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Fox to Capitalize on Douvan ‘No Show’

The Douvan ‘no show’ is clearly a blow for Sandown and their feature, the Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday.

Nevertheless, no one should be surprised, as Willie Mullins has previous. Antepost punters must learn that lumping on a Mullins contender comes with a serious health risk. The trainer would say that his only loyalty is to the horse and the paying owners. Jump racing fans will be hoping that Douvan returns to his best sooner rather than later, and that a clash with the best two-milers takes place at Cheltenham in March.

The Tingle Creek was already missing one of the most exciting young chasers, in the Nicky Henderson-trained Altior. Stunning at the end of the last campaign when romping to victory in Sandown’s Celebration Chase, he’ll hopefully be back in time to lock horns with Douvan at Prestbury Park.

In the absence of arguably the most exciting pair of two-mile chasers, the money has come for the Colin Tizzard-trained Fox Norton. Impressive winner of the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham on his seasonal return, he has yet to run at Sandown, though did win the Champion Chase at Punchestown in April going right-handed. Robbie Power gave him a fabulous ride that day, bustling the horse along early to ensure the speedier Un De Sceaux didn’t give them the slip. He both outstayed and out-battled the Mullins chaser that day.

Of his six opponents on Saturday I’m struggling to find one that is likely to trouble the favourite. A back to his best Ar Mad may have what it takes to get Fox Norton out of his comfort zone, though Gary Moore’s brittle seven-year-old has only run three times in the past two years. If allowed to bowl along at the head of affairs, he could have plenty of these in trouble, and he did run well to finish fourth in last year’s renewal despite having made a serious error at a crucial stage.

Politologue is the other contender with the potential to improve and become a serious challenger. The six-year-old is trained by Paul Nicholls, who just happens to be the most successful handler in the history of the race. He has nine wins in total, with eight of those coming in the last dozen years. The horse was an impressive winner on his seasonal return, when giving weight and a beating to San Benedeto in the Haldon Gold Cup. I’d expect him to be up the front end with Ar Mad, though whether he can hold off the late rattle of Fox Norton has to be doubtful.

I can’t see beyond the favourite, though Ar Mad at 20s has to worth a punt on finishing in the top two.

The other highlight of Saturday’s action is the Becher Chase at Aintree. The 3m2f trip over the National fences is always a major test for the staying chasers, but with ground described as ‘heavy’ this renewal looks sure to be a war of attrition.

Blaklion is as short as 5/2 in places for Saturday’s race, which seems incredibly mean for a 16-runner handicap of this nature. Nigel Twiston-Davies has had a terrific start to the campaign, and this fella ran a cracker on his seasonal debut when getting close to Bristol De Mai in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby. That performance came on soft ground and I’m convinced he’ll revel in conditions. He thoroughly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when looking the likely winner of the Grand National in April. He looks sure to go close, though is undoubtedly vulnerable to one off a low weight.

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Vieux Lion Rouge and The Last Samuri are next best in the betting though I can’t see either beating the favourite. The former won the race last year with the latter third. Pipe’s chaser has gone up 10lbs since that victory and was 40 lengths behind Blaklion at Wetherby last time. The Last Samuri is likely to put-in a solid performance, but I can’t see him winning off top-weight.

As De Mee proved his liking for these unique fences when winning the Grand Sefton a year ago. He’s another that has seen his handicap mark suffer, and I’m far from sure he’ll enjoy the gruelling conditions. He’s talented, but he’s not for me in this ground.

Highland Lodge is not without a chance having won this race in 2015 and finished runner-up last year. He’s now an 11-year-old, though equine pensioners cannot be discounted from this. A 12, 13 and 14-year-old have won in the past seven renewals, and this fella is much better off at the weights with Vieux Lion Rouge this time around. The ground is no concern and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the shake-up.

Kerry Lee’s Goodtoknow will enjoy the test, having performed at his best in challenging conditions. He finished runner-up to One For Arthur in the Betfred Classic at Warwick back in January and then won in desperate ground at Hereford. He failed to see-out the trip in the National, but was prominent for a long way. I think he’ll run well.

Rogue Angel has proved a disappointment since winning the Irish National in 2016, but the nine-year-old has now dropped to a nice handicap mark and could go well. Mouse Morris won the ‘big-one’ with Rule The World and if this fella puts his best foot forward he’s capable of a huge performance. He was down the field in last year’s renewal though is 10lb better off. He led the Grand National for a long way in April before fading late-on. His odds of 18s look fair though not generous.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if Federici goes well from the bottom of the handicap. The eight-year-old is trained by Donald McCain, a man who knows a thing or two about the National course and how to win. Fifth in the Ulster National back in March, there is a slight concern over the ground, but the trip should prove ideal. He ran reasonably well in the Grand Sefton last winter, though would need a lifetime best to win this.

Despite my concerns over the weight he’s set to carry in such testing conditions I think Blaklion will take some beating. He’ll love the ground and a repeat of his run at Wetherby may well be good enough. Goodtoknow looks the main danger and will be my each-way punt.

Best of luck to those having a bet on Saturday.

Hendo sunk by Mullins Magic

A dash of Mullins Magic has transformed Total Recall, triggering astonishing improvement which brought about success in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.

This is a race often won by a second-season chaser, and a move to the Closutton yard has certainly done the trick for the eight-year-old. One win from six last term has become two from two this, and there’s now talk of a tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

In truth, winning this race off a handicap mark of 147 is light years away from lifting the ‘Blue Riband’ in March, though there’s no doubting he was impressive on Saturday. He travelled beautifully throughout and shadowed the move made by Whisper at the third last fence. Nicky Henderson’s chaser was giving the winner a stone, and despite a couple of great leaps at the last two obstacles was overhauled, with Total Recall staying on powerfully approaching the line to win by a neck.

Mullins said of the victory: “The horse was very cool, and Paul was very cool. We all thought he was going well until the second-last and it fell apart a bit. It wasn't until the final 150 yards that I thought 'we have a life here'. It is a race that any jumps trainer wants to win. It's a fantastic race and we have just got to hold on to it this time.”

Mullins was referring to the Be My Royal victory of 2002, which ended in disqualification after the horse tested positive for a banned substance post-race.

The trainer added: “I think a lot of the credit must go to Sandra Hughes, who used her father's (Dessie Hughes) training methods and let this horse progress very slowly. Sandra retired, we just got the benefit of it. We will look at more handicaps, but we will have to look if he is better than that. He’ll definitely get an entry in the Gold Cup. I imagine the entries will close before he runs again.”

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Nicky Henderson was full of praise for the runner-up, saying: “It’s a bit cruel to get done like that. I shouldn’t have got that penalty at Kempton! Davy always had him in the right place, he jumped beautifully, and has still only had a few runs over fences.” Of targets, Henderson added: “He didn't stop, the other one went faster. We will have to sit down and think. Something like a Cotswold Chase could be fun.”

Whisper lost little in defeat (bar around £90,000) and looks the one to take from the race from a Gold Cup perspective. Still relatively inexperienced over fences, a rating in the low 160s leaves him around five or six pounds shy of what is required for the ‘big one’. He’s arguably a better horse at Aintree, though does have a couple of chase victories at Cheltenham to his name. He’ll likely meet stablemate Might Bite in March, and has yet to get the better of his fellow Seven Barrows inmate.

One that has landed the top prize in March is Coneygree. On Saturday his career took yet another turn for the worse. He appeared to be going well up until halfway, but a mistake early on the second circuit saw him back-peddling. Injuries and time on the sidelines appear to have taken their toll on the 2015 Gold Cup winner. His trainer Mark Bradstock said of the ex-champ: “Nico said he may need a wind-op, but other than that he's fine at the moment. We thought we had him on-song and jumping well, but we have to go back to the drawing board. He's been an absolute superstar and owes us nothing.”

A subplot of the Newbury feature is the continuing clash of training goliaths, Henderson and Mullins. The pair are set to lock horns throughout the winter, and especially during the high-profile Spring Festivals. Douvan versus Altior and Faugheen against Buveur D’Air are just a couple of contests that have Jump racing fans licking their lips in anticipation.

Coneygree Top-Class – But Vyta to Roc at Newbury

The Ladbrokes Trophy Chase is Newbury’s feature on Saturday and has attracted a competitive field of 21.

First run at Cheltenham in 1957 and known as the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, the race has become one of the most eagerly anticipated in the National Hunt calendar and has a roll of honour to match the status with which it is held.

Chasing greats have captured the event, among them Mill House and Arkle in the 1960s. Diamond Edge, Bregawn, Brown Chamberlin and Burrough Hill Lad opened the 80s in style, whilst One Man in the 1990s and Denman in recent times added further lustre to this wonderful event.

It’ll likely take a while before we stop calling it the Hennessy, but it was Ladbrokes that took over as sponsors in February and the Ladbrokes Trophy has a decent ring to it.

As always, this year’s renewal has a hugely competitive look, with most of the field having a realistic chance of going close. The Willie Mullins-trained Total Recall heads most of the markets, though Harry Fry’s American is tussling for the honour of favouritism.

The former is an eight-year-old second-season chaser, and was impressive last time when romping to victory in the Munster National. He’s up 18lbs for that win, which seems quite a hike to overcome. This is a race that’s often won by those just out of the novice ranks, with seven-year-olds having a particularly strong record. As a novice chaser this fella was pretty ordinary at best. But Mullins took over training duties after the retirement of Sandra Hughes and there’s every chance that he has brought about plenty of improvement. Nevertheless, that patchy novice campaign along with a massive hike in the handicap is enough to make me look elsewhere.

American is interesting and was certainly more impressive as a novice. Three from three over fences, the seven-year-old has the right sort of profile and Fry sounds confident of a big performance. The horse is known to be fragile and as such has often run with plenty of juice in the ground. More rain would have been ideal, though the good to soft ground on Saturday should not inconvenience him. He’s a neat jumper and a strong traveller. Eight of the last 10 winners have carried more than 11 stone to victory and the 11-4 allotted to American shouldn’t put anyone off.

Singlefarmpayment is next best in the betting and the seven-year-old is another with the ideal profile. He’s only won once in six outings over fences, though has a trio of runner-up finishes. His performances at Cheltenham suggest he’ll have no issues with the 3m2f trip. His handicap mark looks fair for what he has achieved thus far. He’s a consistent sort that looks sure to be in the mix late-on, though I’m less sure he’s quite good enough to win.

Only four of the last 20 winners were successful at odds of more than 10/1, with the biggest price of those being Madison Du Berlais in 2008 at 25s. Reasonably well-fancied young progressive types are therefore the horses we need to focus on.

Nicky Henderson has a strong record in the race, with three wins from the past dozen renewals. He has a pair of fancied contenders in Whisper and Vyta Du Roc. The former was runner-up in the RSA and again chased home the talented Might Bite at the Aintree Festival. Despite being a nine-year-old he has only run six times over fences. He won his seasonal return over an inadequate trip at Kempton and is without doubt a classy contender. It’s a tall order winning this off a mark of 161, though he’s hard to dismiss.

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Vyta Du Roc was sixth last year and arrives off a 3lb lower mark. A solid performer last season without ever getting his head in front, his last success came at Ascot in February 2016 when defeating Minella Rocco. He’s a little one-paced but is on such an eye-catching handicap mark that I find myself drawn to him, like a moth to a flame. I’m sure he’ll go close.

Another leading trainer with a pair of contenders is ‘man of the moment’ Nigel Twiston-Davies. If Singlefarmpayment has a chance of winning, then so does his Cheltenham conqueror Cogry. The eight-year-old had four lengths to spare when they last met, with both likely to improve for the run. A one-time dodgy jumper, Cogry appears to have got his act together of late and was unlucky not to win the Scottish National back in April. He’ll love this trip and if Jamie Bargary can get him into a nice rhythm (as he did in the Scottish National) he could have a huge chance at a decent price.

The Cotswolds trainer also has Double Ross in the race. He was third in this 12 months ago and is a couple of pounds better off this time. A senior citizen at 11, there’s only been one previous winner at that age, and that was back in 1967. He was a 50/1 shot last year and I’d put no-one off having a few quid on him at his current price of 40s. Nige did the trick with Splash Of Ginge at big-odds just a few weeks back.

Though Mullins has the favourite, the Irish have a shocking recent record in the race. That’s a worry for the Noel Meade-trained A Genie in Abottle, though the six-year-old is probably not aware that he’s Irish. His third to Disko at Punchestown in April is strong form and he’s already had a couple of wins this term. He looks to be on a decent mark and will carry just 10-13, which I think is an attractive looking weight for such a talented horse. His one disappointing run came in the four-miler at Cheltenham when never looking likely to land a blow. He’ll have regular pilot Sean Flanagan back aboard tomorrow. First Lieutenant ran into a place for Gigginstown a couple of years back and this fella has every chance of going close.

Present Man is upped 4lbs for the Badger Ales victory and though Bryony Frost claims 5lbs this looks a much stiffer task for the seven-year-old. He should prefer Saturday’s conditions and at 16/1 is yet another with a decent each-way shout. Paul Nicholls has a good record in the race, thanks in the main to a Denman-Double. This fella has won half of his 10 chase starts and cannot be discounted.

Finally, a mention for the best horse in the race, Coneygree. What a story it would be if this fella was to emulate Diamond Edge in being a top-weight winning 10-year-old. Nico de Boinville is tasked with getting him into a rhythm. Should he be in front after the first circuit, few would dare bet against him. Incredibly talented, yet frustratingly fragile, Coneygree is the outstanding horse in this year’s field of 21. It’s a tall order, but who would be surprised if he pulled it off?

I find myself fancying four, but as greedy as I am I’ll only be punting on a pair. Whisper, American, Coneygree and Vyta Du Roc are the ‘Fab Four’, but my dosh will be going on the attractively handicapped Vyta and the outstanding chaser Coneygree.

Best of luck to those having a crack at this competitive renewal.

Gladiators Gather for Newbury Showpiece

The Ladbrokes Trophy Chase (formerly the Hennessy) takes place on Saturday, and despite the ground likely to be a little lively for him, the money continues to come for Harry Fry’s American.

Three from three during an impressive novice campaign, his trainer couldn’t be happier as the ‘big day’ draws near. “We’ve made no secret that this race has always been the plan,” said Fry. “It’s no easy task first time out but we’ve been very happy with him at home. He’s fragile, but we’ve given him away days at Wincanton and Newbury recently, and he’s in good form. We were delighted with everything he did last season, but he’ll have to improve again on that form to win at Newbury.”

He’s also entered in the Welsh National as back-up. But with the going currently described as good to soft at Newbury, he looks likely to take his chance.

American is tussling for top spot in the betting with the Willie Mullins-trained Total Recall. An impressive winner of the Munster National last time, he takes a huge hike in the handicap, and it’s tough to assess whether he arrives at Newbury on a handy mark or not.

“He did one or two bits of work and it looked like his rating might be a little low with the type of work he was doing at home,” said Mullins, referring to his Limerick win. “A lot of things went his way and he won very handily at the end. You need a lot of luck in those races and he got it that day. He is doing everything right at home.”
“I don't know whether the handicapper has caught up with him or not,” the trainer added. “If the weights stay as they are, it's a lovely racing weight. The trip won't be a problem and jumping won't be a problem, so he has a lot going for him.”

Whisper has also been popular with punters and Nicky Henderson is clearly pleased with his preparation: “That was a good race at Kempton. I know it was a two-horse race, but there was not much in it. The extra trip will help him. It was exactly what we wanted to do. The timing was right. It was nice to see Clan Des Obeaux win at Haydock. To be fair, this horse has had a good time ever since. He schooled on Friday and we will give him one more pop and off we go.

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“Davy (Russell) gets on with this horse really well. He will already have an idea of where he is going to go and what he is going to do. He is a great jockey and is pretty cunning and he will have a plan. He has got the hang of this horse very swiftly. He lets him warm up over the first few fences. You can't afford to be hunting around the back to get him through a few gears as the race will be gone. I think he has got enough experience of him now. His work was good on Saturday.”

The Master of Seven Barrows has won three of the last dozen renewals and has another fancied contender in last year’s sixth Vyta Du Roc. The eight-year-old is 3lb better off this time around and has seen his price half in recent days. “He had a run over hurdles at Aintree the same day Top Notch had a run and you saw how much good that did for him last Saturday (winning at Ascot),” said Henderson. “I'm quietly hopeful that will put him exactly where he needs to be and if he comes back to the last day at Sandown last year where he was only beaten a nose, he might have a chance.”

In his ‘Weekender’ column trainer Alan King wrote of his hopes for Label Des Obeaux. The son of Saddler Maker was third to Might Bite last time at Sandown and looks sure to be suited by this extended trip. “We have to try to find some improvement in him, so we schooled him in cheekpieces the other day. They seemed to sharpen him up and he’ll probably wear them on Saturday,” King penned.

King’s Smad Place landed the prestigious event in 2015 and the trainer appears hopeful rather than confident of further success, cautiously adding: “My fear is that he has too much weight. Smad Place was handily treated, whereas Label Des Obeaux doesn’t look handicapped to win a race like this.”

Snow time like the present – As Meade launches Cesarewitch assault

I’d pondered over looking at the Dewhurst for this week’s Friday Preview piece, however I’m finding it impossible to flag-up a challenger to the odds-on shot Expert Eye. If the colt that romped to victory at Goodwood arrives here at Newmarket in that form, the result is a formality.

So instead I’ve decided to throw caution to the wind and have a crack at the Cesarewitch. Just the 34 runners go to post, so finding the winner shouldn’t be that difficult. Having said that, it’s proved a tough summer for the handicap followers. The Cambridgeshire a couple of weeks back was the perfect example. A 50/1 shot landed the pot, followed home by a 100/1 outsider and another at 50s. The tricast paid a staggering £90,344.98.
Nevertheless, the winner is amongst the 34, so let’s try and find him or her.

As an avid follower of trends, my first port-of-call is the likely age of the prospective winner. Four and six-year-olds have the best recent record with five victories apiece from the past 20 renewals. A pair of three-year-olds have been successful, whilst a single five-year-old has won in that time. A trio aged seven, a pair at eight, one aged nine and one winner aged 11 have also landed the prestigious prize in the period. The conclusion to draw from this snapshot, is that a horse of any age can win the Cesarewitch. Great Start!

Maybe there’s more to glean from the price of previous winners? Perhaps fancied runners have a decent record? Perhaps not. Over the past 10 years, we’ve had a pair of winners priced at 50/1, two at 66/1, one at 25s and a winner at 16s. Only one favourite has obliged in that period. Goodness me!

Weight carrying is often a point of reference when attempting to find a winner in these ultra-competitive handicaps. Thankfully this is also the case in the Cesarewitch, with just four winners carrying 9-4 or more to victory in the past 20 renewals. Sadly, that stat only takes six contenders out of the reckoning on Saturday. Just the 28 runners left to choose from then.

National Hunt trainers have a decent record, having struck nine times from the past 20. In 2015 Alan King’s Grumeti took the prize at 50/1, following the success of Phillip Hobbs in 2014. Evan Williams, Willie Mullins and Alan King head the market for tomorrow’s renewal, with dual-purpose trainer Karen McLintock responsible for the horse currently fourth in the betting.

Mullins has three contenders, and has been joined on his trip across the Irish Sea by Noel Meade and Tony Martin. Dr Richard Newland, Nigel Twiston-Davies and David Pipe all have entrants loitering in the lower regions of the handicap. This truly is a clash of jump racings finest and the best from the flat.

I’m not sure the above has got us any nearer finding the winner, though there’s a fair chance the first home may be carrying 9-4 or less and be trained by a National Hunt exponent. It’s now a case of finding the well-handicapped contender capable of maintaining a strong gallop for the full 2m2f. Most of this race is run in a straight line, with little chance of a jockey getting a breather into his mount. This is a thorough examination of both the horse’s stamina and attitude, hence the reason ‘tough-nuts’ from the Jumps do so well.

The Evan Williams trained John Constable heads the market and will be ably supported by the outstanding Jim Crowley. The six-year-old has not run on the flat since 2014, but has been in great form over the jumps, winning his last run at Market Rasen off a mark of 150. That came towards the end of July, so he ought to be as fit as a fiddle. He was rated 94 when last running on the flat at the Curragh, and gets in here off a mark of 88. He won the 17-runner Swinton Hurdle back in May by a country-mile, so has the ‘big field’ experience. It’s easy to see why he’s favourite, and he should go well.

The Willie Mullins trained Lagostovegas is next best in the betting, and is another with a progressive hurdles record. He has good recent form on the flat, but is somewhat inferior to John Constable in ratings over timber. Of course, the two codes are not necessarily compatible, nevertheless I’d certainly favour the favourite, despite Mullins having Ryan Moore booked for the ride.

Who Dares Wins is next best according to the bookies, and was last seen winning the trial at Newmarket. He’s trained by Alan King and should certainly appreciate both the trip and the decent ground. He’s gone up 4lbs for that last win, and that’s sure to prove a tough ask. He also needs to reverse form with Endless Acres from their run behind Thomas Hobson at Ascot in June. King’s fella is without doubt a contender, but he’s not for me.

Dubawi Fifty looks a progressive four-year-old who should be suited by the step-up in trip. He finished strongly to win at Nottingham last time over an inadequate 1m6f. He’s up 5lbs for that success, but at four the improvement may be there. He’s trained in the north by Karen McLintock and owned by the Rooney’s. You could argue that he lacks experience, especially in a field of this size, but with Graham Lee on top, I fancy he’ll run well.

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Time To Study is an interesting three-year-old trained in Yorkshire by Mark Johnston. He won a decent handicap at Doncaster last time, but was then ‘pulled’ from the trial at Newmarket, with the ground (good) given as the reason. It’s a puzzler, because he ran well on good to firm in the Queen’s Vase at Ascot behind Stradivarius. He had Shrewd behind him at Doncaster and that form stacks up quite nicely. He’s unproven at this trip, which is clearly a concern. Add to that, the slight worry over the ground, and he’s possibly one to overlook. Though I’m slightly nervous to do so.

Withhold is a hugely consistent four-year-old trained by Roger Charlton. He’s won or been placed in six of his eight career starts, though has only run the once so far this season. That came at Newbury, when third at an inadequate 1m4f trip. He should improve for the outing, and his proximity to Weekender gives the form a solid look. I’m not wholly convinced that he’ll see out this trip, though he has won at two-miles. He does have an attractive race weight of 8-8, and is hard to dismiss.

Endless Acres is another four-year-old with a serious chance. Runner-up in the Ascot Stakes to Thomas Hobson, he was also second to Flymetothestars back in May, which again looks strong form. He’s had a light campaign and there’s no doubts over him seeing out the trip. He looks a leading contender, though creeps over the desired weight at 9-5.

One that I am interested in, is Jim Goldie’s Euchen Glen. Third at York in a valuable two-mile handicap when getting no sort of run, he’d previously beaten Byron Flyer at Ascot, again at two-miles. He looks to be on a fair mark judging by the York performance and should run well.

London Prize keeps performing well on the flat, but is on much worse terms with Withhold on their 2016 meeting. He also has a mountain to climb if his jumps form with John Constable translates to the flat.

Another that I very much like is Noel Meade’s Snow Falcon. He’s a high-class staying hurdler, good enough to come within two-lengths of Yanworth at Aintree on good ground in April. He’s run well on the flat over the summer, including a comfortable win at Killarney in August. He’s right on my 9-4 limit and I’m convinced he’ll run a huge race.

Byron Flyer is another that certainly has a clear chance on the form book. Handicapped to at least be on terms with Time To Study and Euchen Glen, he’s a consistent performer at around two miles, though has a habit of finishing second in tight finishes. Ryan Moore was aboard last time at Doncaster, and having travelled beautifully throughout, he would have been left scratching his head as to how he was beaten. He may well be in the vicinity late on, but you’d have to anticipate him finding one or two ‘wanting it’ a little more in the final furlong.

In a year when handicap winners have gone in at huge odds, I’d give a squeak to Star Rider. Trained by Hughie Morrison, the five-year-old ran a shocker at York last time and didn’t run particularly well the time before at Goodwood. However, she was a decent sixth in the Ascot Stakes when suffering interference, and was eighth in this race last year. In three visits to the Rowley Mile, she’s won twice. Morrison took last year’s race with the mare Sweet Selection, and on decent ground Star Rider is interesting.

For those having a punt it has to be worth spreading the cash across a few entrants. John Constable may well be ‘thrown-in’, and at 8s, even in a race this competitive, is probably fair value. However, I’ll avoid the temptation of tipping-up the favourite and look elsewhere.

Euchen Glen was an eye-catcher last time at York, and looks to have a great chance. He’s one to have at 16s. I can’t resist a few quid on Snow Falcon at 20/1. I’m convinced that Noel Meade’s classy stayer will love the trip and put in a huge performance. Finally, I’ll have a little each-way on Morrison’s mare Star Rider. Can lightning strike twice? Best of luck to all those having a punt in this hugely competitive race.

Leading Stayers prepare for the historic Doncaster Cup

I’ve failed to give Flat’s long-distance runners the publicity they deserve during this campaign, and I thought it was time to rectify that, especially as the historic Doncaster Cup takes place on Friday.

The event, established in 1766, actually pre-dates the St Leger and has been run at its current distance of 2m2f since 1927. Sir Henry Cecil proved dominant in the late 70s and early 80s, when training several outstanding stayers. Bucksin, Le Moss and Ardross captured the Doncaster marathon during a dazzling period.

Bucksin was originally trained in France, but transferred to England in 1978. He had physical issues which made him tricky to train. Softer ground suited the fragile horse, who at his best could deliver devastating performances. He took the Prix Du Cadran in 77 and 78, and when moved to Henry Cecil’s yard during the latter part of 1978 captured the Doncaster Cup, winning the race by a staggering eight lengths. The following year he romped to victory in the Henry II Stakes on soft ground at Sandown. But he was famously unable to defeat his stablemate Le Moss on unsuitable quick ground in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.

Bucksin was retired after that Gold Cup defeat and became a hugely successful stallion in the National Hunt sphere, with his name common in the pedigree of staying chasers.

As for Le Moss, he inherited the mantle as Cecil’s top stayer, completing the Stayers’ Triple Crown (Ascot Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup and Doncaster Cup) in 1979 and 1980. His clashes with Ardross during the 1980 campaign were exceptional, defeating the then Irish-trained challenger by less than a length on three occasions. Like Bucksin, Le Moss became a Jumps stallion of substance, notably becoming the damsire of Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander.

Exit Le Moss stage left, enter Ardross stage right. Sir Henry took over training duties of the latter in 1981 and set-about dominating staying events once again. The Yorkshire Cup, Ascot Gold Cup and Goodwood Cup were all landed, before being switched back in trip to contest the Geoffrey Freer. A stunning success launched a crack at the Arc in France. He finished a creditable fifth, and a year later at the age of six having won the Doncaster Cup, came within a neck of landing the prestigious Longchamp event. He was an exceptional racehorse, and like those before, became a terrific National Hunt stallion.

During the 1990s another exceptional stayer became the dominant force, proving particularly potent in the Goodwood and Doncaster Cups. The Mark Johnston-trained Double Trigger was so special to the Town Moor faithful that the course erected a Bronze statue to commemorate his illustrious career. He landed their stayers’ showpiece on three occasions from 1995 to 1998, and matched the achievement in the Goodwood Cup with a trio of victories during the same period.

His best campaign was as a four-year-old in 1995 when winning the Sagaro and Henry II Stakes, before landing the Stayers' Triple Crown. He was particularly impressive at Ascot, when demolishing the St Leger winner Moonax by a yawning five-lengths. Still on stud duty at Clarendon Farm in Wiltshire, he was a much-loved racehorse.

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The best of the current crop is arguably the first two from the Ascot Gold Cup, Big Orange and Order Of St George. Sadly, neither are in attendance here, though we do have York’s Lonsdale Cup winner Montaly. He’s had an outstanding campaign to date, winning the Chester Cup and only just losing out at Sandown in the Coral Marathon. The win at York was a huge step forward, and he had several of Friday’s opponents behind him. He has a 3lb penalty to overcome, but he remains the form horse.

Pallasator and Sheikhzayedroad have won the last two renewals, and both return to Doncaster for another crack. Lightly raced this term, the former finished sixth in the Goodwood Cup at the beginning of August, and won the Doncaster Cup on his only previous visit to the track.

Sheikhzayedroad was a close fourth at York behind Montaly last time, having disappointed in the Goodwood Cup. Like Pallasator he is now an eight-year-old, and horses over the age of seven have a dreadful record in the race. Whether the pair retain enough zip to replicate previous victories is a serious doubt.

The Irish have won three of the last 10, and Willie Mullins attempts to maintain that impressive record. Thomas Hobson and Max Dynamite both carry the familiar Rich Ricci silks, though it appears that the latter is the main contender with Ryan Moore booked to ride. Niggling issues mean that the seven-year-old has had little racing in the last couple of years, though he was certainly impressive at Killarney last month. Runner-up in a Northumberland Plate and the Melbourne Cup, he also has a win in the Lonsdale Cup to his name. He’s a classy sort.

Three-year-olds have a poor record in the race, with just two wins in the last 20 years. David Elsworth sends Desert Skyline into the fray, with his third-place finish in the Goodwood Cup giving hope of a strong showing here. Big Orange was the only horse from the older brigade to beat him at Goodwood, and he has run well at Deauville since. He looks a major player, and is likely to appreciate any rain that falls.

Several of these will head to Ascot next month for the Champions Series finale, and likely be joined by Order Of St George and Big Orange. Sheikhzayedroad landed the big-one at Ascot last October, having won at Town Moor a month earlier. His trainer David Simcock will be praying for more of the same.

Sizing up the Winter options

With something of a lull on the Flat this week, there’s been news in the past few days, regarding some of Jump racings star performers.

The 2015 Gold Cup winner, Coneygree, looks set to be back in action in the coming weeks. Listowel’s Kerry National is the intended starting point for Sara Bradstock’s exciting chaser, and he appears to be giving the right signals as connections hope for an uninterrupted campaign. “He'll come on for the run, but he's fit enough as we've got our all-weather and he goes to Paul Cole's all-weather as well,” said Bradstock.

She went on: “I'd be worried if the ground in Ireland went heavy, which it can there, but they are hoping it will be yielding to soft, which would be perfect. He's just a bit better since the spring and has got his confidence back - he's feeling great.”

The plan is to then go for the Ladbrokes Trophy (formerly The Hennessy) at Newbury in December, where he’ll be lumping top-weight and attempting to replicate the likes of Denman. The Kerry National is very much a trial for Newbury, and will give the trainer the chance to assess whether he can give huge amounts of weight away in a handicap successfully. The team prefer the flat galloping track at Newbury, over the tighter course of Haydock which holds the Betfair Chase. They will also be keen to space his races well, as they attempt to avoid injury with the likeable chaser.

One that will be heading to Haydock for their Grade One feature at the end of November, is the current Gold Cup Champ, Sizing John. Jess Harrington spoke recently of targets for her leading chasers, and will be doing her best to keep Irish Grand National winner Our Duke and Sizing John apart, at least until a possible clash at Cheltenham in March.

“Our aim is to start him (SJ) off in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on November 25. He looks fantastic. We're keen to have a crack at the £1 million bonus for winning the three races at Haydock, Kempton (King George) and Cheltenham (Gold Cup). It's exciting to have a horse to run in those races, and the triple crown has always been on our minds since he won at Punchestown.”

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Formerly a high-class two-mile chaser, he certainly has the necessary ‘zip’ for tracks such as Haydock and Kempton, and has proved himself adept to going left or right-handed.

That’s likely to ensure an Irish campaign for Our Duke prior to Cheltenham in March, with the Lexus Chase over Christmas an early objective. “Our Duke is back trotting and looks fantastic,” added Harrington. “We'll kick off his season at Down Royal (JNwine.com Chase). That looks the ideal starting point for him.” The first Grade One in the Irish National Hunt season went to Don Cossack in 2015, and the great Kauto Star in 2008 and 2010.

Our Duke is likely to clash with several talented chasers from the Willie Mullins yard, including Djakadam, who came close to defeating Sizing John in the Punchestown Gold Cup in April. It’ll also be interesting to see where the likes of Minella Rocco and Native River head during the winter. The Lexus Chase could prove an ideal target for both as they build towards a possible crack at the Grand National at Aintree.

There’s still plenty of action to come on the Flat over the coming months, but it’s difficult not to get excited as another National Hunt season draws ever closer.

Monday Musings: Title Settlement

 

Bank Holiday Mondays allow me a little flexibility in terms of deadline, writes Tony Stafford. I know this because the Editor takes longer than usual to acknowledge receipt of these jottings. Saying that, he will probably have been awake early as the sun peeped across the horizon well before 6 a.m. the time today when I finally realised what the topic would be.

By a circuitous route, having started out with the Henderson-Nicholls and Mullins-Elliott season-long scraps finally decided and the likeliest subject, I landed on June 11 2006 at the picturesque Perth racecourse.

That day an unknown young Irish trainer travelled over his recent acquisition, a horse called Arresting, to Scotland and, ridden by Richard Johnson, Arresting was an emphatic winner, backed in to 7-2 favourite. He had won at the track on his previous appearance, on his sole run for Gavin Cromwell, but joined Gordon Elliott, according to official records, six days before the June 11 landmark.

Elliott, a graduate of the Martin Pipe stable, had yet to win a race in his home land, but Arresting gave him two more victories in the UK that summer, stopping off in between without success at the Galway Festival.

Thirteen horses took part in that first race and the lists of trainers and riders illustrate how quickly the pendulum swings in racing, like life really. Stuart Coltherd, Jim Goldie, Geoff Harker, Diane Sayer and Grand National winner Lucinda Russell remain active, while the remainder, including recently retired Keith Reveley have either handed in their licences or, in the case of doubly-represented Peter Monteith, died.

Of the 13 jockeys, only the relentless Johnson; James Reveley, then a 7lb claimer, now France’s jumps champion; and Paddy Aspell, still ride over jumps, although he has gradually switched more to the Flat. Graham Lee finished runner-up here two years after his Grand National triumph on Amberleigh House, who died last week aged 25. Now he rides exclusively on the level.

Michael McAlister, then a 5lb claimer, had his last rides, winning one of six in the season ending last April, while Richie McGrath, Jimmy McCarthy, Phil Kinsella, David da Silva and Peter Buchanan have all retired after varying degrees of success.

Tony Dobbin, 45 years old today and another Grand National hero, almost a decade earlier on Lord Gyllene, the only Monday winner, is now assistant trainer to his wife Rose, while Kenny Johnson has taken over his father Bob’s small yard in Northumberland.

There is another name from the race which has forced itself into the racing consciousness, particularly over the latest season. Neil Mulholland, unplaced in that Perth race, won 54 races over a ten-year span in the UK, again with a Martin Pipe connection, before starting out as a West Country trainer in the 2008-9 season.

He was an immediate success with 16 victories in his initial campaign, before collecting between that figure and 21 in the next four years. More recently, Mulholland has found acceleration and expansion, almost Gordon Elliott-like, with 31, 51 and 60 wins before the latest awesome tally of 108 wins from 129 horses. His list of owners makes impressive reading, dozens and dozens of names, with Bob Brookhouse, one who is always ready to pay plenty at the sales, a notable major operator for the yard. Big-race wins, usually in staying chases have come via The Druids Nephew, The Young Master and Pilgrims Way, while he’s also proved a dab hand at winning Flat-race handicaps with some of his lesser jumpers.

Gordon Elliott’s narrow failure to dethrone Mullins after their final day denouement at Punchestown cannot alter the fact that he has become the big name going forward. He did something nobody – to my limited knowledge anyway – has matched, to win a Grand National before winning a Rules race in his native country. Silver Birch, a Paul Nicholls cast-off, won ten months after the first of the three Arresting victories and it was not until later that year that the Irish explosion began.

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After two blank seasons, Elliott had six wins in his third, then 14, 26, 62, 40, 54, 56, 92, 123 and a mammoth 193 from an astonishing 285 horses, 101 more than Mullins up to Saturday. As the still-champion Willie lost 60 of the Gigginstown horses – not all of which ended with his protagonist – it was indeed a doughty effort to stay ahead but a team of 184 active horses is hardly negligible.

The next three home in Ireland were Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and Noel Meade, all with big teams, Harrington benefiting from the Ann and Alan Potts defection from de Bromhead with the other pair similarly indebted to the Mullins split with Gigginstown.

Of the trio, only Mrs Harrington is seriously involved in the Flat with 47 three-year-olds and juveniles listed in the latest Horses in Training book. She was at it again last week, winning five races at Punchestown while yesterday, she had a winner each at Limerick and Gowran on the Flat, beating horses trained by Aidan and Joseph O’Brien respectively.

Gordon Elliott sent out a remarkable 1,234 domestic runners last season, even more than Richard Johnson rode in his second-busiest season; 188 wins from 1,026 compared with easily his best, 235 from 1,044 the previous winter when he collected his first title after 20 years’ wait for A P McCoy to retire. Since 1996-7 Johnson has posted a century of winners every season, with between 102 and 186 until the last two. The McCoy retirement has brought an average of 200 extra rides, a good few of them horses McCoy would have partnered.

Johnson shows no sign of slowing down, bar injury or illness, so there is little chance he will fail to complete the hat-trick as he intends to mirror McCoy’s annual tactic of a fast start during late spring and summer.

Nicky Henderson’s stable stars contributed greatly to his fourth trainers’ title, but it also helped that he had more individual horses (173) to run than anyone other than Dan Skelton (202). Henderson and Nicholls had an almost identical win average, around 25%, a figure which only Harry Fry, among the leaders, with 23%, could get anywhere near. Fry’s Punchestown double last week confirmed his status as a future potential champion trainer.

Team Tooth had a first Flat runner (two getting-handicapped Winter AW runs apart) at Yarmouth, and Stanhope as usual suffered an element of bad luck as he finished a close fourth.

It seems he’s a horse that finds trouble, but when he doesn’t it finds him, as when at Sandown, a golf ball from the inside-the-track course flew up from a rival’s hoof and hit jockey Charlie Bennett a resounding bang on the helmet.

Here, Pat Cosgrave had just moved him into a gap to challenge, when it closed. In a desperate attempt to get home in front, Jamie Spencer launched his whip right handed, twice hitting Stanhope on the head. First you can see him flinch right, then more dramatically back and left, so it was brave of the horse to nick fourth under hands and heels after recovering. Pat says he’s stronger this year. He’ll need to be!

 

Jumps Over and Feeling Flat

Nicky Henderson captured the Trainers’ Championship for the second time in five years, with a dominant display at Sandown on Saturday.

Paul Nicholls had hoped for a successful final day of the campaign, but it was Henderson who landed a treble on the day, and came close to making it four, when Vyta Du Roc was denied by a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup.

Altior proved the star-turn with a stunning display in the Grade 1 Celebration Chase. He swept past the Champion Chase winner Special Tiara, as they headed for the last fence, and though he got in close, he quickly regained momentum, sprinting to an eight-length victory. His jumping was arguably as good as we’ve seen from him throughout the winter, and he travelled effortlessly throughout. It was a truly devastating display, and many Jumps fans will already be licking their lips at the prospect of Altior versus Douvan in the autumn.

Juvenile hurdler Call Me Lord had been a comfortable winner for Seven Barrows in the first, and L’Ami Serge finally put in a performance worthy of his talent, in winning the Grade 2 Select Hurdle. That double for owners Munir and Soude arguably should have been a treble on the day, when Vyta Du Roc appeared to be given plenty to do, before charging through traffic late-on to fail by just a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup. Peter Bowen’s Henllan Harri was given a peach of a ride by son Sean, and managed to hold-off Henderson’s horse. Though not the biggest, the runner-up will surely be aimed at nationals next season.

Of his success in the title race, Henderson said: “We’ve got some Grade One horses and to be fair to Paul, he has done incredibly well and won a huge amount of prize money whereas we’ve got horses like Altior, Buveur d’Air and Might Bite.” Of Altior he added: “He's top class. I think we've always known that. He’s got a bit of everything - he's got class, he's got the gears. I think we've always known that he is very special ever since a young horse as a hurdler. You know that Special Tiara is going to set serious fractions but this fellow can always have it covered as he has the pace to do it.”

A special Sandown mention goes to the wonderful Menorah, who won the Oaksey Chase for a fourth time, before being retired by connections. The 12-year-old has been campaigned at the highest level throughout his career, and has brought great success to owners Diana and Grahame Whateley. It was terrific to see him go-out with such a stunning display.

So, whilst Henderson successfully kept Nicholls at arms-length, the same could not be said in Ireland, with Gordon Elliott finally overwhelmed by a tsunami of Willie Mullins winners. A lead of around €400,000 going into the Punchestown Festival put Elliott in pole position, but despite several unlucky defeats during the week, the Master of Closutton still managed to retain his crown by a staggering €199,455.

Great Field was mightily impressive in winning the Ryanair Novice Chase earlier in the week, and on Friday, Wicklow Brave in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Bacardys in the Champion Novice Hurdle put Mullins in front. A double on the final day of the meeting, which included a victory in the juvenile hurdle for Bapaume, proved to be the title clincher.

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Of the dramatic turnaround, Mullins said: “I didn't think it was possible for us to win, particularly when a few of the early photo-finishes went against us this week. It's fantastic to win and a big thank you to all the team at home and all my owners. It's been a funny season. It hasn't been that enjoyable and I'm glad it's over. Gordon is a great competitor. He's fantastic and has been a gentleman the whole way through.”

Elliott had led from the off, and was understandably gutted to come off second best: “It's a bit heart-breaking. We've led from day one of the season, but to be in the same sentence as Willie Mullins is brilliant. Hopefully we'll do it one year. I'm still only 39 and hopefully I'll be around for another few years. We've equalled Willie's record of 193 winners in a season. I said coming here that if I could equal that, it would be something. I'll keep my head up and enjoy it.”

Saturday’s action brought the curtain down on a dramatic National Hunt season. Mullins’ ‘against all odds’ title victory will have left him needing a summer break more than ever before. The loss of Vautour was a huge blow, and then Mr O’Leary took his horses elsewhere. Faugheen, Annie Power and Min were all struck-down by injury, yet the Master of Closutton found a way to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.

A tough winter also for Paul Nicholls. His title challenge masks an underlying decline in the quality of horses at his disposal. He desperately needs to uncover a star or two if he is to challenge a resurgent Nicky Henderson. Sprinter Sacre was retired, but Altior has moved seamlessly into the role of Seven Barrows Superstar. He also has a new hurdling hero in Buveur D’Air.

And both will be looking over their shoulders, as Colin Tizzard continues to build on a stunning campaign. Fox Norton, Thistlecrack and Native River have all captured major prizes, and promise much of the same for some time to come.

Now, if we can just get this Flat season out of the way.

Hard-Hitting Henderson Can Roc At Sandown

It truly is a week for the big-hitters, going at it toe-to-toe, in a battle for supremacy.

It may be a rather less bloody affair than Klitschko versus Joshua, but over in Ireland, Willie Mullins is throwing everything at Gordon Elliott as he tries to retain his trainers’title. Several agonizing near-misses, including Nichols Canyon and Djakadam, have served to thwart the Closutton King, and his crown has all-but fallen.

Whilst over in the UK on Saturday, another heavyweight battle takes place at Sandown, as they host the final meeting of the National Hunt season, with Nicky Henderson on the verge of landing the knockout-blow to be crowned the new champ.

There’s enough money in the Sandown pot for Paul Nicholls to turn things around, though Team Ditcheat look to have a mountain to climb. Whilst Nicholls has jabbed away intelligently throughout the campaign, maintaining a high-tempo, landing telling blows again and again, it is Henderson that has possessed the firepower, with the likes of Buveur D’Air and Altior bludgeoning the opposition to win major prizes. The latter may well end the fight by winning the Grade 1 Celebration Chase tomorrow.

Nicholls rests his hopes on the much-improved San Benedeto, though this looks a step too far for the gutsy Aintree winner. Special Tiara is likely to prove a greater threat to Henderson’s new star, though the Seven Barrows chief is taking no chances, and will hope to land the old ‘one-two’ with Vaniteux thrown into the mix. I’m a huge fan of the horse, and he’s more than capable of chasing home his celebrated stable companion.

With the referee likely to have stepped-in to end the fight, both Henderson and Nicholls should feel a little more relaxed as they prepare their challengers for the most valuable event on the card, the Bet365 Gold Cup. And both have the opportunity of ending the season with a bang, though Neil Mulholland holds a powerful hand going into the prestigious staying chase.

The Wiltshire handler saddles his usual suspects, The Druids Nephew and The Young Master, the latter the winner of this 12 months ago. The former was behind in fifth, but his handicap mark is now 10lbs lower, and both look to have a great chance. Their tough to split, and the bookies have them tied at 7/1. Yet Mulholland has arguably a stronger contender, in race favourite, and much improved, Doing Fine.

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A victory and three runners-up finishes, from his four outings since arriving at the yard, the nine-year-old by Presenting is in tip-top shape, and will love both the ground and the trip. He ran a belter when second to Rocky Creek at the track in December, and this race looks tailor-made. He’s a solid jumper, a thorough stayer, and runs without penalty having won easily at Cheltenham just over a week ago. He looks sure to go close.

The champion-elect has a pair of runners, and it’s Vyta Du Roc that I fancy will go best for the Master of Seven Barrows. The eight-year-old’s winter had mirrored, in levels of disappointment, that of Vicente, until that horse stormed back to form in winning the Scottish National last week. They were very similar types as novice chasers, rated around the mid-140s. But both had struggled to make an impact during this campaign, and their handicap marks fell accordingly. Vyta Du Roc is now off 137, and though his form is hardly inspiring, I find myself drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He was sixth in the Hennessy at the start of the season, and defeated Minella Rocco at Ascot, little more than 12 months ago.

Like Mulholland, Paul Nicholls sends a trio into battle, with two of his hopes having gone close in last year’s renewal. Just A Par won the race in 2015, and came within a short-head of repeating the feat last year. He remains on a competitive handicap mark, and looks sure to run well.

Southfield Theatre is burdened with top-weight, though Nicholls has stated that the horse is better prepared this time around. The enormity of the task is best illustrated by saying that Tidal Bay, Desert Orchid, Diamond Edge, Mill House and Arkle, are some of just a handful to overcome such a burden in the past.

Philip Hobbs took this race in 2006 and 2008, and has a serious contender in Rock The Kasbah. The seven-year-old has performed admirably in novice events throughout the winter, though has perhaps not hit the heights connections would have hoped for. I’m convinced that better ground suits him, though this trip is something of an unknown. He’s by Shirocco, the same sire as Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco. Hobbs will be hoping that this step-up in trip proves key to an improved performance. I fancy he could go very close.

It looks a terrific renewal, with cases to be made for plenty. I’m taking Vyta Du Roc to land the spoils for Henderson, and though both Mulholland and Nicholls arrive mob-handed, I’ll take Hobbs’ Rock The Kasbah to make a place for each-way punters. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Tony Keenan: Three Hot Takes

I appreciate these are much more cold cuts than hot takes but I’ve been away for a while and there has been plenty going on in Irish racing, on and off the track, that is worthy of comment, writes Tony Keenan.

 

Drugs in Racing?

Back on April 2nd, John Mooney of The Times reported on a case involving vet Tim Brennan who had been found to have some unauthorised animal medication in his possession during a routine inspection by an investigations unit of the Department of Agriculture and the Turf Club at the yard of Willie Mullins.

Mooney, and basically everyone else who has reported on the story since, was at pains to point out that Mullins is in no way implicated in this. Much of what I have read since suggests this is the case and it could be nothing more than some over-zealous animal product legislation by our authorities. But still: here we have a vet who at the very least is willing to bend the rules and also has some relationship with Ireland’s Champion Trainer. I don’t think you have to be a conspiracy theorist – and racing has plenty of those, you need only visit your local betting office – to feel a more thorough explanation is needed.

People are very sceptical of sport in the modern era and with good reason. The curtain has been pulled back on many seemingly immense achievements in areas like track and field and cycling but in these sports it often obvious that athletes are pushing the boundaries of credibility; there is only so fast a human can run ten kilometres in, only so quick they can cycle up Mont Ventoux.

Seemingly impossible performances are much less obvious in racing. Track records aren’t really a thing and few would have any awareness of them aside from the most obvious examples like the Grand National. These records are often not held by the best horses, but rather those that encountered the ideal circumstances of pace, ground and perhaps wind assistance. Then there’s the obvious point that you are dealing with animals and not humans which adds further complicating factors: a horse cannot tell you it feels like pushing it harder in this session or could do with a rest, try as horsemen might to ascertain this.

Were the Brennan case to present itself in another sport, especially one where the public are already sceptical, I suspect there would be an attitude, rightly or wrongly, of guilt by association. This seems not to have been the case with Mullins and Brennan and I’m unsure whether this reflects well or badly on racing. The responsibility should fall to those involved – allowing that the case is ongoing – to offer some sort of explanation as to what unfolded; to says ‘everything is fine here, nothing to see, move along’ is not enough and while those sentiments may be true we’d all like to know why. Racing should seek to answer these questions as the last thing you want is a sport tarnished with drug innuendo when you’ve got enough effort issues already.

 

Rule 212

For the first time in my memory – perhaps ever – Irish racing has put the punter in a position of prominence with the Turf Club’s new non-trier directive, Rule 212. The wording of this ruling mentions the appearance of rides to ‘a reasonable and informed member of the racing public’, the fictive man in the stands if you like, allowing that now that man is more likely to be sitting at home watching on AtTheRaces with the facility to pause and rewind any race he wishes. That in itself is an important point as the ability to rewatch a race does allow for the development of more informed opinions.

As a punter, I find it hard to be against this rule in any way; it would be akin to turkeys voting for Christmas. All the stuff about the importance of punters and how they fund racing apply here but in Ireland it is a little more complicated than that as racing’s finances are greatly assisted by a healthy government subsidy each year provided by the taxpayer. If anything, this should make the authorities stricter in their desire to have a well-policed sport; it should not be set up for a coterie of elites but rather for the good of the general public who want a straight game.

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And yet I did struggle with this new rule upon first introduction because I have been conditioned by watching Irish racing over the years and come to tolerate what are known as educational rides. I initially felt the rule change was over-zealous but, having thought about it further, it has to be better than the alternative when the stewards are basically turning a blind eye to horses not trying to achieve their best finishing position providing they were early in their career. It seems as if jockeys and trainers are getting it too judging by some of the comments made by the likes of Robbie Power and Johnny Murtagh since the rule has been brought in.

Horsemen will argue that forceful rides early in a horse’s career could set it back and prevent it from fulfilling its potential. I’m sceptical about this for a few reasons. Firstly, no sensible punter – the people who the rule apparently caters for – is demanding that a horse be beaten up on debut; they should however be given a ride where the intention is to win if this is possible. The idea that horses come to the track clueless as to what is expected there isn’t acceptable; trainers can and should be able to educate them at home to a certain standard and show it what racing is about. In any case, if a horse’s future is going to be so utterly compromised by a vigorous ride I would question if it was ever going to amount to much. If a horseman can explain why this might be the case I would appreciate it but my inclination is to doubt it and view such arguments as excuses.

 

Gigginstown and the Irish National

This is nowhere near as important as the issues dealt with above but I have to admit to finding the Irish National with its 13 Gigginstown-owned runners a pretty unedifying spectacle, allowing that there is basically nothing that can be done about it and any capping of the number of runners an owner can have would be anti-competitive. Perhaps it’s just my desire for sportsmanship rather than gamesmanship that would have preferred to see a greater spread of runners and I suspect Michael O’Leary took a certain joy in running all his horses if only to cock a snook at some racing people. The owner has made a billion euro business out of not doing what he was told and has to be the least "racing" person ever in the sense that he doesn’t abide by the traditions and expected norms of the sport.

But O’Leary is not deaf to welfare concerns – he seemingly blamed the allotted weight for the death of his Hear The Echo in the 2009 Grand National – and there might be some questions to answer on that front. He declared a few horses patently unsuitable for the race in the likes of The Game Changer (a horse who had failed to last out the Grand Annual trip on his previous start) but more worrying than that was the decision to run all five of his Aintree National horses again at Fairyhouse nine days later. He wasn’t the only one to do this – Henry De Bromhead ran Stellar Notion in both races – but it all seemed a bit one-size-fits-all, something passengers on O’Leary’s airline will be well used to!

The Grand National at Aintree is routinely described as one of the toughest races of the season and while modifications to the conditions have made it easier, it is still beyond four miles and not every horse will recover from that in little over a week. Only one of the Gigginstown horses completed the Aintree course but both Rogue Angel and Wounded Warrior went deep into the race and all five had to travel across the Irish Sea and back.

All of this does have a punting application, one I wish I had spotted beforehand. The multiple Gigginstown runners weakened the race considerably as quite a few had little form chance at least judged by the market; when I looked at the betting the day before, 10 of their runners were in the back 12 of the betting with only 2 in the front 12. Granted normal luck-in-running, not always a given in a National, this considerably improved the chances of the other runners as the race had artificial rather than real depth to it. The front end of the betting was quite solid – the favourite won with a pair of fancied runners chasing him home – and it is something that we should be looking out for in the future.

- Tony Keenan

Mullins and Elliott clash at Fairyhouse

To Fairyhouse we go for today’s preview, as I put Monday's Irish Grand National under focus.

I was tempted to look at the All-Weather Championships from Lingfield. But there’s a huge story developing in Ireland, and unless Willie Mullins has a fabulous Fairyhouse, followed by a pulsating Punchestown, we will have ourselves a new King of Irish Jump racing.

A victory in Monday’s showpiece for Gordon Elliott could prove the killer-blow, with the race now the richest in the Irish Jump racing calendar. There is €500,000 in the prize fund, with €270,000 going to the winner. A maximum field of 30 may well contain half a dozen of Elliott’s squad, which must be a concern for the master of Closutton, who could have just two or three making the cut.

Elliott’s Bless The Wings came within a short-head of winning the race 12 months ago, when just failing to catch the Gigginstown owned Rogue Angel. The same silks were carried to victory a year earlier, when Thunder And Roses took the race for Sandra Hughes. Elliott has a glut of Gigginstown contenders this time round, as Michael O’Leary looks for the hat-trick.

The trends point to a lightly raced winner. Seven and eight-year-olds have the dominant record in the 3m5f marathon, with seven of the last 10 renewals going to the age group. However, the roll of honour is peppered with nine, 10 and 11-year-old victors, and they should not be dismissed out-of-hand.

As with Aintree, weight carrying is a major factor in success or failure. Even more pronounced than at Liverpool, a horse needs to be carrying less than 11 stone to win this race. Commanche Court was the last horse to carry more to victory, when winning in 2000, and he went on to finish runner-up to Best Mate in the Gold Cup a couple of years later. Those rated in the low to mid-130s have been particularly successful in recent times, though that type of mark may miss the cut this year.

Gordon Elliott’s Lord Scoundrel is set to land top-weight of 11-10 when final declarations are announced this morning. He’s a talented young chaser who will appreciate the sounder surface. He took the Galway Plate back in July, but has been off the track since November, and that’s hardly the ideal prep for this.

Noble Endeavour and Clarcam follow-on for Elliott, with the former capable of going well off a huge weight. He’ll also enjoy the ground, and arrives off the back of a cracking effort at Cheltenham, when third to Un Temps Pour Tout.

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The favourite for the race is Jess Harrington’s novice, Our Duke. He’s a class act, and I’m a little surprised that he is heading here. He dodged Cheltenham, with connections saying that they wanted to ‘look after him’ with his future in mind. He’s only run three times over fences, and though the race tends do favour a novice, he is exceptionally inexperienced for this. He’s a horse I like a lot, but at this stage of his career I’d be stunned if he wins. Robbie Power can do no wrong, and he’ll take the ride, with the betting suggesting punters are confident of a huge run.

Thunder And Roses only got as far as the ninth fence at Aintree, and may remain fresh enough to do himself justice. He likes Fairyhouse, though did underperform in this race last year. Now with Mouse Morris, he’s just about on a handicap mark that would give him an each-way squeak.

Tiger Roll is another of the Gigginstown battalion that has an each-way chance. He was sensational at Cheltenham when winning the four-miler, and decent ground is crucial to his chances. He sauntered to victory in the Munster National back in October, and is arguably Elliott’s best shot at success.

All the above lie a little higher in the handicap than ideal, and there’s several from the bottom-end that appeal.
Though Willie Mullins may only have a few making the start, Haymount is one that looks to have a huge chance. Another that needs decent ground, he ran well in the four-miler at Cheltenham despite being keen throughout. He doesn’t lack gears, having beat Coney Island and Mall Dini earlier in the season at 2m4f. He’s a consistent sort, and I fancy he’ll go close.

Mall Dini is another with a shout, and has the right kind of profile. He was perhaps a little unfortunate at Cheltenham last time, when hampered late-on in the Fulke Walwyn Chase. He’s as short as 8/1 for this, though I’m not sure he warrants being half the price of Tiger Roll and Haymount. Nevertheless, he’s likely to go well despite still being a maiden over fences.

Abolitionist is another from the lower end of the handicap that has been attracting attention. Trained in County Kilkenny by Ellmarie Holden, this would be something of a fairy-tale success. Leading novice Rachael Blackmore takes the ride, and the horse tuned-up for this with a gutsy win in the Leinster National at Naas. The nine-year-old looks a thorough stayer, and is ideally weighted.

I’m a huge fan of Our Duke, and if he runs well I’ll be thrilled, but I can’t have him for this at 5/1. Mullins versus Elliott will remain the theme for the remainder of the season, and there’s every chance that they’ll be battling it out for this valuable prize. I’m keen on Haymount and Tiger Roll, and will be backing both. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Cheltenham Festival – The Power And The Glory

Like many others, I’m feeling slightly flat this morning, as I come to terms with the reality that another wonderful Cheltenham Festival is over for another year. The build-up and anticipation is quite extraordinary these days, but all too soon the final race is run, and feelings of hope, joy, desperation and frustration are replaced by a rather hollow sensation.

Those that love Aintree, Punchestown, Newmarket, Royal Ascot or Longchamp, will feel that I am overreacting somewhat. But I know many feel as I do, that nothing quite compares to those four glorious days at Prestbury Park. The setting itself, with Cleeve Hill as a stunning backdrop, along with the grandeur of the new stand, and the stunning structural improvements throughout the course, all combine to make Cheltenham an exceptional sporting venue. Around 250,000 racegoers can’t be wrong.

And so, to ease my pain I thought I’d reflect on the racing performances that, in my opinion, were the standouts during four days of top-class action. I could have chosen more, and there’s one or two omissions that will puzzle readers, but the following ‘magnificent seven’ stood out for me.

Despite Gordon Elliott having a sensational opening day, I have chosen a Nicky Henderson duo that oozed star-quality on Tuesday.

I’m of the opinion that Altior proved himself an exceptional talent, in winning the Arkle Chase. Many appeared less than impressed by his ‘workmanlike’ victory, yet he went from a length in-front at the last, to six-lengths clear at the line. He needs rousing to get into top gear, but when stoked-up he is a destructive force. He jumped beautifully throughout, and like in the Supreme a year earlier, was doing his best work at the finish. He may well become a Champion Chase winner, but it would come as no surprise to me, if he were to be stepped-up in trip, with the King George as a short-term target.

Just a short while after Altior’s victory, stable companion Buveur D’Air proved himself the class act in a decidedly average looking Champion Hurdle. Time may prove that he beat very little, but the style of his success may well place him in the same league as Annie Power and Faugheen. He was wonderfully slick over his hurdles, as he cruised through the race, waiting for his jockey to give the signal. And when Noel Fehily said go, the six-year-old quickly put the race to bed. My Tent Or Yours proved best of the rest, though was comfortably brushed aside by the winner.

The winning time suggests the performance was a strong one, and Buveur D’Air looks capable of becoming a dominant force over the coming period. It’s worth remembering that this victory was only his second run of the season over hurdles, and there is certainly room for a fair amount of improvement.

I skip Wednesday despite solid performances from Willoughby Court, Might Bite and Special Tiara. An injury to Douvan probably robbed us of a dazzling performance, though I’m of the opinion that a rather circumspect preparation left him ill-prepared for this ‘true’ championship test. He defeated 12-year-old Realt Mor in his prep-race at Punchestown.

Willie Mullins had drawn a blank until Thursday, but then answered his critics with a stunning four-timer. The performance of Un De Sceaux in winning the Ryanair was as good as anything during the festival. Try as he might, Ruby Walsh was unable to apply the brakes on the free-going nine-year-old, and was pretty-much a passenger from the fifth fence. Onlookers waited for him to wilt as he turned for home, but Un De Sceaux kept-up the astounding gallop, and with a floorless round of jumping finished a comfortable length and a half ahead of the strong finishing Sub Lieutenant.

It was a cracking performance from the multiple Grade 1 winner, and reminiscent of his ‘all-guns-blazing’ Arkle success of 2015. This fella has been somewhat overlooked in recent years, with stable companions Annie Power, Faugheen, Vautour and Douvan creating the headlines. But there’s no doubting the star quality that Un De Sceaux possesses. He’s a true Champion in his own right.

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I was also stunned by the performance of Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle later that day. Shaneshill had been my confident selection, having highlighted my doubts over the gears possessed by Unowhatimeanharry. I expected NC to be a little too keen to see out the three miles, but I was proved wrong. Not only did he storm up the famous hill to victory, but he looked capable of going around again. Beautifully ridden by Ruby Walsh, he was produced between the last two flights, and stayed-on powerfully to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller.

He’s no mug over two-miles, having finished third to Annie Power in last year’s Champion Hurdle. And it’s clear that he appreciates the better ground he encounters in the spring. His owner Graham Wylie was quick to compare him to his previous staying hero Inglis Drever. Similar in stature, and showing the same tenacious attitude up the final hill, there’s every chance that Nichols Canyon can become a multiple Stayer’s winner, assuming Mullins can keep him fit and well.

Friday’s action began with a stunning performance from Triumph Hurdle favourite Defi Du Seuil. He’s a tank of a horse, and he powered through the race like a potential star. There had been some concern over the drying ground, but in the end, nothing could stop the Philip Hobbs trained juvenile. Yet another dazzling hurdler for JP McManus, it will be interesting to see if he goes Champion Hurdle or Arkle Chase next year. Interviewed after the race, Hobbs spoke in glowing terms, hinting that this fella could achieve anything.

A little over half an hour later, Mullins completed another glorious piece of training, by saddling Arctic Fire to win the County Hurdle off top-weight. The eight-year-old had been off the track since January 2016, and it’s easy to forget that he had finished a close runner-up to Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle of 2015. Rated 169 at his peak, he’d been given a chance by the handicapper running off 158, and so it proved with a performance that was both classy and tenacious. If coming out of the race fit and well, he’ll possibly head to the Aintree Hurdle, with the likelihood of a clash with Buveur D’Air. That could prove a thorough examination for the new Champion hurdler.

It’ll come as no surprise to see that Sizing John is the final member of my ‘Cheltenham Magnificent Seven’. He’s proved a sensation since being stepped-up in trip, having spent the early part of his career chasing Douvan around various racecourses, including Cheltenham. Never out of the first three over obstacles, this huge son of Midnight Legend won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last time, though many questioned whether the steady pace that day had played to his strengths.

Nevertheless, trainer Jess Harrington remained confident that stamina would not be an issue, and she was proven right, with Sizing John seeing out the extended trip in fine style to win by almost three lengths, from the fast finishing Minella Rocco.

Robbie Power rode a beautifully cool and calm race, having the seven-year-old in mid-division throughout the early stages, with the horse always travelling supremely well. Moving onto the tail of the leaders coming downhill to the third last, only Djakadam appeared to be going as well, but by the second last Sizing John was on terms, and a fine leap saw him sweep to the front. Another superb jump at the last sealed the deal, with Minella Rocco getting up on the line to beat Native River for second spot. Djakadam faded late-on to finish fourth.

This was Jess Harrington’s first runner in the Gold Cup. The horse had formerly been trained by Henry De Bromhead, but was moved to Harrington by owners Ann and Alan Potts during the summer. He now stands at the head of the staying chase division, and with age on his side could well be there for some time to come.

And so the curtain came down on another terrific Cheltenham Festival. Once again, we’ve witnessed four days of sporting theatre, scattered with moments of elation and despair. Jump racing’s Olympics never fails to deliver on the most dramatic stage of all.

Mullins Back On Track

Team Mullins roared back to life with a stunning four-timer on day three of the Cheltenham Festival.

Yorkhill set the ball rolling with victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase. Many had expected Disko to set the fractions after his dominant display in the Flogas Chase last time in Ireland. But for reasons best known to himself, Bryan Cooper thought it wise to sit patiently on Noel Meade’s talented six-year-old, and try to out-sprint last year’s Neptune winner (Yorkhill) and Top Notch, fifth in the 2016 Champion Hurdle.

Needless to say, the tactics proved wide of the mark, as both swept past him from the second last, with Yorkhill having the class and the gears to hold-off Nicky Henderson’s gutsy challenger by a length, with Cooper and Disko three lengths further back in third. It certainly wasn’t the Gigginstown jock’s finest hour. Nevertheless, Ruby Walsh wasn’t complaining, as his mount made it two Festival wins on the bounce.

A relieved Willie Mullins said: “To get on the board is huge. To get on the board in a Grade One is better. It's good for Ruby and the whole team. We've had a hard few days, but that's the way it is and we take what we can get.” Walsh was bullish after the win, saying: “He's got 'Gold Cup horse' written all over him and always had. People crab him because of his jumping, but he has a huge kink in him - people never realised the job Paul Nicholls did with Denman, because he was the same. Both are chestnuts by Presenting, the best ones all have a kink, he has a massive engine. He's brilliant. He's fantastic.”

There’s no doubting that Yorkhill is a classy racehorse; winning twice at the Cheltenham Festival is testament to that. But I’d be surprised if a one length victory over Top Notch in a JLT makes him a potential Gold Cup winner.
Things improved further for Mullins and Walsh, when Un De Sceaux put in a dominant display to win the Ryanair Chase. Briefly held up, the horse as much as the jockey decided to make the running from the fifth fence, and at no point in proceedings looked like being caught. It was a stunning performance from the winner, who has now won 18 of his 23 career starts.

Walsh said of the win: “I was a passenger. I got him back at the first fence down the back, but he attacked and jumped and he stayed. The jump at the last was special. He's a cracking little horse and he's so consistent, he must be a joy to own, he's a little tiger. He wants soft ground at two miles which is why we went two and a half miles on better ground.”

Just half an hour later, Team Mullins were at it again, this time in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Like Yorkhill, Nichols Canyon is owned by Graham and Andrea Wylie, and though somewhat different in stature, has proved no less talented. Third to Annie Power last year in the Champion Hurdle, the step up to three miles looked risky, but the decision proved to be spot-on. He travelled beautifully throughout, and when asked for his effort quickened and stayed for a decisive victory. Lil Rockerfeller battled on bravely for second, with race favourite Unowhatimeanharry, just done for toe back in third.

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It was a cracking renewal, with Cole Harden doing his best to repeat his success of 2015 from the front. Neil King’s Lil Rockerfeller took over as they turned for home, but it was the superior speed of Nichols Canyon that proved the telling factor. Jezki looked threatening approaching the home turn, but failed to see-out the trip. Shaneshill proved disappointing, as did novice West Approach, with both being pulled-up late-on.

For owner Graham Wylie, the victory brought back memories of a previous hurdling hero, Inglis Drever. Speaking after the success he said: “When I told Willie to buy a horse for me, he rang me up and said 'I think I've found you the next Inglis Drever'. He looks like him as he's only a pony, but he flew up the hill. Ruby told me he'd ride him like that to make sure he got the trip. It wasn't until approaching the last I thought he might get placed, never mind win.”

Mullins said: “It was some performance. I didn't particularly think the three miles would suit. He is tough, I just thought he would be too keen over that trip. With age, a lot of these horses learn to settle.”

Walsh was also impressed, saying: “He's a little warrior. He switched off, he jumped and we just crept away. Lil Rockerfeller was battling back at me but he kept going all the way to the line. He just started to come back to himself the last 10 days, Katie (Walsh) rode him at the Curragh the other day and said he worked very well. I'm delighted for Graham and Andrea (Wylie), this race means a lot to them.”

The four-timer was landed when Let’s Dance romped to victory in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Ruby was again exceptional in the saddle, judging the pace of the race to perfection. He had his mount way-out the back, until making his move between the last two flights. The five-year-old dived a little at the last, but that didn’t prevent her from storming up the hill for an impressive win.

The victory also signalled a welcome change of fortune for owner Rich Ricci. He’s had to endure an incredible run of misfortune, with Douvan’s disappointing run in the Champion Chase the latest blow. The well-known saying ‘Form is temporary – Class is permanent’, was never more apt than at Cheltenham yesterday. Mullins, Walsh and Ricci team up with Djakadam today in the Gold Cup.

Henderson Holds the Aces as Mullins Draws A Blank

The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival 2017 went to Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson.

Altior landed the Arkle Chase for Seven Barrows, forging clear from the last fence for a six-length success. He jumped beautifully throughout, and was pressing Charbel for the lead, when Kim Bailey’s chaser came down at the second-last. The fall left Cloudy Dream and Ordinary World in hot pursuit, though neither could match the favourite up the famous hill. The victory was workmanlike rather than flashy, though there’s no doubting Altior’s class.

Just over an hour later, the form of his Supreme Novices’ win in 2016 was handsomely franked, when Buveur D’Air ran away with the Champion Hurdle. Henderson trained the first pair home, with My Tent Or Yours running a cracker to finish runner-up. But the winner proved to be in a class of his own. Petit Mouchoir had set the pace, and heading downhill had several of the field struggling, including the disappointing favourite Yanworth. The Henderson duo launched their challenge turning for home, with Buveur D’Air showing a clean pair of heels to lead at the last. He stretched four lengths clear at the finish.

Nicky Henderson was winning his sixth Champion Hurdle, and said after the race: “He won his two novice chases, but I just knew there was more there over hurdles. It was a very open race, but I knew he was a very talented horse. I wondered if I'd got it wrong (switching back to hurdles) but it's proved the right thing to do and it's worked on the day.”

Willie Mullins could only manage fourth with Footpad, and his luck was no better throughout the opening day, with Gordon Elliott proving to be a thorn in his side. The pair are in the midst of a tense battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, and Elliott was once again on top, this time in an arena where Mullins has become virtually invincible.

Melon was all the rage for the Supreme Novices’ and ran a cracking race, looking the likely winner turning for home. But it was Labaik, so often the bad boy on the track, that having decided to join in, showed he had the talent to go with the attitude. Elliott’s fella had refused to take part in four of his last six, but when it mattered most he tagged on to the back of the pack, gradually working his way through the field, and launching his challenge turning for home. He cruised to the front before the last under an ultra-cool ride from talented young jockey Jack Kennedy, and though Melon battled on gamely he was a couple of lengths adrift at the finish.

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Elliott joked after the victory: “He hasn't jumped off the last three times and I was wanting to go to Naas on Sunday to spare the embarrassment of him not jumping off at Cheltenham. The owners, who are friends, wanted to go. He has an engine, this horse, and there isn't another that can work with him in the yard. I don't know where he'll go next.”

A thrilled Jack Kennedy said: “Words can’t describe it - I’ve dreamed about this day for as long as I can remember. Everyone wants more, but I'll be going home a very happy lad at the end of the week now, however things go.”

Mullins would have been confident of landing the Mares’ Hurdle, but again it was Elliott that put a spanner in the works. Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag were strongly fancied, but Apple’s Jade proved a gutsy winner, out-battling the Ricci owned pair in a thrilling finish. VVM looked to be getting on top at the last, but the winner found more for Bryan Cooper, pulling more than a length clear. The winning trainer looked chuffed to bits when saying: “This was her Gold Cup. I put the tongue-strap on her and I thought it would work out. I knew she'd have to improve a good bit from her last run but she did. She'll stay three miles next year and will go to Punchestown now.”

Elliott made it three for the day when Tiger Roll stormed to victory in the four-miler. Despite the marathon trip, the seven-year-old was cantering turning for home under Lisa O’Neill, and won comfortably. Edwulf proved the only challenger, but appeared to suffer a seizure after the last. He was quickly pulled-up, and at the time of writing is back in the stable, hopefully on the road to recovery. The victory was the second of the day for owner Michael O’Leary, who said: “Tiger Roll loved it. He has his own way of doing things. I don’t know what to do now for the rest of the week. Normally I start to get nervous by Thursday when we can’t find a winner any way. Two-in on the first day, I think I should fly home, as it’s not going to get any better than this.”

It could get better for Elliott, with several outstanding horses still to launch their Festival challenge. Mullins will be praying that a blank opening day is not a sign of things to come. He has Douvan going to post tomorrow.