The Herefordshire Two

Practically neighbours with yards in the beautiful Herefordshire countryside, it proved to be a memorable Saturday afternoon for Venetia Williams and Kerry Lee.

With the UK in the midst of one of the wettest winters on record, step forward tried and tested mud-lovers. Venetia Williams is always the ‘go to’ trainer when the word ‘heavy’ features in a race ground description, and in Mountainous Kerry Lee has an ally that revels in the most testing of conditions.

Kerry Lee only took over from the ‘old man’ during the summer, but has had a terrific winter to date. Things got a whole lot better at Chepstow when the stables staying star Mountainous took the Welsh Grand National for the second time. Having dropped to an attractive handicap mark, many anticipated a huge run from the 2013 winner, and so it proved.

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With all his previous career wins coming on soft or heavy ground, conditions proved ideal. And ridden with supreme confidence by Jamie Moore he swept to the lead three fences out. As others floundered, Mountainous galloped relentlessly to victory. Firebird Flyer finished with a flurry to take second spot, with Shotgun Paddy and Saroque filling the places.

“So much work has gone into him at home,” said Lee. “He hasn't had a lot of racing and has been nurtured at home. I've known he was so well for some weeks now, so we were really fed up when the race was abandoned over Christmas. We managed to keep him fresh and sweet and he really enjoyed this ground. When it chucked it down before the race I was delighted.”

The winner looks set to head for Aintree, though his last appearance in the Liverpool showpiece ended with a fall at Valentines in 2014. Ground will obviously prove key to his chances.

Whilst Lee was celebrating at Chepstow her illustrious neighbour, Venetia Williams, was claiming another valuable prize when Yala Enki captured the William Hill Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton. Her French recruit had romped home in his seasonal debut at Exeter before looking a non-stayer in the Fixed Brush Hurdle at Haydock. However, on Saturday the track, trip and ground conditions all appeared to suit and thanks to an impressive ride from Charlie Deutsch the six year-old led from pillar to post.

The free running son of French sire Nickname was sent on from the drop of the flag, stealing a good half dozen lengths. He stretched the field in the early part of the race, but a few indifferent leaps down the back straight saw the field close in. Deutsch remained calm on top and allowed the horse to get back into a rhythm. Turning for home the young jockey had asked his mount to extend and he soon had those in behind under pressure. Westren Warrior and Ibis Du Rheu chased in vain with the winner holding on gamely by two lengths.

After the win that he described as his biggest to date, Deutsch said: “He really was quite tough and gutsy. I kept kicking and squeezing him off the bend, and he just kept finding more and more. He was very brave and he stays.”

So a day to remember for Herefordshire’s finest with the promise of many more to come.

Bailey’s Ace Looks Each-Way Shout

The main event at Kempton on Saturday is the William Hill Lanzarote Hurdle.

The listed handicap is run over 2m 5f and was won last year in sensational fashion by Nick Williams’ talented gelding Tea For Two. In what appeared to be a competitive renewal, the then six-year-old romped to a 10 length victory. A year earlier the race went to Paul Nicholls with one of his most talented inmates Saphir Du Rheu.

Nicholls has taken two of the last seven renewals, though Nick Williams is very much the most successful trainer in recent times with three wins from the last five. However, he won’t be adding to that tally on Saturday as he has no entries in this year's event. Nicholls on the other hand is likely to be represented by the well-fancied Ibis Du Rheu. The five-year-old ran a promising second at the Hennessy meeting in November, just failing to overhaul Royal Guardsman over a slightly shorter trip. Chances are that the step up in distance will suit, though he has to improve plenty to take this far more competitive affair.

Harry Fry and Philip Hobbs shared honours in the last major handicap when Jolly’s Cracked It and Sternrubin hit the line together in The Ladbroke at Ascot. Sadly Fry’s imposing gelding will miss the remainder of the season due to a tendon injury.

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Nevertheless, the Dorset trainer will be hopeful that he can add another prestigious handicap with Unowhatimeanharry currently favourite for Saturday’s showpiece. He won an Albert Bartlett trial at Cheltenham in December, though that was over three miles. He had been successful prior to that at two and half, and heavy ground holds no fears. The horse is undefeated since joining Fry in the summer.

Yala Enki is another that should enjoy ground conditions. Venetia Williams is often the ‘go to’ trainer when the mud is flying, and this French import has already impressed this winter when cruising to victory at Exeter in November. He was then a little too keen at Haydock in the Fixed Brush Handicap Hurdle, though he battled on for fifth having looked likely to fade out of sight turning for home. He has a lovely race weight, and looks a serious player.

This race often goes to unexposed types rather than seasoned handicappers, and Nicky Henderson’s Bivouac certainly fits that description. The five-year-old has only run seven times over hurdles and has a far superior record running right-handed. He won at the track last December and was successful at Huntingdon last time out when having the fast improving Lil Rockerfeller in behind. The ground should be ideal, and it’s no surprise to see him towards the head of the betting.

Dr Richard Newland is always to be respected in these competitive handicaps and he has an interesting contender in the lightly raced Westren Warrior. He’s another who will enjoy the testing conditions; having won an ordinary novice hurdle by miles last time at Lingfield in heavy ground. He’d chased home recent Cheltenham winner Singlefarmpayment prior to that, and clearly that form now looks pretty strong.

Gary Moore can do no wrong this winter, and he has recent course and distance winner Baron Alco entered here. He looks to be improving at a rate of knots and has a tasty pedigree being a son of Dom Alco out of a Network mare. He’ll need to step up again, but looks to have the potential to do exactly that.

Finally a mention for Kim Bailey’s eight-year-old Un Ace. He’s a hugely talented horse who is back over hurdles having had a productive time over fences. Though French bred, he is probably slightly better suited by a sounder surface. However, he has a fair looking race weight and the trip is perfect. He’s run right-handed only twice before and won both times. He looks a decent each-way proposition.

It’s another hugely competitive handicap to get excited about and finding the winner as ever will prove one hell of a task.