Let battle commence! At Sandown on Saturday the Jump Racing King of Ireland takes on his counterpart in the UK for the title of Champion Trainer.
It’s surely pure greed on the part of Willie Mullins, but for Paul Nicholls a great deal of pride is at stake. For much of the winter Ditcheat have failed to spark as in previous campaigns and that hint of vulnerability has proved too much of a temptation for the master of Closutton. Cheltenham and Aintree appeared to have settled matters in favour of Mullins, but an incredible response at Ayr has placed Nicholls in pole position.
Nevertheless, Ireland’s champion trainer appears determined to become the first Irishman since Vincent O’Brien to take the UK crown and is set to send a powerful team to Sandown to seal the deal. He’ll have to turn around a deficit in the region of £50,000 if he is to come out on top. The season finale is always a popular meeting but clearly Saturday’s will be one of the most thrilling in recent memory.
Hostilities begin with the Bet365 Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. There’s just over £30,000 on offer to the winner and Mullins has a sole entry, relying on his French import Voix Du Reve. Owned by the Wylies, he looked an unfortunate loser at Cheltenham when coming down at the last in the Fred Winter with the race at his mercy. He’d scythed his way through the field on that occasion, and looked a class act. He has to carry top weight, but was coping admirably at Cheltenham with 11st 7lbs until his slip-up.
Nicholls has three entered in the opener, though Zubayr ran just a few days ago at Wincanton and Frodon ran at both Cheltenham and Aintree. It’s therefore likely that he will rely on Tommy Silver, who was last seen finishing seventh in the Triumph Hurdle. Yet another from France, he was outpaced at Cheltenham before staying on stoutly up the hill. The drying ground at Sandown will probably not suit and though he gets 6lbs from Mullins’ runner, it probably won’t be enough. This is by no means a two horse race, but of the duo scrapping over the title, you’d have to say advantage Mullins.
Up next is the Bet365 Oaksey Chase with £28,475 to the winner. The race distance of just under 2m7f looks set to favour Mullins’ entrants over those from Ditcheat. Nicholls could run Dodging Bullets, though his previous effort at more than two miles over fences came in the Manifesto Novices’ at Aintree in 2014, when he clearly failed to see out the 2m4f trip. He’s not looked the same horse since coming back from injury, and was hammered at Cheltenham in the Champion Chase.
Ditcheat also have Saphir Du Rheu entered for this, but he flopped in the World Hurdle and was then miles behind Cue Card at Aintree, though he ran a fair race till fading late on. It’s hard to imagine him winning this off the back of such a poor season.
Again Mullins appears to hold the stronger hand. Vautour, Valseur Lido or Vroum Vroum would all be better suited by this trip, and all look more than capable of landing the prize. This has the look of a Mullins banker.
The valuable Celebration Chase is up next with a massive £71,000 for the winner. The aforementioned Dodging Bullets could line-up in this, though as mentioned, he would need a dramatic return to form to be competitive. It’s far more likely that the finish will be contested by Sire De Grugy, Sprinter Sacre and Un De Sceaux. The latter is sure to go close, and Nicholls must hope that the pair of old warriors put their best foot forward to deny Mullins a crucial victory.
The most valuable race on the card is the Bet365 Gold Cup Chase, with £84,405 to the victor. This race looks a lot more promising for Nicholls, with the race favourite Southfield Theatre and last year’s winner Just A Par his main hopes. The former is undoubtedly his best chance and his novice chase form would give hope of a strong performance. However, his price at the head of the market owes more to his trainer’s record in the race, than his own performances on the track this winter. Nicholls is a master at producing horses to win this type of event, and he’ll need to be with this fella.
Mullins has a few players in this, with Measureofmydreams, Pleasant Company and Sir Des Champs all likely to run. The latter may struggle to see out this trip though he’ll enjoy the sounder surface. Measureofmydreams only made it to the third at Ayr last weekend and will need to overcome his lack of experience to play a part. He’s certainly talented enough to run a huge race.
Chasing experience is also a huge negative for Pleasant Company, though better ground and the marathon trip may well suit. His owner won this race with Hennessy back in 2009, and of the Mullins runners this fella could prove the surprise package. Theatre Guide could go close for the all-conquering Tizzards, whilst Neil Mulholland holds a strong hand.
The Bet365 Select Hurdle is up next with both Mullins and Nicholls holding multiple entries. With another £28,000 on offer, both will be hoping they have the ammunition to go close. Vroum Vroum could take some beating if she heads here, though Ptit Zig is an intriguing entry for the Champion Trainer. He was last seen chasing home Thistlecrack in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, and both track and trip ought to suit. The New One, Court Minstrel and Diamond King are also capable of going close.
The final two events are less valuable, yet the combined prize money of almost £40,000 could still prove crucial. The Bet365 Josh Gifford Novices’ Handicap Chase is run over a trip of two and a half miles. Mullins goes with the 11-year-old Rolly Baby, who won last time at Navan. He’s only run twice over fences and is hard to fancy for this.
Nicholls has plenty entered, with arguably Calipto and As De Mee the classiest. The latter is yet to win over fences, but has run some crackers behind decent types. Kerry Lee could well scupper both, with her classy chaser Kylemore Lough. He’ll need to lump top weight around the testing track, but he’s been a revelation this spring, and may be good enough to do it.
The final race is a handicap hurdle that looks impossible to call. Mullins and Nicholls will have plenty of entrants, though the title will probably have been won by this stage.
Nicholls heads to Sandown with a decent advantage, but there’s little doubt that Mullins holds the aces and has the firepower to turn things around. Though Nicholls will of course hope to win the valuable Bet365 Gold Cup, it could be the Celebration Chase that proves key to the outcome of the trainer’s championship. The master of Ditcheat could well find himself stood alongside Nicky Henderson, cheering home one of the greatest chasers Sprinter Sacre. Now that would be a picture worth capturing.