Posts

Thyme Hill denies Roksana in thrilling Stayers Hurdle

Thyme Hill made up for missing Cheltenham with a gutsy victory in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree.

A minor injury ruled the seven-year-old out of the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Festival, but he was brought back to fitness in time by his trainer Philip Hobbs.

There was also a change of jockey, with Tom O’Brien getting his chance after Richard Johnson’s recent retirement, having last ridden Thyme Hill to victory on his debut in a bumper at Worcester in October 2018.

O’Brien rode a copybook race, sitting in the main pack as Vinndication and Emitom set up a big early lead. The former was well clear at one stage, but he could not keep up the gallop.

The race changed complexion in the straight and it soon became a duel between Roksana and Thyme Hill.

The former held a narrow lead, but she was worn down in the closing stages by a determined Thyme Hill (5-2 favourite), who got the verdict by a neck. Thomas Darby was third, four and a quarter lengths away.

Paisley Park was a big disappointment, Emma Lavelle’s nine-year-old being pulled up before the third-last flight without posing a threat.

Thyme Hill (left) does battle with Roksana (blue cap, right)
Thyme Hill (left) does battle with Roksana (blue cap, right) (Tim Goode/PA)

Hobbs said: “I should think he’s finished for the season, but the entries closed this week for the stayers’ hurdle in Punchestown. We didn’t enter. It was 1200 euros. We thought why waste that when it’s likely he’s not going to run.

“If he is going to go anywhere he’ll go for the Champion Hurdle in Auteuil at the end of May, which is worth more money anyway.

“Whether he stays over hurdles or goes chasing next season was going to be decided on what happened today so we now need to discuss it. He’s schooled over fences and jumps very well. He’s not the biggest horse in the world, but he will definitely jump fences, although while he looks the best in this league he might stay over hurdles.”

He added: “It’s great for Tom to kick-off with a Grade One win. In some ways it would have been nice for Richard to win on him, but it left the door open for Tom which is great. I’m not sure how long he’s been with us – rather like Richard, it’s been such a long time.”

O’Brien said: “I’m delighted he’s won for everyone. If anyone was doubting me, to get a Grade One win is spot on. The horse missed Cheltenham so to get it all right today is great.

“He’s a very uncomplicated horse. Richard has been in close contact about all the horses, but when I watched all his replays this morning I wondered if I needed to ring about this lad, he’s so straightforward and push-button. I did ring, and Richard just said he’s uncomplicated, try get a lead to the last and Harry (Skelton) came through on my inside and we had a good battle.

“I’ll never fill Richard’s boots, all I can do is pull up my own. I’ve been in the same position for so long but this is new now, I’m on a different calibre of horse.”

Tom O’Brien set for bigger role with Philip Hobbs’ team

Tom O’Brien is set to ride the “majority” of Philip Hobbs’ runners following the surprise retirement of Richard Johnson on Saturday.

Four-times champion jockey Johnson hung up his boots with immediate effect after finishing third on the Hobbs-trained Brother Tedd at Newton Abbot, bringing to an end an enduring partnership between rider and handler.

Hobbs admits Johnson will be hard to replace, but expects O’Brien, who has already enjoyed a long association with the yard, to take the lion’s share of rides for the Somerset team, with some younger jockeys also in line for expanded roles.

Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday programme, Hobbs said: “He (Johnson) has been involved here for so long and is such a part of our establishment and a good friend of all of us and all the owners, it will be a big hole.

“But we have to move on. Tom O’Brien will be riding the majority and we’ve got very good lads in the yard here – Ben Jones, who won the Hennessy (Ladbrokes Trophy) last year, and Sean Houlihan. They’re both 3lb claimers who are involved here on a daily basis.

“I must also mention Micheal Nolan, who was second in the conditional jockeys’ title some years ago and has been so unlucky with injuries, but hopefully he’s getting over that now. He rode a treble the other day at Wincanton – he’ll have plenty of chances, too.

“Like Richard, Tom was champion conditional. He’s a very good rider and has won on all the horses he should be winning on, but hasn’t had the opportunities perhaps he deserves.

“There will be more opportunities from now on.”

Not So Sleepy silences critics with second Betfair romp

Not So Sleepy repeated his front-running tactics to win the Betfair Exchange Trophy at Ascot for the second year running.

Hughie Morrison’s talented dual-purpose performer has been called a few names in recent months because of his antics on more than one occasion.

He has been reluctant to race in the past and only recently decided to unseat his jockey at the first flight in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, before running loose and carrying out Silver Streak at the next.

Ironically Silver Streak’s jockey at Newcastle was Tom O’Brien, yet this time he got the leg-up off Morrison in the Ascot paddock – hoping the 20-1 chance would behave himself.

To his credit Not So Sleepy then never put a foot wrong, and nobody has ever denied his talent – he even ran in last year’s Champion Hurdle.

Having strung the field out, he began to tire having jumped the last – but O’Brien had saved just enough and held off top weight Buzz by a length and three-quarters.

Lightly Squeeze was third, with the well-backed Benson flying home for fourth to pip Belfast Banter.

O’Brien told ITV Racing: “He cost me a few quid at Newcastle – but he’s paid me back now!

“He has his quirks but he seems to love it here. I thought I was pressing on soon enough, but I didn’t want to disappoint him turning for home. He tried so hard.”

The competitive 17-strong race clearly suited Not So Sleepy, and O’Brien added: “It’s different at the start of a big-field handicap.

“We all wanted him to make the running at Newcastle, but he didn’t want to. Five wanted to make it today, so he had to fight for it.”

Morrison had observed before the race that Not So Sleepy won with a stone in hand last year, and just might have to fight a bit harder this time.

After he had done so, the Berkshire trainer was already planning a second Champion Hurdle attempt this season.

“He’s an absolute star, isn’t he?” he said.

Trainer Hughie Morrison is planning to run Not So Sleepy in the Champion Hurdle for a second time
Trainer Hughie Morrison is planning to run Not So Sleepy in the Champion Hurdle for a second time (Julian Herbert/PA)

“He’s in good form and was in great form going into Newcastle – it was just that things went slightly wrong there.

“But he didn’t quicken past (Champion Hurdle and Fighting Fifth winner) Epatante for nothing after the last with no jockey, having been halfway round Newcastle.

“So we were hopeful.”

Not So Sleepy’s route back to Cheltenham in March is set to be a quiet one through the remainder of the winter.

Asked about that date, Morrison added: “I think so, probably – we might as well go straight there, no messing around this year.

“I’ll give him a bit of a break – he obviously runs well fresh. We won’t be tempted by any other races, I don’t think.”

Coole customer O’Brien times it to perfection in more ways than one

Timing is often everything in racing – and Tom O’Brien not only got his fractions right, but secured a victory to thrust him back into the spotlight aboard Coole Cody in the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

In what has been a difficult year for everyone in the sport following the coronavirus pandemic, the 33-year-old has struggled more than most with his all-the-way success aboard the Evan Williams-trained nine-year-old in the Grade Three handicap feature at Cheltenham just his ninth of the campaign.

While big-race wins are nothing new to O’Brien, who has tasted Grade One glory in the past, he hopes his latest landmark triumph can transform a season which has been slow to gather momentum into a campaign blessed with further opportunities.

He said: “It’s at the right time (this winner). I’ve gone a little bit quiet on numbers and it just puts you back in the limelight and hopefully I can just kick on from here.

“I’m not riding enough winners to be positive like that (and feel I had the others held). I was hoping for the line to come, but I had a very willing partner.

“To get back going again after the last and keep going to the line was a brilliant effort from the horse.”

Though O’Brien is now able to reflect fondly on the success of the 10-1 shot, it was nearly a case of what could have been had he not sat tight following a shuddering mistake at the fourth fence.

He said: “He slipped at the back of the last (on the first circuit).

“I jumped it right on the inside and that course did not have a big amount of runners on it so the ground is easy on top.

“I thought he was going down, but thank God he didn’t.”

Despite Coole Cody, who was making just his sixth chasing start, being one of the least experienced runners over fences in the field, the 2006/07 champion conditional jockey – who was standing in for the injured Adam Wedge – believed he had plenty in his favour coming into the race.

He said: “He came at it at the right time. He was relatively unexposed over fences though he had good form over hurdles around here.

“The light weight allowed him to do it and there were some very proven horses in behind him with a lot more weight.

“He just got into a good rhythm and I managed to fill him up at the right times and he kept going.”

Coole Cody may have ticked plenty of boxes coming into the two-and-a-half-mile prize, but with the calibre of opposition he was up against O’Brien felt making the frame would have been an acceptable result.

He said: “To be 100 per cent honest I thought he was just an each-way chance just looking at the two-mile-five form Simply The Betts had (from the Festival) and obviously there was David Pipe’s horse (Siruh Du Lac).

“Paul Nicholls’ horse (Saint Sonnet) was an unknown and there was also Mister Fisher. It looked very hot and what I knew I had was the light weight on my side and that was definitely a help when I got into rhythm out in front.”

It is not the first time Williams and O’Brien have joined forces to good effect this season, with the pair combining to take Listed honours with Silver Streak at Kempton last month, and O’Brien believes the Welsh handler deserves his fair share of praise for the victory.

He added: “Evan really got it right. He phoned me this morning and said he is difficult to get up on (as he is a character) and he went through that in detail.

“The position to get, which didn’t go to plan, was I was meant to take a lead off Tom (Scudamore on Siruh Du Lac), but he had all of his boxes ticked anyway.”

Coole Cody makes all for Paddy Power Gold Cup glory

Coole Cody ran the opposition ragged as he made all the running to win the ultra-competitive Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

The Evan Williams-trained nine-year-old kept pulling out more to ward off all-comers and land the prestigious handicap chase in determined fashion.

There was early drama when Siruh Du Lac, who was sharing the lead with Coole Cody and Simply The Betts, unseated Tom Scudamore at the first fence.

That gave Coole Cody the opportunity to open up a 10-length lead as the field set out for the final circuit under Tom O’Brien, who was replacing the injured Adam Wedge.

Despite making the odd mistake, Coole Cody (10-1) maintained his momentum as rivals such as Happy Diva and Saint Sonnet came down.

Spiritofthegames (14-1) tried to put in a late bid but Coole Cody would not be denied and went on to score by three and a quarter lengths. Al Dancer (5-1 favourite) was another length away third, with Kauto Riko (50-1) a staying-on fourth.

Williams said: “They are very hard races to win and we are usually second, third and fourth in all these big races – we have been second, third and fourth in them all! But if you keep trying, you’ll get there in the end.

“Wedgy is out injured and it’s a disappointment for him, but Tom has ridden me loads of winners over the years. We have had some bad luck stories here with Tom in the past, so it’s great he’s got a good one on the board.”

The Vale of Glamorgan trainer went on: “We got lucky with a few loose horses at the right time and he just kept him going. It was a bit rough and ready out there, but it’s not a beauty contest. You saw him nearly fall in front of the stands. He was down, but that probably just woke him up.

“I didn’t think he had gone too quick, the horse was pricking his ears down the back straight.

“He can be a funny old horse at times, but when he gets the bit between his teeth and gets rolling, he is a tough horse. I don’t mean he is funny in that he doesn’t want to do it, I mean he is a funny character.

“If he could do things the hard way all the time, he would do it the hard way. If he wanted to do it an easier way he could, but if there were two directions, he would always choose the hard way.

“If he could go to the pub and have a fight he would prefer to do that rather than sit in front of a fire with his slippers. It doesn’t matter what we do now, as he has won a Paddy Power. I don’t care what he does from now on.”

On whether the horse might come back to Cheltenham next month, Williams added: “We will see how things go.

“At the end of the day it is job done as far as I’m concerned with him. If we dropped him back to novice company, he could be dangerous in some of those small-field novice chases.

“There’s some great twos (mile) races around Ascot that spring to mind – two-mile-five, two-mile-three round there could be right up his street, and he doesn’t have to go into big handicaps and get slaughtered, he could tickle away in novice chases because he could be dangerous in some of them.

“As far as his mark is concerned, that is going to get blown out of the water now and he might win a Grade Two. Whether he’s a Grade One horse is debatable, but he could win a Grade Two over fences.”

O’Brien said: “I am absolutely delighted, thank you very much to the Evan Williams team. I’m sorry for Wedgy, who I am stepping in for, but I am delighted to take the opportunity.

“I am a second jockey, my good opportunities are few and far between and I would like to think I take them when I get them.”

Dan Skelton was again proud of Spiritofthegames – and sincerely hope a big race goes the way of the eight-year-old soon.

He said: “He has been second so many times and I thought we were going to win one. To be fair to the winner he pulled out more when we got to him.

“I desperately want him to win one as he has been second and third in all the top handicaps here. He has been a bridesmaid in all off them, just please one day one of them I’d like one to go his way.

“He had a chance, but what more can you say he has only won one chase in his life – he has been a bridesmaid so many times. It is not because he is ungeniune. He puts his heart on the line, the handicapper has his say and there is often a more progressive horse than him.

“I think I will miss the December race as he has had a hard race there and go for the New Year’s Day race. He is entered in the Sefton (at Aintree), but I probably don’t need to subject him to that really.”