Nicholls the King once again
Unless you backed all his winners in a 4,914/1-accumulator, you are unlikely to have enjoyed the festive period as much as Paul Nicholls. Three strikes on Boxing Day and a further four on Thursday would have been a fantastic return in any circumstances, but the fact that three of them came in graded events will have given Nicholls particular satisfaction as he continues his quest to regain the trainers’ championship he last won – for a tenth time – in 2015/16.
As well as a £210,000 lead in this season’s title race, Nicholls can now boast a tenth King George win on his CV, following a coming-of-age success for Clan des Obeaux. Clearly suited by a good test of stamina, Clan des Obeaux still has youth on his side – he will only be turning seven on New Year’s Day – and there could be more to come from him when he tackles the Gold Cup trip; post-race quotes of around 10/1 arguably underestimate his claims of adding the blue riband to his tally in March.
Fellow big-race winners Dynamite Dollars (Arkle) and Quel Destin (Triumph Hurdle) have also contracted in price for their respective Cheltenham Festival targets, while it is too soon to be giving up on the RSA-bound Topofthegame. He emerged from the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase with his reputation firmly intact, despite finding the tough La Bague Au Roi too strong on the day, and the experience is sure to bring this raw sort on again.
Henderson beaten but not bowed
Nicky Henderson now appears to face a tougher task than had looked likely at the start of the season, as he attempts to seal his third trainers’ championship in succession, and it is fair to say that the contents of the Seven Barrows stocking were something of a mixed bag.
Henderson might have been tempted to stay at home and enjoy the leftover turkey if you had told him beforehand that both Buveur d’Air and Might Bite would be beaten at Kempton on Boxing Day. However, excuses have at least emerged for the latter’s below-par effort in the defence of his King George (reportedly bled), while the trainer still won the Christmas Hurdle courtesy of Verdana Blue; Buveur d’Air, who flattened the third last, was below his best in second but is still likely to be the one to beat when bidding for his third Champion Hurdle in March.
And, when things aren’t going quite as planned, Henderson can always rely on the most bankable commodity in National Hunt racing in the shape of Altior. He barely broke sweat when extending his unbeaten record over obstacles to 16 in Thursday’s Desert Orchid Chase, winning by 19 lengths, and it is hard to see how anything can trouble him in the two-mile division this season.
Boy bounds to Mullins’ rescue
The dearth of pretenders to Altior’s Champion Chase crown had been highlighted earlier on Thursday, with the exposed 12-year-old Simply Ned winning the Paddy’s Rewards Club ‘Sugar Paddy Chase’ at Leopardstown, swooping late to deny the red-hot favourite Footpad, with another Willie Mullins-trained inmate, the quirky but talented Great Field, already beaten when falling at the last.
Besides an impressive victory for Aramon in the Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle, also on Thursday, the festive period had been a trying one for Mullins to that point in truth, and Friday’s action didn’t get off to the best of starts, either – the highly-touted Annamix failed to justify odds-on favouritism on his debut at Limerick, while, back at Leopardstown, Faugheen suffered a crunching fall when attempting to close on the brilliant Christmas Hurdle winner Apple’s Jade.
Nevertheless, the best sight for all – especially everyone concerned at Closutton – was the 2015 Champion Hurdle winner getting back to his feet, and that relief quickly turned to joy as Kemboy sprinted to a ready victory in the Savills Chase. He remains relatively unexposed at staying trips and is now as short as 8/1 to give Mullins a first Gold Cup triumph in March.
— RTÉ Racing (@RTEracing) December 28, 2018
One to back next time
The other highlight over Christmas was the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow, in which Elegant Escape got the better of a sustained duel with Ramses de Teillee to give Colin Tizzard a second win in the contest in three years.
However, arguably the one to take out of the race was the fourth Rons Dream. She came from much further back than the three that beat her, staying on well on her first crack at a marathon trip, and is one to look out for, with this effort opening up plenty of options.