A neck, a head, a neck… With finishes like this, racing is peerless

The attention of sports fans was perhaps centred more on events at Trent Bridge and Ascot than Stratford yesterday, but the six race card in beautiful early summer sunshine provided some highly entertaining sport nonetheless.

Appreciate is showing the form of Joe Root as he notched up a hattrick in the opening Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle for Milton Harris and Mitchell Bastyan. Showing good pace to pick off the leader Kolisi at the last, Appreciate was following up on wins here in May, and a short head victory at Newton Abbot 4 days previously, which clearly hadn’t left a mark. And whilst the standard of this race is hardly on a par with England’s talisman batsman, there would appear to be more in the tank from this improving four year old.

The ensuing Mares’ Novices hurdle over the minimum trip provided an eventful finish. Turning in, Symbolic Spirit led, with Lunar Shadow not making much of an impression, and Quiet Thunder in third. The first two fell independently of each other at the last, allowing conditional Chris Ward to pick up an unexpected 50/1 winner for Sarah Hollinshead. Both fallers were none the worse for their tumbles. This was Ward’s first winner of the new term, and 38th in total.

Alan King, trainer of faller Lunar Shadow, exacted compensation later in the afternoon in a very exciting further Novices hurdle over the minimum trip, in which Rafiki, given a forceful ride by Tom Bellamy, got up by a head to beat Tardree and Olly’s Folly. Just five ran in this race, but any one of four could have won a furlong out, proving that small fields can often make for great finishes.

Rafiki and Tom Bellamy [2nd left] wins at Stratford as four jump the last together. 14/6/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Sarah Humphrey’s small West Wratting yard in Cambridgeshire enjoyed 9 winners last term, and courtesy of Glimpse of Gold, winner of the RacingTV free for a month Handicap Hurdle, she is already a third of the way to levelling that score with just seven weeks of the season behind us. This was the eleven year old’s third consecutive win following victories at Fakenham in April and May and the gelding lacks nothing in enthusiasm. Conditional Jay Tidball was in the plate.

There was more scrubbing going on in the closing stages of the Join RacingTV Now Novices Handicap Chase than you will find on HMS Pinafore. Three were in contention coming out of the back straight, all three under pressure to maintain their position. Eventual winner Boston Joe, for Rebecca Curtis’ South Wales yard, was locked in battle with Invincible Wish from Sarah Jane Davies, with School For Scandal in hot pursuit. Conor Ring conjured a terrific late run from Invincible Wish, but the winning post came just in time for Paul O’Brien on Boston Joe. The winning distance was a neck.

Boston Joe and Paul O’Brien win at Stratford. 14/6/2022 Pic Steve Davies

The excitement was far from over however, as the golden hour from 3.20 – 4.30 was punctuated by winners by a neck, a head and a neck – enough excitement to challenge Trent Bridge, where Stokes and Bairstow were in full flow after the tea interval. As the two England batsmen made short work of the 299 run chase with overs to spare, the appropriately – named Ahead of Schedule, long time leader in the closing Watch on RacingTV Handicap Chase over 2m 6f scarped home from Wavecrest. In stark contrast to Trent Bridge’s final result, the neck winning distance was, to paraphrase Wellington, ” a close-run thing”.

The action returns to Stratford on June 28th, when we may be basking in a third test win by our boys in white at Headingly, but Stratford spectators will be most royally entertained by our six winners.

Jumpers to follow this Flat season

It’s not uncommon for National Hunt horses to switch codes in the summer and feature on the Flat. There is lucrative prize money on offer in the leading stayers’ division.

Here is a look at some of the best jumps horses who are likely to appear on the Flat this summer and what their main target will be.


Hurdles and chase winner Earlofthecotswolds showed how effective he can be on the Flat when he won one of the biggest races on All-Weather Finals Day at Newcastle. He was successful in the All-Weather Marathon Championships Conditions Stakes, getting the betting of a smart horse from John and Thady Gosden’s yard by a neck.

Nigel Twiston-Davies’ runner is now being prepared for a shot at the most prestigious stayers race in the sport. Given how tough he was at Newcastle last time out, he is likely to be one of the Royal Ascot tips for the day three contest this year, where he is 16/1 in the betting.

It is going to be very interesting to see how the National Hunt horse fares against Trueshan, former winner Stradivarius and Kyprios in the feature race of the Royal meeting. It is being billed as one of the strongest renewals of the Ascot Gold Cup in a number of years, so he will need to be at his best to land the spoils.


Dan Skelton is a regular trainer here at Stratford, as this is one of his local tracks. The Lodge Hill man had an excellent year in the 2021/22 National Hunt campaign. One of the horses who gave him success last season is Proschema. The seven-year-old also finished second in a Grade Two contest at Wetherby.

The talented hurdler is set to appear in the Northumberland Plate at Newcastle this year. The heritage handicap contest takes place over the extended 2m trip at the northeast racecourse. It is a real stamina test, which the seven-time winner should relish.

If Proschema can come out on top, Skelton will join the likes of Jonjo O’Neill, Donald McCain and Martin Pipe as National Hunt trainers who have won the “Miners’ Derby.


One of the stars of this year’s Cheltenham Festival meeting was Vauban. Willie Mullins’ juvenile prevailed in impressive fashion in the Triumph Hurdle. He then followed that up with another Grade One victory at the Punchestown Festival.

Connections of the gelding have indicated they are keen to enter their horse in some of the big Flat races this year. His first target could be the Ebor Handicap at York in August. The Irish trainer won the valuable handicap contest in 2009.

If everything goes well at the Ebor Festival, the four-year-old then may head Down Under for a shot at the richest 2m handicap race in the world, the Melbourne Cup. That’s a contest Mullins has had entries in before but has yet to win so far.

Hopefully we see all three of the above horses back over obstacles in the 2022/23 National Hunt season following success on the Flat.

The ups and downs of racing amply illustrated

The highs and lows of being a racehorse trainer were amply illustrated on Sunday as Warminster trainer Milton Harris, formerly of this parish, notched a double but endured an empty berth in the horsebox for the third of his runners on the way home.

The regeneration of the Harris story is one of endurance over adversity. A man who at the turn of the century was among the higher echelons of the mid – size stables found financial stability difficult to secure. The ignominy of bankruptcy was followed by a spell in the doldrums before finding new premises at Sutton Veny, outside Warminster. Last season proved a breakthrough year, with 56 winners and nearly £600,000 in prize money, including a first Grade I winner in Knight Salute, perhaps a fortuitous sole winner of the Anniversary Juvenile Hurdle at Aintree after the demotion of dead-heating Pied Piper.

Since that memorable April day, there has been no let-up in the Harris momentum. The season is not yet a full month old, yet 18 runners have yielded 3 winners on a 17% strike rate.

And so to Sunday’s eventful programme. Harris’s first runner, Achy Breaky Heart had contributed 3 winners last term to that 56 winner tally, and four out looked set to add to that tally, leading into the final fence whilst pressed by Princess Midnight. However, both horses fell independently, leaving Jamie Snowden’s Howdilyoudo to break her chase maiden tag.

There’s an old adage in racing that you have to jump round to win, and this was one example, but also one in which the game Achy Breaky Heart paid the ultimate price.

No winner can compensate for losing a horse in a race, but the Harris – Mitchell Bastyan combination were quick to make amends. Not half an hour later, Appreciate won the Allen Vs Ford Selling Hurdle by 3l in a competent display that saw him bought in for 5,200 guineas.

Appreciate and Mitchell Bastyan [centre] wins at Stratford. 15/5/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Stratford is one of very few racecourses who nowadays persist with selling races. Perhaps it’s because there are so many opportunities to buy at auction, from Tattersalls in Newmarket and Cheltenham, to Yorton Farm or Goresbridge, but thee seems little doubt that bringing the theatre of the auction house to the track adds to the drama around racing. Is there a brave racecourse out there prepared to turn the concept on its head and stage a valuable seller rather than one catering solely for the lower reaches of the sport? Step forward you innovators!

Milton Harris’s second winner to alleviate the loss in the second race came courtesy of 4/5 favourite Copshill Lad in the closing bumper, appropriately enough sponsored by Milton Harris Racing. The dark grey gelding had the race well under control and the 2 3/4l winning distance in no way describes the ease with which the winner put his rivals to bed. Look out for more from this Middleham Park Racing – owned gelding.

Two other Wiltshire trainers have endured contrasting fortunes these past 12 months. Neil Mulholland has consistently proved his worth in the top flight of those yards without big money owners, finishing last season with 62 winners and £588,000 in prize money, none of which accrued from big race winners. In the course of so doing, he responded to his owners’ requests, including several innovative and great fun trips to Les Landes Racecourse on Jersey, where the prizes make UK racing look like Hong Kong by comparison, but where the craic is good.

Mulholland is another on fire at present, and a 30% strike rate in chases means only a fool ignores his runners presently. Ragamuffin, under a resolute ride from Sam Twiston-Davies, probably had the upper hand when his main rival Above Suspicion from the Tom George yard fell at the last in the catchily titled Fantastic Roasts at Riverside Novices Handicap Chase, to offer up the race at a 9l winning distance. Nevertheless, with six winner in the past week alone, it would be a brave man to oppose Mulholland runners just now.

Ragamuffin and Sam Twiston-Davies win at Stratford. 15/5/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Neil King’s fire has not been burning quite so brightly these past few months. Last season was in no way a failure, but the 15 winners had to be grafted for, and he will have been glad to start a new season with a little more momentum. In 2/1 joint favourite Give Me A Cuddle, he will have been glad to welcome his seventh winner of the new term in the Riverside Restaurant Stratford Open To All Maiden Hurdle. The winning owner was Andrew Cohen, former owner of Suny Bay and Uplands, the training yard made famous by Fred Winter.

You can never rule out the West Country in seeking winners during Stratford’s summer months, and Sunday proved the rule once again. Philip Hobbs produced a winner in Shantou Sunset, perhaps not one of the yard’s leading lights, who lacked nothing in determination to wear down the Mulholland – trained Viking Sunset, who looked the stronger at the last, in the Live Music at Riverside Mares Handicap Hurdle, under a robust ride from Jack Martin.

And 25 miles away in Wellington, David Pipe is a man you ignore at your peril. His may not be the big punting yard of his father in his heyday, but he learnt his trade from a master of the profession, and winners they come aplenty. Vernon Subutex, a winner of seven of his 24 starts in France, made a winning debut in the 2m 6f Stratford Parks Thank you to Owners Handicap Chase.

May is a busy month at Stratford, and we look forward to starting all over again on Saturday.

Christie is toast of the Foxhunter

David Christie was the toast of Stratford on Friday night, capturing two of the sport’s most prestigious prizes for the Point-to-Point community on the country’s most valuable night of hunter chases. The County Fermanagh trainer showed a clean pair of heels to his British counterparts in the last of the three British Foxhunter chases and the Novice Championship.

As if to re-inforce the fixture as the Go-To event for aspirant pointers, Vaucelet, winner of last year’s Pointtopoint.co.uk Champion Novices’ Chase John Corbett Cup, stepped up a grade into full open company to displace David Kemp’s Law of Gold, the previous year’s winner, in the Pertemps Network Stratford Foxhunters Chase.

A muddling pace early allowed Vaucelet to take a leading position with Le Breuil and Dandy Dan, winner of the Ineos Grenadier Intermediate Final at Cheltenham last month, Law of Gold taking the shortest route. In truth, the slow pace made for plenty of jumping errors, which diminished as the pace stepped up on their final circuit, when Law of Gold pushed Le Breuil for the lead.

Vaucelet and Barry O’Neill [right] jumps the water with the leaders before winning the Pertemps Network Champion Hunters’ Chase at Stratford. 27/5/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Three out, Le Breuil had given way to Law of Gold, Vaucelet, Solomon Grey and Downtown Getaway, but the first two, with Stratford form already on their record, had drawn clear, and Vaucelet asserted at the last to run out a 4l victor.

Half an hour earlier, Christie’s other runner, Ask D’Man, had looked an improbable winner in the Champion Novices Hunters Chase, hunting around the first circuit, and only showing his hand 4 out, when making some headway. Turning into the straight with one to jump, Ask D’Man still had 7l to make up on long time leader Go Go Geronimo, but despite a less than perfect jump at the last, showed some good speed to take the inner berth and get up by 3/4l.

Both winners were ridden by Barry O’Neill.

Ask D’Man and Barry O’Neill [centre] comes late to catch Blazing Tom and Go Go Geronimo to win the point-to-point Champion Novices’ Hunters’ Chase at Stratford for trainer David Christie. 27/5/2022 Pic Steve Davies

The double allows Christie the admirable position of three of the UK and Ireland’s leading hunter chasers, given he also trained Winged Leader to be second behind Billaway in the Cheltenham Foxhunters.

The three runner Nimrod Veterinary Products Ladies Championship Hunters’ Chase produced another close finish despite the small field. The Waley-Cohen team, represented by father Robert and recently retired Sam, watched Igor just come off worse against dual hunter chase winner Fumet d’Oudairies, representing the Ellis-Andrews partnership that dominates the amateur division, and the drop in class from the heights of the Cheltenham Foxhunter allowed the Tom Ellis-trained gelding to regain a winning thread over regulation fences.

The White Swan Hotel Handicap Hunters Chase is the only handicap in the hunters calendar, but Zamparelli, trained by Victoria Collins in Broadway and ridden by leading Novice rider Freddie Gordon, made the race into a procession, extending a 7l lead at the final bend to over twice that distance at the line.

The long trip from Devon proved well worthwhile for connections of Say About It, qualified with the Torrington Farmers, whose Point-to-Point fixture is the traditional closer to the season in a fortnight. Only 4 of the seven declared faced the starter, and that field was down to two by the closing stages, where Say About It was pressed by Spanish Jump, trained by former rider and At The Races presenter Luke Harvey. Three lengths separated the two at the line for a delighted winning rider Vincent Webster.

The opening PPSA Chase over the minimum distance had spectators with their hearts in their mouths as locally-trained Azzuri, trained by Nick Pearce, assistanct to Dan Skelton and Clerk of nearby Shelfield Park point-to-point course, teamed up with stable amateur Tristan Durrell, but just failed to hold on against Across The Line, trained by Syd Hosie in Dorset. Syd enjoyed success at Cheltenham’s hunters’ evening, but his current crop of Rules horses are back with Joe Tizzard after running his own training operation with Nick Mitchell, then Ralph Smith.

There’s plenty of evidence that British Point-to-Point owners are buying in Ireland. Three of the five runners in the concluding Irish Thoroughbred Marketing Champion Point-to-Point Bumper are Irish-bred, and in keeping with the theme of the evening, it was the Irish-bred Patanita, confidently ridden by Peter Bryan, who took the honours for Georgina Nicholls and the splendidly-named G & T Partnership.

Little need to relate how they would celebrate their success.

Any season will do for Winter Kings

Trainers best known for their midwinter stable strength were in charge at our most recent fixture on Saturday evening in front of a sizeable crowd enjoying the late Spring sunshine.

First of our winter types to strike was Emma Lavelle, whose successful partnership with Tom Bellamy delivered Light N Strike to win the Hydraulic Centre Ltd 40th Anniversary Handicap Chase by 7 1/2l. The bigger obstacles evidently appeal to the Leading Light gelding; this was his third victory from just 7 starts over fences.

Kim Bailey, a model of consistency, was next up, with 10l winner Shantou Express in the Technicair Air Conditioning Handicap Hurdle. A paltry 4 faced the starter – scant reward for the delivery of good watered ground, but consistent with the plague of small fields facing the sport at every level currently. Bailey enjoyed a good 2021-22 season without hitting the dizzying heights of the previous season with Grade I success. He of all people will appreciate that you train what you have in front of you, and sadly many owners have opted to bring their horses home this Spring rather than wait for softer conditions underfoot at £50+ per day and in all honesty, who can blame them?

Forgot To Ask notched a fourth chase win in the last steeplechase of the evening, the Charles Peters Recruitment Handicap Chase, as Jonathan Burke kept his cool to reel in the Henry Brooke – trained Dhowin at the last and win going away. It didn’t look that way around the final bend, but the distance to the line can be deceptive at Stratford, and so it proved once again. The winning distance for the Tom George – trained winner was 4 1/4l.

Forgot To Ask and Jonathon Burke [left] catches leader Dhowin at the last to win the Charles Peters Recruitment Handicap Chase at Stratford. 21/5/2022 Pic Steve Davies

The demands of training racehorses as a business have grown an increasing trend of business partnerships from the upper reaches of the flat to small time Jumps handlers. Paperwork, red tape, and the sheer demands of overseeing syndicates rather than single owners have made this a necessary means of spreading responsibility. Charles and Adam Pogson are one such combination, albeit with a limited number of horses. it’s difficult to fault their 33% strike rate in this latest season however, enhanced by Larch Hill’s 2 1/2l victory over favourite Atlantic Storm in the feature Alan Clarke 80th Birthday Handicap Chase. 2 winners from 6 runners may make this an unrepresentative statistic, but it’ll still be one to savour.

Someone with an even more impressive strike rate presently is Richard Hawker, training near Frome. Home-bred Thirsty Farmer was handy throughout before taking it up around the final bend and seeing off runner-up Vinnie’s Icon to win the Mid Warwickshire Cleaning Supplies 50th Anniversary Handicap Hurdle over 2m 6f. The Hawker stable is currently on fire with a 60% strike rate and two winners from the last 3 runners.

Runners head up the straight against the late night sun in the Mid – Warwickshire Cleaning Supplies Ltd 50th Anniversary Novices’ Handicap Hurdle at Stratford won by Thirsty Farmer. 21/5/2022 Pic Steve Davies

The days of big field novice hurdles seem a long distant memory, and it could be argued that young horses learn more in small, less bustling fields. Yet a small field doesn’t prevent a good finish, and the best of the evening was that which headed the card in the Glentucky Derby Novices Hurdle over the minimum trip. The race turned into a fight between Tardree and Toronto, in which the latter, trained by Brian Barr, showed good speed to assert 150 yards from home to win by 3/4l under Angus Cheleda.

The evening concluded with the fixture’s largest field in a Novices Handicap Hurdle in which the Adam West – trained Noahthirtytwored held off the in-form stable of Milton Harris, represented by Tarseem, to land the spoils by 4l.

Hillview is a cut above

Hillview provided the most facile victory of the day yesterday in recording his fourth win of the campaign, and third within a month, in Stratford’s Savage & Stride Wedding Celebration Handicap Hurdle. The Irish-bred gelding, a winner previously at Bangor and Southwell (twice), notched up a 31st winner of the term for Cheshire handler Gary Hanmer, and there won’t have been many easier.

By contrast, the winner of the opener, Kinondu Kwetu, had to work rather harder to assert over long time leader Starsky from the powerful Skelton yard. The false pace of a three runner field made the race a sprint from the last, where the Sam Engkand trained winner was able to apply speed to overcome Starsky.

Morganstern was further confirmation of the in-form status of Somerset’s David Pipe when winning the Claudio’s 50th Birthday Novices Handicap Chase by 2 1/2l from Arbennig. This was the second leg of a cross-card double for Pipe following Neon Moon’s victory at Wincanton. Remarkably, the stable is running on a 40% strike rate over the past fortnight. Statisticians take note.

Anthony Honeyball has emerged to be a fearsome competitor in the middle ranks of the Trainers’ Championship. Fresh from winning a valuable handicap at Aintree on Grand National day, he followed up here with a horse of rather less ability. Midnight Callisto always had her rivals in hand and ran out a convincing winner of the Mares Handicap Hurdle for a 35th winner of the season for Honeyball.

A disappointing run from Snow Leopardess in the Randox Grand National wasn’t enough to knock the momentum from the Charlie Longsdon stable. Largy Nights and Kingston King fought out a tug of war for the lead from the final bend, neither excelling in jumping the last in the 3m3f Handicap Chase. However, it was Largy Nights who stayed on more dourly to win by 1 1/2l.

Largy Nights wins at Stratford for the Longsdon stable 10/4/2022 Pic Steve Davies

On a weekend when the amateurs of the game demonstrated their contribution to the sport in spectacular style through Sam Waley-Cohen’s Grand National victory on Noble Yeats, it was another accomplished amateur who snaffled the Stratford Grass Roots Hunters Chase, the last of our chases. Picking off the leader Tel ‘Art as they rounded the final bend, owner-trained and ridden Peacock’s Secret under Dale Peters ran on to be a convincing victor, and may well return here on May 31st for the Finale Hunters evening. The 14l margin could readily have been over 20.

Peacocks Secret wins at Stratford for Dale Peters. 10/4/2022 Pic Steve Davies

All the extra accoutrements seemed to work for Mickyh as tongue strap and blinkers kept the 9 year old up to his work under a forceful ride from Jamie Moore in the Bet at Racingtv.com Novices Handicap Hurdle. The second, Justified, stayed on resolutely, and there is a race for him somewhere.

Can Blaklion make one last great Grand National effort?

Dan Skelton and his team had a solid week at Cheltenham Festival, although a winner eluded the trainer. Protektorat put forward a fine performance in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, but could not match the pace of A Plus Tard from the last, finishing third behind a Henry de Bromhead one-two with Minella Times in second.

Skelton will now turn his attention to the Aintree Festival next week where he will attempt to pull off a shock to disrupt the potential for further Irish dominance of the major races in the National Hunt calendar. Blaklion is the best option from Skelton’s yard for a bet on Grand National 2022 at 66/1, although it would be a remarkable performance considering the age of the horse. It would be a surprise to see the 13-year-old top the Grand National results 2022 as the last horse of that age to win the event was Sergeant Murphy in 1923, and there are only three cases of competitors 13 or over who have won the National. None of these victories have occurred in the modern era, and the last six winners of the event have been under the age of 10. Nonetheless, records are there to be broken.

Blaklion was a strong contender at the peak of his powers under the tenure of Nigel Twiston-Davies. In 2017, he went to post as favourite at 8/1 for the National, but was beaten by One For Arthur. Blaklion returned as one of the top horses in the field for the 2018 race, but luck was not on his side as he was brought down at the first fence by a falling rival. The horse changed into the hands of new owners Darren & Annaley Yates in 2019 after he missed the Grand National, and was eventually passed into the yard of Skelton after a brief stint with Philip Kirby.

He was off the pace in his first races under Skelton’s charge, putting forward underwhelming outings at Ascot, Warwick and Newcastle before the 2021 Grand National. Although he was a 50/1 outsider, he still raced competitively at Aintree and finished sixth, which was more than a respectable performance from the veteran.

Blaklion has found his form over the course of the 2021/22 season after a slow start. He and the rest of the field were well beaten by Snow Leopardess at Bangor-on-Dee in November. However, he was on song to claim his first victory in five years, triumphing at Haydock Park in the Altrincham Veterans’ Handicap Chase. Skelton’s charge made it two wins out of two with a dominant display in the Last Fling Handicap Chase, finishing 28 lengths ahead of his nearest rival The Two Amigos.

He was unable to sustain his form in his last outing in the Grand National Trial Handicap Chase as he was pulled up four fences from the end of the contest, although only three horses completed the race in heavy conditions.

The 13-year-old does have a semblance of momentum and could be ready for one last great effort to etch his place in the history books. Aintree brought out the best in him some years back, and many horses approach Aintree very differently to park courses. It would be a remarkable achievement for all concerned, and running into a place again would be a feather in the cap of Team Skelton.

Bannister treble adds sparkle to bright Spring day

A large crowd appreciated the warm Spring sunshine as Stratford dusted itself off for its first weekend fixture of the Spring return to action.

Kap Auteuil has a keen appreciation of Stratford by all appearances, after his third chase win here within a year in last Saturday’s Paul Diblasio Memorial Handicap Chase. The seven year old has progressed to an official rating of 136, putting him within reach of some of the sport’s big handicaps next autumn with this sort of progression.

Kap Auteuil completes a treble for jockey Harry Bannister at Stratford. 26/3/2022 Pic Steve Davies

His trainer, Toby Lawes, has good reason to appreciate this bellwether of his stable, as does his rider, Harry Bannister, replacing regular rider Tom Cannon on this occasion, who was enjoying a treble after two wins earlier in the day.

Those two earlier winners were courtesy of Hampshire trainer Richard Bandey, for whom this season has been a breakthrough year. After winners counted on the fingers of one hand these past 5 years whilst graduating from the Point-to-Point field, this year the tally from Plantation Farm near Tadley, stands at 15. The fourteenth of these – Give Me A Moment – never looked like creasing his trainer’s brow in the opening 25 Club Handicap Chase, making all and drawing clear two out to ease down near the line, still 31l clear of runner-up Court Royal. And whilst this was a slowly-run race, the odds-on favourite was there to be taken on, but nobody did.

Half an hour later, Bandey’s cup overflowed, when Ernie Bilko, ridden handily throughout, took it up two out and ran on and away from the rest of the field, winning going away in division one of the handicap hurdle. For modest – sized yards, these days are magic.

In the second division of the handicap hurdle, Colin Tizzard edged closer to the £1m prize money marker when The Changing Man overcame Matt Sheppard’s Always Able by a comfortable 3 1/2l. The stewards looked into the horse’s improved form and were satisfied with the explanation that the horse appreciated the drying ground. In truth though, all the races were run consistently slower than standard, which leaves you wondering as to the quality of these two races overall.

Runners pass the stands in the Lady Ella’s Handicap Hurdle [Div 2] at Stratford. 26/3/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Another yard close to a personal best is Emme Lavelle, who is just £60,000 off her best season, achieved in 2018-19. With a growing number of horses rated over 150 that allow her to compete with the Saturday crowd, Emma is successfully making a go of her ambitious move to Ogbourne Maizey a few years back. This time around, it was American-bred Point Him Out, tranferred across from Michael Stidham’s outfit before Christmas, who broke his UK Jumps duck in the Margaret Banister Celebration Novices Hurdle. More to come here I’d say.

Stratford is a course that holds to traditions successfully, one of which is to maintain a series of selling races, which have largely disappeared elsewhere. A useful source of income to racecourses, Saturday’s was little different, the winner, a rare Skelton runner in a seller, being bought in for 29,000 guineas. It also produced another winner for emerging amateur Tristan Durrell, enjoying a ninth winner this season, all bar one for the boss.

The day concluded with a race in the name of the Cotswold Larder, a Broadway-based business that will be known to anyone visiting the Owners & Trainers’ Bar at Stratford, where delicious cakes are in abundance. The Cotswold Larder also supplies Fergal O’Brien, possibly one further reason why the likeable Cotswold trainer has acquired so many new owners!

Winner Lightfoot Lady clearly hasn’t been indulging herself with pastries, winning with plenty in hand on her debut for the Nicky Henderson yard by a comfortable 2 1/2l.

We’re off again!

Glorious spring sunshine heralded another season’s racing at Stratford this afternoon, the first horses to have appeared on the course since the adieu in November, and 51 horses faced the starter for an entertaining afternoon, a precursor to a feast of top quality Jump racing over the next five days.

Horses take the new white boarded hurdles for the first time in the country on a racecourse at Stratford. 14/3/2022 Pic Steve Davies/Racingfotos.com

For the quick-minded, the reference to five days is not an onward wave to a fifth day of the Festival, but an acknowledgement that there are now superb cards catering for the less than utterly brilliant at Uttoxeter and Kempton that illustrate that our sport is not all about one venue and 28 races. Horses, owners, trainers and riders all have their preferences, which is what makes our sport so rich in variety.

Festival fever allowed for a healthy crowd on this sunny afternoon, bolstered by early travellers from across the Irish Sea. If the Cheltenham roar was absent from the start of the first race of the season, it was yet more muted as Tommie O’Brien brought home Getaway Luv a 3 3/4l winner of the opening Novices Handicap Chase for owner/trainer Clive Boultbee-Brooks. This family operation in Herefordshire has just a handful of horses in training but a 60% strike rate testifies to some sound knowledge of where to place one’s horses.

The output from trainers named Williams in the UK is due to reduce this summer as the likeable Nick Williams ups sticks to expand his stable in France too. He has made a terrific contribution to the Jumps scene, not least with offspring named de Sivola, and produced another in the second, a Juvenile Hurdle, where Interne de Sivola outpaced Silver Shade, diverting from a Triumph Hurdle option to win by 2 1/4l.

There’s a keen rivalry between Nick and his former spouse Jane, who trains from the same premises. The glue that holds them together is the burgeoning career of their son Chester, who rode his step-father’s horse in the second, and made for a quickfire double for mother in the Bobby Brown Retiral Handicap Chase 30 minutes later on Esprit de Samoza. He had to pull out all the stops in a driving finish, in which runner-up Corran Cross lost nothing in defeat.

Esprit De Somoza [left] jumps the last to win at Stratford. 14/3/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Oakley showed a clean pair of heels to the opposition in the feature handicap hurdle, drawing clear two out and galloping to the line despite a renewed challenge from second-placed Osprey Call. The winner weas returning to winning ways for the first time since January 2019, and continued a good run of form for Hampshire-based Richard Bandey with this Philip Hobbs cast-off.

There was a close finish to the pointtopoint.co.uk Novices Hunter Chase where a decent field showed why Stratford continues to appeal to the grass roots of the sport. In recent months, hunter chase fields have rarely exceeded 6 runners, but 10 faced the starter, and there were two in it at the last. Drake’s Well, ridden by Alice Stephens, had been overtaken, but Jaunty’s Well pecked on landing, allowing Stephens to assert under a driving finish, to win by 1 1/4l.

Olly Murphy is still looking for a first Festival winner, but Ukantango flew the flag for the yard in the concluding bumper, winning on the fence as Aiden Coleman scraped the paint all the way round. He was well supported on this debut under Rules.

Skelton’s Festival team has been well primed

Dan Skelton’s success at the Cheltenham Festival has been somewhat sporadic, unlike his rivals with whom he will do battle for the major honours over four days next week. Willie Mullins, Henry de Bromhead, Nicky Henderson, Gordon Elliott, Colin Tizzard and Paul Nicholls will all have ambitions of securing the leading titles of the week, with the Irish contingent boasting a strong claim for seemingly every top race at the Festival.

However, Skelton has had a solid season with his best horses and could be in line to shock spectators across jumps racing by making a successful bid for the Gold Cup among others, which feature a number of intriguing prices in the Cheltenham betting 2022 options. Skelton has more than a decent shout in the signature event of the week in the Gold Cup with his charge Protektorat, laid out for the race. The bay gelding is considered one of the leading contenders in the Cheltenham Gold Cup tips behind A Plus Tard, Galvin and Minella Indo for the blue riband of the sport. To win the Gold Cup would be a significant breakthrough for Skelton to announce himself at the top table.

He has achieved victories in the Mares’ Hurdle and County Hurdle at Cheltenham Festival before, but a win for Protektorat would raise Skelton’s game immeasurably. The bay gelding has an outside chance after recording a win in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December, hammering the rest of the field by 25 lengths, including former Gold Cup winner Native River, after which he was put away for the Spring. A Plus Tard, Galvin and Minella Indo are a step up in class, but Skelton can at least be confident that his charge can compete with the best in the business, and he will be fresh after a midwinter break that has seen him prepared specifically for this moment.

The Gold Cup is not the only race targeted by Skelton in pursuit of a successful Cheltenham. There are other opportunities for Skelton to pick up significant scalps outside of the Gold Cup. Third Time Lucki has been a solid operator over the course of the campaign and is an intended runner in the Arkle Chase. He was beaten by the race favourite Edwardstone in his last outing at Warwick in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase and was previously off the pace in another contest against his rival in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown Park. However, Third Time Lucki does have two victories at Cheltenham Racecourse under his belt this term and merits a run in the Arkle Chase to upset the rest of the field.

Nube Negra finished just behind Put The Kettle On in the Champion Chase last season and will run again in the contest next week. The scale of the challenge has been increased by the presence of Shishkin and Energumene, who are expected to battle it out for the leading honours. Last year’s favourite Chacun Pour Soi is also present and will be out for redemption for Mullins. Skelton’s charge did beat a talented field in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham in November, including last season’s Champion Chase winner, but was off the pace in his last race in the Tingle Creek Chase, finishing fourth. At odds of 14/1, he could be worth an outside chance given his record at the racecourse, but he will have to put in a sterling performance to defeat the hot favourites Shishkin and Energumene or hope for a mistake from both horses. However, in a race like the Champion Chase, one mistake is all it needs to lose the advantage. A foot perfect round could yet be enough to land the odds.

Skelton is well placed to make an impact at Cheltenham Festival, but he will need the rub of the green and brilliant displays from his charges to announce his arrival among the elite of the sport.

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