'Sceaux' gets nod to lead Mullins raid on Sandown
Un De Sceaux will have a second stab at Sprinter Sacre at Sandown tomorrow as the absorbing tit-for-tat duel between Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls reaches its crescendo.
Jump racing's two most decorated handlers of modern times can each boast nine wins in their respective domestic championships.
After trading blows yesterday, Mullins eventually lost ground in the quest to plunder a landmark triumph in the British title race. He ended the day £53,556 behind Nicholls despite a first and second at Perth for Townshend and Tennis Cap that at one stage had the deficit down to £39,340.
Again, Nicholls, who managed three wins and five places yesterday, has a numerically stronger delegation today, with four Chepstow runners to Mullins's sole Perth candidate, albeit the Paul Townend-ridden Rolly Baby has a chance to win the largest pot in a handicap chase worth £9,097 to the winner.
In truth, this week has been all about damage limitation for Mullins. If he is to thwart Nicholls' bid for a 10th title, tomorrow's £485,000 Bet365 Gold Cup card at Sandown was always going to be crucial. The Closutton genius had raised the possibility of saddling Douvan or Vautour in the Grade One Celebration Chase, but in the end he has opted to give Un De Sceaux a chance of plundering the £71,187 prize.
If Townend's free-running mount is to do so, he will have to gain vengeance on Nicky Henderson's Sprinter Sacre, which last month reclaimed the Champion Chase in spectacular fashion, three years after first winning it.
Un De Sceaux simply couldn't cope with him on the prevailing good ground on that occasion. However, there is a feeling inside Closutton that being denied the lead by Special Tiara might have spoiled his chance, especially on the prevailing good ground.
"Un De Sceaux didn't given his true running at Cheltenham for whatever reason," the sidelined Ruby Walsh suggested in his Paddy Power blog yesterday. "Maybe the ground was a little quick, maybe he didn't like being taken on for the lead by Special Tiara. I'd expect a better show this time.
"But Sprinter Sacre beat him well in the Champion Chase and looked back to his best. It looks a match between them on Champion Chase form as Special Tiara waits for Punchestown, and whoever comes out of Cheltenham best should be the winner here."
While Sizing Tiara is absent, the underfoot conditions are likely to be similarly decent, and the bookmakers make the revitalised champion evens favourite, with his closest Cheltenham pursuer a best-priced 6/4.
Nicholls will saddle last year's champion chaser Dodging Bullets, and, reaffirming just how desperate he is to retain his crown, he will also saddle outsiders Solar Impulse and Ulck Du Lin. Sire De Grugy, the 2014 two-mile champion and twice a winner of the Celebration, completes the field.
Mullins has indicated that both Yorkhill and Douvan will be on his Punchestown lorry net week. Yorkhill, which won despite racing freely at Aintree, is one of eight - including Limini - that he has in Tuesday's Herald Champion Novices' Hurdle.
"Yorkhill would look to be my best chance in this," he said of the Grade One. "He seems fine after what might have appeared to have been a hard race at Aintree. Douvan looks the most likely of mine to go for (Thursday's) Ryanair Novice Chase. He's in great nick."