Whatever your views on the equine flu outbreak and the BHA’s response to it, no-one could decry the unwitting spin-off that was the compelling card at Ascot on Saturday.
As the action unfolded, it was hard not to feel sorry for Newbury, the most unfortunate victims of the six-day shutdown imposed by racing’s rulers. Not only had the track lost one of its best fixtures of the year the previous weekend, it also had to watch grudgingly as two of its best races, the Betfair Hurdler and the Betfair Denman Chase, were switched across Berkshire.
I was surprised the Newbury card wasn’t re-arranged for the following Friday, as happened in 2011 after the abandonment of the original, caused by the horrific electrocutions of horses in the paddock. But I suspect that sponsors Betfair had the final word, especially as they also backed the highlight of the Ascot fixture, the Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase.
Certainly, few were complaining because the upshot was a sizzling nine-race feast on Saturday. And one man above all others was not complaining, and that was trainer Paul Nicholls, who landed a five-timer that formed part of a haul of eight winners across the country on the day. An eight-timer from 24 runners at combined odds of 45,863/1, trousering him more than £260,000 in prize money and edging him closer to his 11th champion trainer title.
Nicholls’s success was blessed with fitting context too. Amid the equine flu uproar, it emerged that the BHA had sent out an advisory note on January 25, warning about possible problems and suggesting to trainers that their string receive boosters. Nicholls acceded. Others didn’t.
It underlined the sheer professionalism of Nicholls, unquestionably the best Jumps handler in the UK in my lifetime. The golden days of the likes of Denman, Kauto Star, Big Buck’s and Master Minded might have long gone. And it’s not as if big-gun owners such as JP McManus, Rich Ricci or Gigginstown House Stud are lining up their tanks on the lawns of Ditcheat either. But the 56-year-old remains at the top of his game. He has now saddled more than 100 winners in each of the last 17 seasons, and amassed more than £2 million in prize money in each of the last 16 seasons. This week, his 3,000th career winner was celebrated.
OK, Nicholls has failed to field a Grade One winner at the Cheltenham Festival since Dodging Bullets’s success in the Queen Mother Champion Chase four years ago. And the loss to injury of his Arkle Chase hope Dynamite Dollars last week is hardly likely to improve that record. But admirably, he is a trainer who doesn’t over-rely on Festival glory. His belief in the host of other well-endowed races that span the National Hunt season should serve as an example to the legions of lesser trainers.
One of those races is the Ascot Chase, won in eyepopping style by Nicholls’s CYRNAME with the performance of the season so far. Not only did the front-running 7yo demolish a terrific field, he also burst the considerable bubble of the heavily-backed favourite and last year’s winner, WAITING PATIENTLY.
Notwithstanding his defeat of Cue Card 12 months ago, I felt Ruth Jefferson’s stable star faced a stiff ask on what was effectively his first outing since. Despite being given plenty to do and then delivered wide, Waiting Patiently still looked the likely winner approaching two out. But from there, worryingly, he curled up and hung. Maybe lack of race-fitness told. Maybe he wouldn’t let himself down properly on ground that was drying out too quickly for him.
Either way, the extra gears that Cyrname found to power clear were reminiscent of the halcyon days of Nicholls’s very best animals. It’s such a pity that he won’t be seen at either Cheltenham or Aintree this spring, but the trainer and owner Johnny de la Hey have clearly come to the conclusion that the gelding must go right-handed and have, therefore, hatched a plot to conquer the King George at Kempton next Christmas. As a long-time supporter of Jumps racing, de la Hey deserves to call the shots, so how disappointing it was to see his name spelled incorrectly twice, and in two different ways, in the Racing Post’s review of the race on Sunday.
There will be no such Cheltenham shyness about Nicholls’s other outstanding big-race winner of the day, CLAN DES OBEAUX, who followed up his shock triumph in this season’s King George with a triumph that oozed consummate class in the Denman Chase. Like Cyrname, the 7yo is a classic example of the amount of improvement Nicholls can induce from horses as they mature. He travelled and jumped, and readily put to the sword a runner-up, TERREFORT, who is no mug.
In my view, Clan Des Obeaux should now be clear favourite for the Gold Cup, rather than an extremely enticing 6/1. I am sure he will stay the trip and while critics point to the fact that he has been beaten on all four previous visits to Prestbury Park, he has actually run perfectly acceptable races on three of those occasions, including in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle and when lumping 11-12 into second in last season’s Caspian Caviar Gold Cup. The disappointing occasion came when he found himself having to make the running. Since being ridden more conservatively and since allying consistency and professionalism to the natural talent he unveiled early in both his hurdling and fencing careers, the son of Kapgarde has looked a serious tool.
A similar description can be attached to AL DANCER, winner of the re-routed Betfair Handicap Hurdle and now challenging for favouritism in the opening race of the Festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Those of us who were gobsmacked by the ease of his win at Cheltenham in December, and were tempted to tweet “Rhythm Is Al Dancer”, have earmarked him for this race ever since. He was persistently punted for the original race at Newbury and persistently punted again on Saturday.
I must say I wasn’t overly impressed by his performance, and I’m not sure the form is worth much, given that the race was run at a very steady gallop and most of Al Dancer’s main rivals never got into it. Given also how keen he was, it’s clear he still has a lot to learn. But a faster, more truly run Supreme should help him and whatever happens at the Festival, he is a magnificent physical specimen surely destined to develop into a star of the future.
The 6yo grey’s victory was the third in the race of the last six seasons for the Nigel Twiston-Davies yard and, hopefully, one that lightened the rotund trainer’s mood after his criticism of the BHA’s flu shutdown. Twiston-Davies’s view that it was an over-reaction to halt racing gained a lot of traction, but is an over-reaction necessarily a bad thing if it achieves the right end? This was a new strain of equine flu that was affecting already-vaccinated horses, albeit a miniscule number, and the BHA were surely acting wisely to draw stumps and take stock, especially with the Cheltenham Festival looming large on the horizon. Fingers crossed, a crisis has been averted and the Festival will fly racing’s flag with customary gusto.
FOOTNOTE: Ascot’s glory belonged predominantly to Paul Nicholls and Johnny de la Hey and, ironically, they were responsible too for the most eyecatching also-ran of the meeting in the 5yo mare, MALAYA. After a couple of heavy falls, she was given what is best described as a confidence-restoring outing in the 2m4f handicap hurdle and now looks primed, and weighted, to pick up a good prize or two this spring.