Nacarat set for Imperial showdown
TRAINER Tom George is relishing Nacarat's return to the top level in Saturday's Betfair Chase at Haydock.
The nine-year-old grey warmed up for his meeting with Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Imperial Commander with a convincing victory at Wetherby last month and has, apparently, been sparkling at home since.
"I'm not going to go as far as saying we'll beat the big guns," George said yesterday, "but we're going there to be competitive. The horse has come out of the Wetherby race really well and we are more than happy with him. And we're really looking forward to Saturday."
Nacarat's seasonal debut success was his first since he announced his potential as a big-stage player by taking the Racing Post Chase at Kempton in February last year. His progress last season, though, was compromised by niggling physical problems, and his appearances were restricted to five.
"We seemed to be going round in circles before, but this year we've been able to train him properly," George added. "We've been able to do a lot more with him because he hasn't been feeling the aches and pains he did in the past, and we feel there's a lot more to come from him. He's working like a properly good horse now, whereas before he was just a normal horse."
Nacarat, which carries the colours of Simon Clarke, will have a new rider on Saturday, after the defection of Sam Thomas -- who rode him at Wetherby -- to more fancied rival What A Friend. Whoever takes over will be the fourth set of hands on Nacarat's reins in two years, but George remains unfazed by the prospect.
"He's a fairly straightforward horse," he said, "very much point and click, with a few little reservations. He's not the sort you can bully and if he does make a mistake, it's often because someone has demanded something.
"He's the type you have to make a suggestion to, and then just let him get on with it. But he's basically uncomplicated, and because he's physically stronger and in better shape than he has been, he finds it all easier, which in turn makes his jockey's job easier." Neither Tony McCoy nor Paddy Brennan, Nacarat's most regular riders before Thomas, will be available at the weekend. "We have a few names on our list," said George, "and there won't be any shortage of volunteers."
With Thomas rejoining forces with Paul Nicholls on What A Friend, which he partnered to a Grade One victory in the Lexus Chase last year, Noel Fehily -- one of that powerful stable's regular riders since the injury to stable jockey Ruby Walsh -- will partner Master Minded for the first time at Ascot on the same afternoon as the top two-miler steps up in distance in the Amlin 1965 Chase.
Master Minded has been ridden by Tony McCoy in the past, but Nicholls and owner Clive Smith have chosen to go with Fehily, a decision for which the Cork native is thankful.
"I'm very grateful to Mr Nicholls and Mr Smith for giving me the opportunity and obviously he's a very exciting horse," said Fehily. "There's no better two-mile chaser around than him so hopefully it will all go well at the weekend.
Master Minded is due to reappear over two miles and three furlongs, the furthest he will have run over since he was a beaten 2/5 favourite behind Voy Por Ustedes in the Melling Chase of 2008.
George will be represented at Ascot by Tartak, which was a well-beaten third behind Monet's Garden at Aintree on his seasonal reappearance, but George now knows it takes his charge a few runs to reach his peak.
"Tartak is entered at Ascot, but his main aim for the season is the Peterborough Chase," said George. "He was a bit unlucky in it last year when he slipped three from home. He normally takes a couple of runs to get into the swing of things; that's what happened last year."
It is often observed that picking a horse by its name is as good a way as any to find a winner. Certainly at Fakenham yesterday coincidence backers would have been quids in; on the day a certain engagement was confirmed, Tocatchaprince obliged at 8/1.
At Folkestone, meanwhile, Zarrafakt and Penny Max maintained the incredible form of the Emma Lavelle stable with decisive victories.
Lavelle's record was improved to nine winners from 13 runners and the trainer will have few more impressive ones than Zarrafakt, which took the handicap chase under Thomas with quite absurd ease.
"They're flying," said Lavelle. "Zarrafakt was always going to be a chaser. He was very clever with his jumping and that should give him and Sam plenty of confidence."
Of Penny Max, she added: "It's my first Highclere horse and that's a great start. He's built for chasing -- he's not one for the Cheltenham Bumper or anything -- and I expect he'll go novice hurdling now." (© Independent News Service)