is animosity between us, but that is absolute tripe. This has been the hardest one to win, because we have only had a couple of Grade One winners. We haven't had those top horses, but we won nearly £2.5million in prize-money and you just have to keep maximising what you've got. I've been very lucky to have those horses in the past. But when you have to dig in deep and do different things, it is a lot harder, so it probably is a lot sweeter. It is a fantastic day.”

Mullins was magnanimous in defeat, saying: “Of course, this makes me more determined to win the title next year. I'm honoured to be in the position I am today. I thank all my owners and team for putting me in this position. They all to a man said ‘Willie, take whatever horse you need to Sandown', even though they would be missing good prize-money at Punchestown. I think that is fantastic. I didn't expect it and didn't ask them. That was the feeling of my owners and I have to thank them for their generosity.”

Of next year’s challenge Mullins added: “Paul has had a fantastic team this year without Grade One stars and if we can keep our Grade One stars and perform at Cheltenham like we have been the last few years, then it's on. But otherwise, unless you win the National or something, it is difficult. They all have to stay sound and get into next season. But I would dearly love to come back to Sandown next season with...hopefully a better chance.”

He added: “Our rivalry starts when the point-to-pointers are first into the winner's enclosure or who is first over to France to buy one. It starts well before we get to the racecourse. It was amazing that Ruby Walsh worked for both of us over the years and I think that shows the respect we both have for each other. We have never had a cross word.”

And that title race will no doubt start immediately, with bloodstock agents hot on the trail of potential stars. In roughly six months, we’ll gather again to witness which team were successful in finding those hidden treasures, thereby enabling the winter’s push toward the trainers’ title.

The Showdown at Sandown

Let battle commence! At Sandown on Saturday the Jump Racing King of Ireland takes on his counterpart in the UK for the title of Champion Trainer.

It’s surely pure greed on the part of Willie Mullins, but for Paul Nicholls a great deal of pride is at stake. For much of the winter Ditcheat have failed to spark as in previous campaigns and that hint of vulnerability has proved too much of a temptation for the master of Closutton. Cheltenham and Aintree appeared to have settled matters in favour of Mullins, but an incredible response at Ayr has placed Nicholls in pole position.

Nevertheless, Ireland’s champion trainer appears determined to become the first Irishman since Vincent O’Brien to take the UK crown and is set to send a powerful team to Sandown to seal the deal. He’ll have to turn around a deficit in the region of £50,000 if he is to come out on top. The season finale is always a popular meeting but clearly Saturday’s will be one of the most thrilling in recent memory.

Hostilities begin with the Bet365 Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. There’s just over £30,000 on offer to the winner and Mullins has a sole entry, relying on his French import Voix Du Reve. Owned by the Wylies, he looked an unfortunate loser at Cheltenham when coming down at the last in the Fred Winter with the race at his mercy. He’d scythed his way through the field on that occasion, and looked a class act. He has to carry top weight, but was coping admirably at Cheltenham with 11st 7lbs until his slip-up.

Nicholls has three entered in the opener, though Zubayr ran just a few days ago at Wincanton and Frodon ran at both Cheltenham and Aintree. It’s therefore likely that he will rely on Tommy Silver, who was last seen finishing seventh in the Triumph Hurdle. Yet another from France, he was outpaced at Cheltenham before staying on stoutly up the hill. The drying ground at Sandown will probably not suit and though he gets 6lbs from Mullins’ runner, it probably won’t be enough. This is by no means a two horse race, but of the duo scrapping over the title, you’d have to say advantage Mullins.

Up next is the Bet365 Oaksey Chase with £28,475 to the winner. The race distance of just under 2m7f looks set to favour Mullins’ entrants over those from Ditcheat. Nicholls could run Dodging Bullets, though his previous effort at more than two miles over fences came in the Manifesto Novices’ at Aintree in 2014, when he clearly failed to see out the 2m4f trip. He’s not looked the same horse since coming back from injury, and was hammered at Cheltenham in the Champion Chase.

Ditcheat also have Saphir Du Rheu entered for this, but he flopped in the World Hurdle and was then miles behind Cue Card at Aintree, though he ran a fair race till fading late on. It’s hard to imagine him winning this off the back of such a poor season.

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Again Mullins appears to hold the stronger hand. Vautour, Valseur Lido or Vroum Vroum would all be better suited by this trip, and all look more than capable of landing the prize. This has the look of a Mullins banker.

The valuable Celebration Chase is up next with a massive £71,000 for the winner. The aforementioned Dodging Bullets could line-up in this, though as mentioned, he would need a dramatic return to form to be competitive. It’s far more likely that the finish will be contested by Sire De Grugy, Sprinter Sacre and Un De Sceaux. The latter is sure to go close, and Nicholls must hope that the pair of old warriors put their best foot forward to deny Mullins a crucial victory.

The most valuable race on the card is the Bet365 Gold Cup Chase, with £84,405 to the victor. This race looks a lot more promising for Nicholls, with the race favourite Southfield Theatre and last year’s winner Just A Par his main hopes. The former is undoubtedly his best chance and his novice chase form would give hope of a strong performance. However, his price at the head of the market owes more to his trainer’s record in the race, than his own performances on the track this winter. Nicholls is a master at producing horses to win this type of event, and he’ll need to be with this fella.

Mullins has a few players in this, with Measureofmydreams, Pleasant Company and Sir Des Champs all likely to run. The latter may struggle to see out this trip though he’ll enjoy the sounder surface. Measureofmydreams only made it to the third at Ayr last weekend and will need to overcome his lack of experience to play a part. He’s certainly talented enough to run a huge race.

Chasing experience is also a huge negative for Pleasant Company, though better ground and the marathon trip may well suit. His owner won this race with Hennessy back in 2009, and of the Mullins runners this fella could prove the surprise package. Theatre Guide could go close for the all-conquering Tizzards, whilst Neil Mulholland holds a strong hand.

The Bet365 Select Hurdle is up next with both Mullins and Nicholls holding multiple entries. With another £28,000 on offer, both will be hoping they have the ammunition to go close. Vroum Vroum could take some beating if she heads here, though Ptit Zig is an intriguing entry for the Champion Trainer. He was last seen chasing home Thistlecrack in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, and both track and trip ought to suit. The New One, Court Minstrel and Diamond King are also capable of going close.

The final two events are less valuable, yet the combined prize money of almost £40,000 could still prove crucial. The Bet365 Josh Gifford Novices’ Handicap Chase is run over a trip of two and a half miles. Mullins goes with the 11-year-old Rolly Baby, who won last time at Navan. He’s only run twice over fences and is hard to fancy for this.

Nicholls has plenty entered, with arguably Calipto and As De Mee the classiest. The latter is yet to win over fences, but has run some crackers behind decent types. Kerry Lee could well scupper both, with her classy chaser Kylemore Lough. He’ll need to lump top weight around the testing track, but he’s been a revelation this spring, and may be good enough to do it.

The final race is a handicap hurdle that looks impossible to call. Mullins and Nicholls will have plenty of entrants, though the title will probably have been won by this stage.

Nicholls heads to Sandown with a decent advantage, but there’s little doubt that Mullins holds the aces and has the firepower to turn things around. Though Nicholls will of course hope to win the valuable Bet365 Gold Cup, it could be the Celebration Chase that proves key to the outcome of the trainer’s championship. The master of Ditcheat could well find himself stood alongside Nicky Henderson, cheering home one of the greatest chasers Sprinter Sacre. Now that would be a picture worth capturing.

Nicholls Fightback sets up Sandown Spectacular

Just when all hope seemed lost; after that man from Ireland had popped over and stole all the goodies, Paul Nicholls rose from the canvas and landed several haymakers of his own.

The major blow that could yet land the title for Team Ditcheat, was the dramatic success of Vicente in the Coral Scottish Grand National. The seven-year-old had run consistently well throughout the winter and was probably a little unfortunate to only finish fifth in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham when meeting interference at a crucial stage. On Saturday he travelled powerfully throughout, and though he has a habit of getting in close at some of his fences, he was able to mow down Seeyouatmidnight after the last, with the fast finishing Alvarado getting up on the line for second place.

The victory brought a much needed £119,595 first prize, and proved part of a stunning four-timer for the nine times champion trainer. Le Mercurey was another impressive winner, out-gunning Bristol De Mai in a cracking two and half mile Champion Novices’ Chase. The trip proved ideal for the six-year-old, and he was given an aggressive ride by Sam Twiston-Davies, serving it up to the favourite from some way out. He’s yet to prove himself at Cheltenham, but looks the ideal sort for the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November.

Nicholls was clearly thrilled with the day’s work, and said after: “We've laid Vicente out for this all season. I gave him a prep run in the four-miler where he lost his chance when a loose horse fell in front of him, but he learnt a lot from that, it was good experience in a big field.” He went on: “I told Sam to drop his iron a couple of holes as he is a horse who has his own way of jumping and has a light mouth. Sam gave him a peach of a ride.”

Nicholls followed a sensational Saturday at Ayr with another four-timer at Wincanton on Sunday. The prize money will have had little bearing on the championship outcome, but momentum appears to be with the reigning champ, as both he and Willie Mullins now try and mastermind the ‘coup des grace’ at Sandown next Saturday, when the National Hunt season draws to its thrilling conclusion.

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With a tenth trainers' title now within touching distance Nicholls added: “I think that put us in front so next Saturday is going to be a big day. We'll have plenty of runners and Southfield Theatre will be our representative in the big race. I'm not going to Perth but we'll have runners all week. There's good prize-money during the week, but at the end of the day it is the big races at Sandown at the weekend that are going to make the difference.

The showdown at Sandown is a fitting finale to another terrific winter of Jump racing action. Mullins is expected to send Un De Sceaux across the Irish Sea to challenge his Champion Chase conqueror Sprinter Sacre. The Grade 1 Celebration Chase carries a top prize of just over £70,000, and that could prove crucial when the pounds are totted up. The Irish Champion Trainer is looking to become the first from Ireland to take the trainers' crown in Britain since Vincent O'Brien 62 years ago.

Vroum Vroum Mag is likely to run in the bet365 Select Hurdle, whilst Valseur Lido or maybe Vautour could arrive on the boat in an attempt to lift the Grade 2 Oaksey Chase, a race that Nicholls has targeted for ex-Champion Chase winner Dodging Bullets.

Mullins will look closely at the bet365 Gold Cup, a race that Nicholls has won twice in the last four years. The Closutton trainer could risk Gigginstown’s Measureofmydreams, who was well fancied for the Scottish National at Ayr, but came down at the third. There’s also the chance of a more experienced chaser or two lining up, with Boston Bob, Sir Des Champs and On His Own all possible contenders.

I’d also expect to see a group of Mullins juveniles arrive for the opener next Saturday. He filled three of the top four spots in the Triumph at Cheltenham, with three from the Nicholls yard in the top 10. A splash of entrants from both camps would make for a spicy starter to proceedings.

Though the Trainers’ title remains in the balance, the Jockeys’ crown has been a done deal for some time. Richard Johnson has stepped into AP’s shoes in a very similar fashion, relentless in his pursuit of a first title. No-one could be more deserving, and it would come as no surprise if AP were to be entrusted with handing over the winners’ trophy.

Cue Card – Truly Exceptional

With the Grand National being covered extensively by the boss, I decided in today’s piece to turn my attention to the exceptional talent that is Cue Card.

His performance in the Betfred Bowl Chase was truly stunning, and at the age of 10 he has become one of the most popular horses in training. The Willie Mullins pair of Djakadam and Don Poli did their utmost to run the sting out of Tizzard’s star, but Paddy Brennan had all angles covered and when he asked Cue Card to turn on the turbo’ at the third last, the response was devastating. He swept clear to win by nine lengths, with Don Poli battling on for second.

The Gold Cup is the ultimate test for a top-class staying chaser, and trainer Colin Tizzard will know that he had his horse ready to win at Cheltenham. However, it wasn’t to be on this occasion and his relief at some form of redemption was clear when he said: “I have been saying all season he is in the form of his life and he showed it again today. He has got such an engine on him now, there is no bottom to him. This was fantastic. It was so disappointing at Cheltenham and I am just proud of the horse. It is a brilliant day.”

Tizzard also confirmed that his horse would now head to Punchestown, making a mouth-watering clash with Don Cossack a realistic proposition. “The real big one escaped us this year, but that just shows what a horse he is at the moment,” added the trainer. “He is 10 now and is better than he has ever been. He will go to Punchestown. I entered him yesterday, it was always going to be on the cards. He hasn't had a hard race; he is 10 so there is no reason not to go there.”

It’s clear that whilst Cue Card is in rude health his trainer is keen to allow him to run. There’s been periods during his career when that was simply not possible. Breathing issues, pulled muscles and a stress fracture of his pelvis, are just some of the ailments that have laid him low over the years. However, when on the track, fit and well, he has proven to be an outstanding racehorse.

He exploded onto the scene as a four-year-old in 2010 when romping to victory in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. He was sent off a 40/1 outsider and had Al Ferof eight lengths back in second. That stunning success ensured that he entered his first season over hurdles as one of the leading novices, with many anticipating a bold show in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle back at the Cheltenham Festival. He was duly installed as race favourite, but in a stellar renewal could only manage fourth behind Al Ferof, Spirit Son and Sprinter Sacre.

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He was campaigned over the minimum trip for much of his novice chase year, culminating in a second place finish in the Arkle behind the exceptional Sprinter Sacre. He finished seven lengths adrift that day, a performance that can now be reflected upon with great pride.

The 2012-13 campaign saw him step-up in trip, after initially winning the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter. Still only a six-year-old, he was sent to Kempton to contest the King George, but failed to spark under ‘hold-up’ tactics in testing ground. He bounced back to form in the Ascot Chase when thrashing Captain Chris; a horse that had finished well ahead of him in the King George just a month or so earlier.

The Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham became the logical target after such an impressive win over 2m5f at Ascot, and that decision was justified when Cue Card ran out an impressive winner by a yawning nine lengths. That victory set up a clash with Sprinter Sacre at Aintree in the Grade 1 Melling Chase, a race that will live long in the memory, and a race that he probably failed to get due recognition, as it was probably one of his greatest performances.

It was Sprinter Sacre that received the accolades for his stunning victory at Aintree, in a truly dazzling display, yet for Cue Card to get within five lengths that day is testament to just how exceptional he is. The two pulled 20 lengths clear of Flemenstar and Finian’s Rainbow. It was an outstanding display by both horses.

The following winter saw him campaigned as a staying chaser. He took the Betfair Chase at Haydock, running away from Dynaste and Silviniaco Conti, giving hope that another crack at the King George would prove successful. Kempton’s showpiece looked sure to go his way until he appeared to run out of gas late on, with Silviniaco profiting.

A spell on the side-lines prevented him from running at Cheltenham in 2014 and when he returned for the 2014/15 season he looked a shadow of his former self. Tizzard discovered the reason for the loss of form when the horse was found to have a trapped epiglottis. The successful operation has allowed the horse to see out the extended trips and has resulted in a truly incredible winter for both horse and trainer.

Victory in the Charlie Hall Chase was followed by success at Haydock in the Betfair and then, rather ironically, a last gasp victory in a thrilling King George. No-one knows what would have happened at Cheltenham had he stood up, but one thing we do know is that Cue Card is now undoubtedly an outstanding staying chaser.

He’s always been a terrific racehorse, but for much of his career failed to get the credit he probably deserved. During this winter he has been physically able to give his best, and that best has proved to be something very special indeed.

Mullins v Moore – A Clarence House Duel

The last three winners of the Clarence House Chase at Ascot have all gone on to take the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in the same year.

The event was first run as a handicap in 1989 when known as the Victor Chandler, and was won by the exceptional Desert Orchid. The race moved from handicap to a conditions race in 2007 and was awarded Grade 1 status. In its short yet illustrious history it has regularly attracted the best two mile chasers, and one of the most thrilling renewals came when still a handicap back in 2004.

The Arkle Chase winner Azertyuiop had to give an enormous 19lbs to Nicky Henderson’s talented chaser Isio. In a pulsating finish, the two battled head to head from the second-last fence with Henderson’s eight-year-old a neck to the good at the line. Nicholls’ classy chaser went one better at Cheltenham less than two months later when taking the Champion Chase.

The race has certainly favoured young improving chasers, with the last eight victories going to those aged eight and under. It’s no surprise then that the event has often gone to those who have performed well in the Arkle as a novice. Somersby came second in the Arkle Chase of 2010 and filled the same spot in this Ascot feature behind Master Minded in 2011. He went one better when winning the Clarence House in 2012 as an eight-year-old.

Master Minded was winning the race for the second time in 2011 having already been successful at the age of six in 2009. The exceptional two mile chaser had already won a Champion Chase by then.

Another outstanding Arkle winner took the race in 2013. Sprinter Sacre romped to victory in the Clarence House, a renewal re-routed to Cheltenham, before going on to victory in the Champion Chase. And in 2014 a fast improving Sire De Grugy took the race in testing conditions before backing up that win in the big one at Cheltenham.

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Last year it was another rapidly improving young chaser that took the event at Ascot. Though Dodging Bullets had only managed fourth in the Arkle Chase as a novice, he had shown vast improvement to take the Tingle Creek, before winning this on route to victory in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham.

That brief synopsis highlights the exceptional record of improving young chasers in Saturday’s Clarence House Chase. Often Arkle winners, the race regularly goes to progressive unexposed chasers.

When looking at Saturday’s renewal, it’s impossible to ignore the one outstanding candidate for the race and understandably the short-priced favourite. Un De Sceaux, assuming he takes up the entry, arrives as last season’s Arkle winner and is yet to be defeated in any race under rules when successfully reaching the finishing line with a jockey still on-board.

There’s plenty out there that are crabbing his form and point to his jumping frailties, again evident when hitting the deck last time at Leopardstown. Nevertheless, he is the outstanding racehorse in the field; is relatively unexposed over fences; and an improving eight-year-old with that all-important Arkle victory on his CV.

Of course all the above does not guarantee victory for the all-conquering Willie Mullins. In opposition is a former winner of the race and the Champion Chaser of 2014; Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy. He looks to be back to something near his best, indeed his trainer believes the 10-year-old is working as good as ever. One trend in his favour is the record of Tingle Creek winners who follow up with success in this. Six of the last seven that took the Sandown feature came here and won. The only one that didn’t was Sizing Europe, when he swerved Ascot in 2012.

Vibrato Valtat is also worth a mention. He is also an improving young chaser, though the limitations of his ability have been exposed in his last two races when third in both the Tingle Creek and the Desert Orchid. Should the top two fluff their lines, he is best placed to prosper.

In reality it has the look of a straight forward duel between the top two in the market. If Ruby can steer Un De Sceaux round without mishap, he’ll surely take some catching. However, in Sire De Grugy we have a top-class chaser more than capable of taking full advantage given the opportunity.

It should prove a thriller.

Cooper and Walsh go Head to Head

Mr Mullins looks to have the Irish Trainers Championship all sewn up, though Gordon Elliott is doing his utmost to make a competition of it.

The jockeys’ title however, looks set to be a much closer encounter. It goes without saying, (though I will) that Ruby appears to hold many of the aces, and a strike rate of 29% puts him on top of the table at Christmas. However, in the red corner; well more maroon than red, is Bryan Cooper, first choice jockey for the mighty Gigginstown House Stud.

The meeting at Leopardstown over the Christmas period showed just how close this title race could prove to be. Both missed day one due to rather important rides at Kempton. However, day two saw Walsh strike with the Ricci owned Long Dog with Cooper less than a length behind aboard Gigginstown’s Tombstone. Ruby ought to have made it a double on the card, but Un De Sceaux fluffed his lines in the Grade 1 Paddy Power Chase.

A day later Cooper had a number of tasty rides, though chose the wrong one in the Christmas Hurdle when runner up to the impressive Prince Of Scars, before getting on the right horse to win the Lexus with Don Poli. And on the final day of the meeting, Cooper booted home No More Heroes, whilst Ruby had to work hard to get Nichols Canyon home in front, with Cooper just behind on Identity Thief.

It’s no surprise to see the two dominating Irish racing. Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown outfit are renowned for assembling a powerful team of jumpers, especially the type likely to impress over fences. Whilst Ruby, as number one for Willie Mullins, has a wealth of talent at his disposal including some of the best in the business owned by Rich Ricci.

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Walsh took the title last year with Cooper some way back in fifth. But with just half a dozen or so winners between them at this stage of the season, we are set for an exciting tussle during the ensuing months. Cooper is settling in nicely to the role as Gigginstown number one. Still only a relative youngster at 23, many were shocked when he was thrust into the role, displacing the duel Champion jockey Davy Russell in the process.

The son of trainer Tom Cooper, Bryan started off riding for his father and spending school holidays working with Dessie Hughes and his team. His first win came at Clonmel in 2009 aboard Rossdara, trained by his father. He took the conditional championship in the 2010/11 season. He gained his first Grade 1 victory during the following campaign when Benefficient won the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown.

The breakthrough really came at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2013 when he rode three winners, including the exceptional juvenile Our Conor. Like many jockeys, injury has played a part in recent times, but an uninterrupted spell is making for his most successful winter to date.

Nothing could be more thrilling for many a racing fan than the sight of Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy going head to head during their terrific battle over Christmas. But watching Walsh and Cooper fight it out aboard Nichols Canyon and Identity Thief was no less exciting. These two are masters of their trade. Both stylish in the saddle, with a great sense of pace, and then capable of beautiful balance during a driving finish.

Today at Punchestown the feature Grade 2 Dorans Pride Novice Hurdle pits Nambour for Gigginstown and Cooper against Up For Review for the Wylies and Walsh. It’s a typically exciting encounter sure to be seen again and again throughout the winter.

These enthralling head to heads will play a huge part in deciding the jockeys’ title. Ruby is as good as they get, but Bryan is undoubtedly gaining fast.

Cue Kempton Celebrations

Cue Card chasing down Vautour

Cue Card chasing down Vautour

It was everything we’d hoped for, and more. In a thrilling William Hill King George VI Chase, the ‘Young Pretender’ did everything right, but was unable to fend off the ‘Comeback King’ in a thrilling finish.

Vautour had soared to the front with virtually a full circuit still remaining. Those in opposition were unable to lead the exuberant chaser, and Ruby Walsh decided to gallop and jump the field to sleep. Often leaping slightly to his left, the habit appeared to be having little effect on the outcome, as turning for home Vautour had every other horse in serious trouble. For a moment it looked likely that he would stretch clear, with Ruby remaining motionless on top.

At the third last it was left to Cue Card and race favourite Don Cossack to take up the chase. Both were under severe driving, yet appeared to be closing on the imperious leader. Bryan Cooper met the second last a little long, and ‘The Don’ paid the price, crumpling on landing and leaving Cue Card alone in his attempt to catch Ruby’s mount.

At the last little more than a length separated the pair. Both got in close and momentum appeared to shift the way of Mullins’ youngster. However, Tizzard’s wonderful chaser found more as the line approached. In one final lung-busting burst he claimed the narrowest of victories.

The ability to settle better in his races along with the vital tinkering of the airway, make this upgraded version of Cue Card one hell of a tough nut to crack. Assuming he stays sound after such a torturous encounter, he will surely head for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham with every chance of winning the £1 million Jockey Club Racecourses bonus.
“He looks like a Gold Cup horse now“, said Tizzard after the momentous victory. He added: “This win is for the horse. He’s been the mainstay of our yard. He was at his brilliant best today. It was a real hot race, and to win is brilliant. Cue Card has been around for a long time, and he means everything to me and a lot of other people.”

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Of Vautour, Mullins would not be pressed into any hasty decisions. To many onlookers it appeared that his stamina ran out at the death. However, he travelled like the best horse throughout, and on a sounder surface would surely have won with something in hand. Connections also have Djakadam among their ranks, and this may prove decisive when Festival targets are finally decided upon.

Don Cossack rose from his second last fence tumble, apparently none the worse. He lacks the tactical speed of a Vautour, and that can cause him to be trapped in and amongst horses at this level. Bryan Cooper had been hard at work to get him into a challenging position, and the relentless speed of the King George certainly didn’t play to his strengths, although to his credit he still had every chance when coming down.

The Gold Cup should prove more suitable, though his habit of hitting a few fences when pressure is applied will always leave him with plenty to do. He’s a hugely talented horse, but I’m left with the feeling that everything would have to fall perfectly into place; with gaps appearing at exactly the right moment, if he were to win the big one in March.

But for now all plaudits go to Colin Tizzard and his wonderful Cue Card. To capture the Charlie Hall, the Betfair Chase and then the King George in such a short period is quite an incredible achievement.

And as if that wasn’t enough for the Jump racing sentimentalists, yesterday Sprinter Sacre continued his rehabilitation with a blend of style and guts to take the Desert Orchid Chase. He defeated another former Champion when getting the better of a thrilling duel with Sire De Grugy. Meeting the final fence on a perfect stride, he jumped to the front and held off Gary Moore’s popular chaser.

Unlike Cue Card, Henderson’s hero appears some way short of his imperious best. Yet to have him back winning these top class two mile chases remains a privilege. “I got the feeling two miles around here is sharp enough for him,” said winning trainer Nicky Henderson. “I thought the other horse was getting the best of things but he came back and fought. He is just as good fresh as he is very fit so I would be maybe leaning not to run again before Cheltenham.”

Even those that argue that Jump racing is too Cheltenham focused would surely agree that the last few days at Kempton have proved truly memorable. The King George meeting promised to be one of the best for many a year and it didn’t disappoint.

A winter when a punter can allow the heart to rule the head continues to prove fruitful. This season more than many I can remember is proving to be truly heart-warming. Messrs Tizzard and Henderson would surely agree.

A Seven Barrows Sensation – Memories of Kempton 2011

Binocular and Rock On Ruby in a Thriller

Binocular and Rock On Ruby in a Thriller

The year had started with England retaining the Ashes down under. On the Flat, Frankel had stormed to victory in the Sussex Stakes at Glorious Goodwood. A young boxer named Anthony Joshua had announced himself as a kid with a bright future when winning a silver medal in the World Amateur Championships. And Novak Djokovic lifted the US Open crown at Flushing Meadows. Some things never change.

It had been a hell of a year in sport when the winter of 2011 arrived. And during the King George meeting at Kempton unparalleled success went the way of one of the major forces in Jump racing. Nicky Henderson had a stack of quality horses at his disposal, and the master of Seven Barrows gobbled up a host of major prizes.

The Christmas Hurdle has often proved to be a thriller, and this one was no exception. The Champion hurdler of 2010, Binocular, managed to see off the future Champion Rock On Ruby in rip-roaring finish.

The ever gutsy Overturn had set off like a scolded cat, and turning for home had the two leading protagonists attacking on either flank. With AP driving for all his worth on Henderson’s champ, and Ruby Walsh aboard the future King, the pair approached the last locked in battle. In a pulsating finish it was Binocular that found a little more to claim victory.

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Just half an hour earlier Bobs Worth had found both Grands Crus and Silviniaco Conti a little too nifty for him in the Feltham Novices’ Chase. The winner failed to build on the stunning success, whilst Silviniaco fell in love with the course. Bobs Worth was to find Cheltenham more to his liking when a few months later he took the RSA Chase. A year on and he was to have his finest hour, when successful in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Henderson had a double on the day with novice hurdler Tetlami adding to the Binocular win. One that just got away was the King George itself, when the reigning Gold Cup winner Long Run failed to change the course of history. Kauto Star’s date with destiny and an incredible fifth success in the race prevented Long Run from making it back to back victories. One of the all-time greats was in the twilight of his career, yet just 24 hours later a new superstar would announce his arrival.

The following day Henderson was not to be denied when a stunning treble included wins for Finian’s Rainbow and rather fittingly the mighty Sprinter Sacre. The former took a cracking Desert Orchid Chase, getting the better of Wishfull Thinking in the shadow of the post. In March he was to win a dramatic Champion Chase at The Festival.

For Sprinter Sacre, things were just a little more straightforward. Only three went to post in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase, with Peddlers Cross the odds on favourite. However, the former Champion Hurdle runner-up failed to land a blow, with Henderson’s gorgeous chaser simply scintillating. Occasionally looks are not deceiving. Sprinter Sacre had all the physical attributes necessary to become one of the great chasers. And so it proved.

The Seven Barrows handler has a terrific record with his young chasers in the Wayward Lad at Christmas. He’s turned out seven winners since 2000, including Simonsig in 2012. He relies on Vaniteux this time round, the horse having already won at the track on his chasing debut. He was mightily impressive that day, and many, me included, will be hoping to see another exciting performance on Sunday.

It could prove a thrilling day for Henderson, with Sprinter Sacre set to run in the Desert Orchid just half an hour later. The nine-year-old may well clash with Gary Moore’s former Champion Sire De Grugy. The former looked something like his old self when sauntering to victory in the Schloer Chase at Cheltenham, whilst Moore’s fella brought the house down with his success in the Tingle Creek.

Kempton 2011 proved momentous for Henderson and his team. But he’ll be more than ‘ho ho hopeful’ that this Christmas can deliver a Santa sack full of success.