Ballabriggs leaps into Aintree frame
it tells you everything about the way his career is going that winning a race with the Aintree Grand National favourite at Ayr yesterday was just a prelude to the main business of the week for Donald McCain.
Ballabriggs, after all, was essentially just keeping out of trouble as he won his second novice hurdle of the campaign, pending a return to fences after the publication of the Aintree weights a fortnight today.
And his flourishing trainer has a rather more earnest assignment in mind for the unbeaten Peddlers Cross, who warms up for the Stan James Champion Hurdle on Saturday.
McCain had hoped to give Peddlers Cross his final rehearsal at Haydock 10 days ago, but was thwarted by frost and must now choose between the William Hill Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las and the Totesport Contenders Hurdle at Sandown.
Both races were reopened yesterday, but McCain knows that Nicky Henderson will be on his case wherever he ends up -- with Binocular heading to Sandown, and Oscar Whisky to Ffos Las.
Peddlers Cross beat the reigning champion on their reappearance at Newbury in November, but Binocular has since produced a much more aggressive exhibition at Kempton. Oscar Whisky graduated from novice company with an impressive performance at Cheltenham on New Year's Day.
Ballabriggs certainly looks an interesting Aintree candidate.
Yesterday presented a very different challenge, but it can only augur well that he should have been able to see off younger rivals under a penalty on lively ground.
Always going with gusto, he was ridden out to win by five lengths and Paddy Power now make him clear favourite at 16/1 for the National -- a race his owner, Trevor Hemmings, won with the Willie Mullins-trained Hedgehunter.
"He'll probably go for the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster (March 5) or a race at Kelso on the same day next. He'll have an entry in both of those and then go to the National, all being well," explained McCain.
"Trevor loves the National and when you've won it once, you want to do it again. There would be a question mark about whether Ballabriggs would stay the National trip, but you never know until you actually go there.
"He's always been a good jumper and loves good ground. He can travel well enough to win a two-and-a-half-mile hurdle on good ground and you need to be able to travel in a National, so he's got that quality."
The way he tired up the hill when winning the Kim Muir Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last March does permit some doubt about his stamina, but he set a punishing tempo that day and his all-round dynamism will surely be an asset round Aintree.
Nicky Richards' success with Premier Sagas -- given a fine ride by Brian Harding -- in the novice chase was by no means the first sign that the trainer is turning the corner.
This horse carries the silks made famous by Monet's Garden, who is reported by their owner to be responding positively to treatment for a life-threatening hoof infection.
David Wesley Yates is increasingly optimistic that the cherished grey could yet enjoy a long retirement and is looking forward to more success with Premier Sagas.
"He's always been a good jumper and is obviously a better chaser than he was a hurdler," said Yates. "He's just going to be a good handicapper I think, but there are better races to be won with him I'm sure."
Harding went on to complete a quickfire double as the Cork native guided Pauline Robson's 11/2 chance Festival King to an all-the-way win in the handicap chase. (© Independent News Service)