Sport Horse Racing

Saturday 20 September 2014

Nicholls proves he's still the master

Published 26/11/2012 | 05:00

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Hardly a weekend passes these days without new and substantial evidence emerging to confirm the seismic shift that is taking place in the staying chasing division.

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At Down Royal three weeks ago, a six-year-old, Kauto Stone, won the season's first Grade One, the JNwine.com Champion Chase. The same day, Silviniaco Conti, which is of the same vintage, hinted at his potential by readily taking Wetherby's Grade Two Charlie Hall Chase.

Then we had the year-older Flemenstar's commanding reappearance rout in the Fortria Chase at Navan and Al Ferof's tremendous weight-carrying triumph at Cheltenham last week.

On Saturday, Hidden Cyclone set himself up for a tilt at Leopardstown's Lexus Chase with a decisive victory at Gowran Park. Shortly after, Ruby Walsh rode his colleagues to sleep at Haydock, as Silviniaco Conti slammed Long Run in the Betfair Chase.

The only two Grade One chases run so far this term, then, have both been won by six-year-olds trained by Paul Nicholls, as the most influential jumps trainer of our times once again shows his aptitude for seamlessly replenishing his equine resources.

Nicky Henderson has been odds-on to take Nicholls' trainers' title away this term. Henderson undoubtedly has some exceptional horses, but Nicholls specialises in depth of quality. Remember, had Kauto Star or Denman not won their respective Gold Cups, the other would have done. And had neither won in 2007, Neptune Collonges would have instead.

Zarkandar, Silviniaco Conti and Al Ferof have helped Nicholls to a tidy early championship lead and the layers have now slashed him from as big as 2/1 into 6/4 to do so, yet he would still be value at evens.

Although Oscar Whisky did its job for Henderson at Ascot on Saturday, Finian's Rainbow flopped badly in the mud. With Sprinter Sacre likely to dominate the two-mile division, a stab at three miles in the King George had been on the agenda for him but, as is the case with Sizing Europe, that will be a tall order for horses that specialise over shorter.

Long Run remains the market leader to regain the King George. Clearly, you cannot write him off, but he isn't nearly the horse of old, and needs to be ridden more forcefully. Period. As for Silviniaco Conti, you'd have to be impressed with the way he has matured. Just as he was on Al Ferof, Ruby was at his uncomplicated best on him, a tactically astute pace-setting steer delivering him a second Grade One in a week, after a similarly no-nonsense effort on Hurricane Fly.

John 'Shark' Hanlon's seven-year-old Hidden Cyclone continued on his merry way with a solid performance from the front on Saturday. It was a fine show, but hacking around at a married man's gallop in the mud taught us nothing, other than that he still doesn't always respect his fences.

We'll get a better idea of how he copes outside his comfort zone at Leopardstown.

Before then, the ante-post Gold Cup favourite Sir Des Champs will cross swords with Flemenstar in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown on Sunday week. That will be the biggest test either up-and-comer has faced, so it will be fascinating to see which blinks first.

Mullins bemoans switch

The Grade Two Normans Grove Chase, traditionally held on Fairyhouse's end-of-January card, has swapped calendar places with the Dan Moore Handicap Chase, which was formerly on the track's Easter schedule.

With no graded conditions chases at Easter, officials were eager to fill the void, though Willie Mullins has been critical of the decision.

The champion trainer stated that there will now be only two graded two-mile chases run between the respective Grade Ones at Leopardstown at Christmas and at the Punchestown Festival. However, the Normans Grove still fits into that slot, albeit closer to Punchestown.

Mullins has won the last three Normans Groves, while Golden Silver won all three of the Grade Twos in question – the Tied Cottage at Punchestown in January and the Newlands Chase at Naas in February being the other two – for him in 2011.

Essentially, each of those three chases is typical of the poorly populated graded races that prevail in Ireland right now, with an aggregate of 14 runners contesting the Normans Grove over the past three years.

As a result of its switch, there will be a longer spread between the three Grade Twos – nine weeks instead of five. If that leads to better fields in graded races that have comprised of either three or four runners at least once in the past two years, that can only be a good thing.

Mullins went on to express his disappointment at the lack of consultation on the switch and that it was announced halfway through a campaign. The latter point is certainly a valid one.

TG4 out in front yet again

When it comes to taking a chance on topics that mightn't have guaranteed mass appeal, TG4 continues to put its national broadcaster counterpart to shame.

Irish racing seems to be one of the leading beneficiaries of such a bold policy, with the 'Jockey Eile' series followed by an informative Punchestown documentary on Saturday night. The best is yet to come, though, with 'Jump Boys', a cracking fly-on-the-wall documentary, pencilled in for Wednesday night at 9.30.

An insightful and revealing glimpse into the lives, attitudes, witticisms and insecurities of Davy Russell, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty, the hour-long episode is a thoroughly enjoyable watch.

Some clarity on headgear

As of this day week, the glaring anomaly whereby all forms of headgear are referred to as blinkers on Irish race-cards will be no more. There will now be differentiation between blinkers, visors, a hood, an eye-shield, an eye-cover and cheek-pieces, with the changes likely to first take effect at Wexford on Wednesday, December 5.

Numbers game

13 Where the previously unheralded Arc heroine Solemia finished in yesterday's Japan Cup. Local hero Orfevre, gallingly reeled in by the French filly at Longchamp, again had to settle for second behind another Japanese horse, Gentildonna.

20The cost of the Horse Racing Ireland-produced book and audio archive, 'The Lives and Times of Irish Racing People', with €5 from each sale going to the Injured Jockeys Fund. Among the 46 subjects are Dermot Weld's mother Marguerite and Vincent O'Brien's widow Jacqueline.

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Irish Independent

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