It’s impossible to review this weekend’s racing without reflecting on the incredible success of trainer Philip Hobbs and jockey Richard Johnson.
Hobbs enjoyed a stunning six winners over three wonderful days at Cheltenham, whilst his trusty pilot managed a magnificent seven. The season could not have started any better, and it’s hardly a surprise after such a lucrative period to see the Minehead trainer perched at the very top of the trainers’ championship.
On Friday Bold Henry set the ball rolling before Champagne West and Balthazar King completed a treble on the day. The latter was winning at the course for the eighth time. He is becoming a dominant force over the cross-country fences, and at the age of ten is still a relative junior at the event. However, he is set to miss the Cheltenham Festival in favour of another crack at the Grand National. His trainer declared: “We half wonder if he hadn’t come here last season, would he have won the National?”
Champagne West looks a novice chaser with a very bright future. His jumping was accurate, and he positively tanked into the home straight. He stayed on powerfully up the hill and is likely to be aimed at the RSA, assuming he takes to an extended trip.
Saturday, though another successful day, could have been even better. Sausalito Sunrise ran a gutsy race when trying to give Kings Palace 5lbs in the three mile novices’ chase. He came off second best and could well find himself stepped up in trip as the season progresses. David Pipe’s winner was impressive, but the novice chase division is packed with quality, and tougher races lie ahead.
Big Easy also hit the crossbar for the stable, when second to another Pipe winner Katkeau in the 3m1f handicap hurdle. Both travelled strongly into the straight, but Hobbs’ Cesarewitch winner was unable to get his head in front on this occasion. It may still be early in the campaign but I’d expect the Pertemps in March to come under consideration for this lovely big stayer.
The team simply refused to end the day empty handed, and finally hit the target in the juvenile hurdle. It looked a strong renewal, and Golden Doyen put himself in the Triumph Hurdle picture with a taking win. Many pointed to the second as the horse to take out of the race. Nicky Henderson’s French import Hargam indeed ran a cracker. But he was getting weight from the winner and both look sure to improve during the season.
And so we moved to the final day of this extraordinary meeting. Dunraven Storm notched up number five for the stable with an extravagant round of jumping, holding off Vibrato Valtat. People on social networks were quick to criticise the ride given to the runner-up, but the horse is something of an enigma, and needs to be delivered with his challenge at the very last minute. Richard Johnson on the other hand simply had to point the winner in the right direction whilst holding on for dear life.
His ride in winning the Greatwood Hurdle however, was far less straight forward, and proved what a wonderful jockey he is. With no one wishing to take up the running, Johnson decided to set the pace on Garde La Victoire. He pressed for home at exactly the right moment before holding off the late challenge of race favourite Vaniteux. It was a thrilling race in so many ways. The first two home are trulytruly taking individuals that will make into wonderful chasers one day. They are trained by two of the best in the business, and were ridden faultlessly by jockeys at the very top of their game.
Back in the winners enclosure connections celebrated an incredible meeting for Hobbs. Not satisfied in parity with his boss, Richard Johnson then jumped on board Definitly Red and duly won the bumper. It completed a dream weekend for all concerned.
Philip Hobbs confessed that he felt he lacked the firepower to win the trainers championship, and of course it would take a brave man to bet against either Henderson or Nicholls taking the title. However, the Sandhill Racing Stables has never looked as powerful. With the backing of owners such as Roger Brookhouse and Diana and Graham Whateley, the future looks bright.