Boola Boss underlines Welsh centre of excellence

It can’t be easy recruiting owners in the furthest reaches of South Wales where Rebecca Curtis plies her trade, but talent will out, they say, and the Pembrokeshire trainer with perhaps the most picturesque gallops in the country, has enjoyed success at the highest level, with no less than five Cheltenham Festival winners.

The Festival is a long way away from a May Sunday at Stratford, but proof of concept is alive and kicking after The Boola Boss made all under Paul O’Brien to win the feature William Hill Extra Place races Handicap Chase yesterday by 8l. Setting off in front, he was briefly challenged by Henry Daly’s Petty Cash, but pulled out extra to put the 2m 6f contest out of doubt. He’s likely to be rested now until the autumn.

The Boola Boss and Paul O’Brien win at Stratford. 19/5/2024 Pic Steve Davies

The Curtis stable is just 10 miles away from Peter Bowen, a Welsh powerhouse that, injury allowing, would likely have propelled son Sean to his first Jockeys’ Championship in ’23-24. Take nothing away from the stylish Harry Cobden, but Bowen’s January layoff was critical in allowing the Somerset rider to catch up.

The energetic Bowen jnr is wasting no time in pressing on and a double yesterday at Stratford brought his tally to 8 already. Gary Hanmer is a man to respect around the summer tracks, and punters latched on to 2/7 favourite Minella Rescue in the 2m6f novices hurdle on the back of a 4 1/2l third in a higher class race at Cheltenham last month. It looked a textbook ride for Bowen as he took close order two out, challenged for the lead approaching the last and won going away by a 2l that could have been a great deal more.

A half hour later, he was back in the Winner’s Enclosure with Tom Gretton’s Fancy Stuff after a facile 8l victory in the Mares’ Handicap Chase. Clear after two out, this was a straightforward route to earning his £214.63 riding fee. Gretton’s runners are to be noted currently. Two winners from just 7 runners gives him a 29% strike rate.

The day had begun in warm sunshine with a competent display from Jamie Snowden’s Dusky Days, earning a maiden chase victory in the William Hill Epic Value Novices Handicap Chase from Barest of Margins, who deserves a short head victory on name credentials alone. Second here in a handicap hurdle 13 months ago, he was sent chasing shortly afterwards. Gavin Sheehan had something in hand with a winner who was stretching his advantage with every stride at the line.

Georgie Nicholls evidently learnt a thing or two during her time with ex Paul. Now training under her own name around Wantage, she teamed up with Lorcan Williams to deny Rebecca Curtis a double when 7 year old Saint Bibiana had enough up her sleeve to outpoint4/1 favourite Bridget Mary. A length down at the last, she found some speed to put 3l between her and the runner-up by the line. There was a race for the minor placings, Curtis’ charge just getting the better of fellow Welshman, David Brace’s Newmill Getaway by a neck.

No bumper would be complete at Stratford without the introduction of another youngster from the Twiston-Davies centre of excellence. If Georgie Nicholls had been hopeful of a double with Chattamento in the concluding bumper, she was swiftly disabused. Debutant Little Watson, running in Twiston-Davies colours, made pretty much all, and kept on well to win by 2 1/2l from the aforementioned Nicholls runner. again, the race was for the minor placings, Fergal O’Brien’s Hola Hermosa losing out by a neck for second.

Little Watson and Sam Twiston-Davies win the Maiden National Hunt Flat Race at Stratford. 19/5/2024 Pic Steve Davies

Golfe Claire gets rub of the green for Kirby

Fine weather graced Stratford’s first evening fixture on Thursday but the advent of Spring sunshine had yet to make an impact on ground conditions, described as good to soft in places. Owners and trainers seeking an early showing in the Championship rankings were quick to respond with 62 runners facing the starter in 7 contests.

Paddock scene on a warm night Evening racing. 9/5/2024 Pic Steve Davies

The best finish of the day took place in the Racing TV members Night Novices Handicap Chase, and viewers who didn’t take up the offer to attend were given a gripping finish by the 6 runners with just 8 chase starts between them. The running order barely changed throughout, with Lightening Mahler cutting out the running, and eventual winner Golfe Claire handy in fourth. Three out, you would have been hard-pressed to put runner-up Watergrange Jack in the finish, but all changed as they exited the final bend.

Sam Twiston-Davies’ persistence on the Mulholland-trained Watergrange Jack forced him into contention between horses, with Lightening Mahler setting sail for home, and Golfe Claire and Twiston-Davies apparently fighting out second place. A hundred yards from the line, Watergrange Jack got his head in front, but was run out of it by the Phil Kirby-trained Golfe Claire to win by a neck – the sort of finish that Stratford regulars love.

Golfe Clair and Joe Williamson [left] jumps the last with Watergrange Jack [centre] and Lightening Mahler [right] in the Racing TV Members Night Novices’ Handicap Chase at Stratford. 9/5/2024 Pic Steve Davies

Dr Richard Newland and new training partner Jamie Insole have been outspoken in defending smaller British trainers from Irish invaders, suggesting some races should be restricted to British-based handlers. The idea hasn’t stopped them from sourcing horses further afield themselves, and they introduced a new recruit in Wales, a 1 3/4l winner of the opening maiden hurdle. Wales is a German-bred, winner of two middle distance races in Hanover for Andreas Wohler. The Germans have an excellent record of breeding stayers.

Sixth placed Get The Value was the subject of some scrutiny in the Stewards’ Room, for some apparent tender handling before running on in the final stages. Explanations from rider Ben Poste and trainer John O’Shea were noted.

The Stewards were busy again 40 minutes later when assessing an apparent improvement in form of No More No, 2 1/4l winner trained by Lawney Hill of division one of the novices’ handicap hurdle. No More No hasn’t troubled the judge in six previous races over hurdles and in point-to-points, but the application of a visor seemed to galvanize the 5 year old into action under Richard Patrick. The stewards weren’t wholly convinced and noted the explanation: code for keeping the horse under scrutiny in future runs.

The remainder of the evening was very much a victory for the ladies changing room as Tabitha Worsley, Isabel Williams and Lilly Pinchin each made their mark. Much has been made of Bryony Frost’s departure to France in the absence of a book of regular rides here. Nevertheless, there is a growing cadre of women riders who are making their presence felt, and who offer just as good value in the plate as their male counterparts.

Worsley’s winner was no great surprise to punters, who latched on to previous Stratford winner Bernard in the second division of the novices handicap hurdle to send the 8 year old gelding off 11/8 favourite. Leading on the bend, the Mel Rowley – trained winner always had the edge on Inspector Lynley in second, ensuring a frustrating evening of seconds for Neil Mulholland.

Isabel Williams gets plenty of opportunities for her father Evan, and the latest was Tour Ovalie in the Mares Handicap Hurdle. Twice second in March and April at Hereford, she finally found the winning habit with a promising burst of speed from the bend, facilitated by the omission of the final hurdle. Williams has 63 winners to her name, just 8 off losing her claim.

Tour Ovalie and Isabel Williams [right] wins from Asian Spice at Stratford. 9/5/2024 Pic Steve Davies

Lilly Pinchin must now be the senior British rider in the girls’ changing room, and she teamed up well with Gary Hanmer to win the first division of the 2m 2f Novices Handicap Hurdle with commentator’s tongue twister Fandabidozi, who stayed on well to beat Amalfi Bay and The Sad Shepherd one length and a neck respectively.

The second division went to Kayley Woollacott’s Our Dylan, a winner at Hereford last month, and belatedly finding the sweet spot after 24 starts. Ben Godfrey has been in the plate for both winning rides.

After the wettest Spring any of us can remember, we really shouldn’t complain about seeing the sun, but the bright light made a pig’s ear of the NH Racing Club likes Cotswold Larder Handicap Chase, with 3 fences in the straight omitted, reducing the obstacle count from 17 to 10. Village Master made this race a hat-trick after successes at Hereford and Warwick, under James Bowen, to send punters home happy with a 6/4 favourite. There have been some lean years recently for trainer Warren Greatrex, but on his current form, you oppose him at your peril. Three winners from 8 runners is no mean record, even at this stage of the year.

It’s On The Line stakes claim to top hunter chaser spot

It’s On The Line asserted his credentials to be the best hunter chaser in Britain & Ireland in another narrowly won victory in the Event Power Champion Hunters’ Chase at the Punchestown Festival on Friday. 

The J P McManus owned gelding is, to all intents and purposes, a professionally trained horse, in the care of Emmet Mullins, and ridden by Derek O’Connor, the leading Irish amateur. However, he’s a horse that makes life hard for himself, and is aptly named.

Re-opposing from Cheltenham in this race were Ferns Hill, Billaway and Samcro, with Famous Clermont the sole British contender. Second only to Sine Nomine in the Cheltenham Foxhunters, It’s On The Line had gone one better at Aintree, only asserting over Benny’s Hill in the last half furlong, enough to be sent off 6/4 favourite here. Vaucelet, winner and runner-up in each of the last two renewals of Stratford’s Pertemps Network Foxhunter, was also in the field.

In murky conditions and in demanding ground that encouraged 5 of the 14 runners to pull up, Samcro led largely unchallenged for the first two-thirds of the race, before being joined by Famous Clermont, under James King from the 9th fence. It’s On The Line remained in touch, some 5l adrift as the two leaders slugged it out in front.

Samcro was first to crack, allowing Famous Clermont to take up the running, but as they turned in, Lifetime Ambition hoved into view with the favourite, and two out, any one of the three might have won. Lifetime Ambition got away from the last in front, but Derek O’Connor showed why he is the leading amateur, conjuring up a tremendous burst of finishing speed to assert 100 yards from the post. the winning distance of 1 3/4l was growing with every stride.

Emmet Mullins told RTE, “He doesn’t make life easy but Derek has the trick to him. Early doors it wasn’t great as Derek had to make a move to get him off the inside and get him travelling.

“I was very happy the whole way around until the third last and there was a bit of a panic when Lifetime Ambition went on. Once he got over the second last I was always fairly confident he was going to get him back.”

O’Connor added, “He’s an amazing horse. He’s just doing enough to stay alive all the time but every time you ask him, he brings a little bit more for you.

“To be fair, I never really got serious with him until after I jumped the last, I just wanted that company. Susie Doyle rode a brilliant race (on Lifetime Ambition) and she’s unlucky in defeat.”

How Casino Bonuses Can Enhance Horse Racing Adventures

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Surprises all round as 150/1 winner provides first British winner for conditional rider

The history of the battle of the Trainers’ Championship in Britain this season will not include a chapter on Stratford’s April fixture after none of the three contenders sent runners for the 7 race card. And whilst Paul Nicholls enjoyed a double at Wincanton the same day, the impact of his winnings is unlikely to change the course of the Championship, set to conclude at Sandown on Saturday.

Irish runners are a familiar sight on many British racecourses, notably venues like Cheltenham, Ascot and Perth, the latter a relatively easy run from the port at Larne. Stratford is a more tortuous route via Holyhead, but if Mullins prevails on Saturday, who knows if this will encourage more from the Emerald Isle.

Meantime, the floodwaters which kyboshed the previous fixture have receded, allowing 67 runners to compete on near perfect Good to Soft ground. The water has made its presence felt; steeplechase fences do not respond well to 3ft of water, and the first in the back straight has yet to be fully replaced, meaning each circuit comprised 7, not 8 fences.

They say that every horse has his day. In the feature 3m3f handicap chase, it was difficult to see any but long time leader Lord Sparky proving that adage correct. Throughout 3 circuits of Stratford’s sharp track, he outjumped his nine rivals, showing up indifferent jumping from many of them too. But sadly, it wasn’t his day. Challenged as they rounded the final bend by Ballyrashane and Fast Deal, we went wrong behind 200 yards from the post and was quickly pulled up by rider Cieran Gethings. Maiden Fast Deal, whose trainer Michael Chapman must have the patience of Job, came good with late speed to win at the 46th attempt over obstacles and on the flat. Full marks for persistence.

Fast Deal and Alan King [left] score at 150/1 at Stratford. 21/4/2024 Pic Steve Davies

Lord Sparky was attended and made his way back home with a slipped tendon.

Meantime, results readers needed a double take as winning rider Alan King might have led some to believe the master of Barbury Castle was having a mid-life crisis after taking up race-riding in his fifties. This Alan King is an Irish conditional rider enjoying his first British winner on his 138th ride in total. The winner may have been as much a surprise to him as to punters everywhere else, given his SP was 150/1.

It was a productive weekend for the better known Alan King. Favour And Fortune had produced his 34th winner in the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr for Hemmings Racing, whilst Finest View continued the winning theme in the 2m handicap hurdle at Stratford under To Cannon. In fairness, perhaps not all the credit should rest with King, who only took back charge of Finest View in late March from Andrew Martin, but maybe he should never have left. A winning sequence of 4 in Spring 2022 must have left the Barbury maestro wondering what we needed to do to retain the horse in the first instance.

One contemporary of King’s we’ve not seen a lot of this jumps season is Ian Williams. The Williams enterprise is largely focused on the flat nowadays, which is Jumping’s loss, for this articulate and savvy trainer has plenty to offer. A forceful finish ridden by Charlie Todd on Garitsa Bay ensured his 11th winner of this term in the first division of the novices’ handicap hurdle, getting up by a head to produce the tightest finish of the day.

The ballot to decide which horses drop into which division fell badly for Henry Oliver, whose two runners in the second division filled the first two places. Irish Point-to-Point winner Finn Lough was sent off 13/8 favourite but it was the largely unfancied Telefenney who prevailed under Toby Wynne for a 3l advantage at the line. The pair were 9 1/2l ahead of the third, so they may be a cut above their peer group.

Fergal O’Brien recently celebrated his fourth consecutive century of winners when Manofthepeople provided a swansong winner for retiring rider Paddy Brennan at Cheltenham earlier in the week. Winner 104 might reasonably have been expected in the opening Grace & Dotty Mares Maiden Hurdle, but Richard Bandey’s Villainess was there to spoil the party, taking it up 2 out and winning with a little more in hand than the 1 1/2l distance would suggest. Bandey has a good record at Stratford.

Another who may have more talent than his lowly rating would suggest is R Bernard, an 8 1/2l winner of the 3m 2ft handicap hurdle that followed Villainess’ triumph. The Rowley team has made a successful transition from the amateur division, and despite the vexations of losing their gallops to the floods in mid-winter, continue to improve their numbers. R Bernard, a maiden hitherto, was their 19th of the season to date, this time under the guidance of Tabitha Worsely.

The fixture concluded with a hunters chase, a done deal almost from the off. Winner Deise Aba from Fran Poste’s Warwickshire yard is rated 15lb superior to the nearest of his rivals, and nearly 30lb ahead of the majority. No Surprise then to see Zac Baker dictate the race from the off and and do enough to keep What A Glance no better than 3l at the line. Expect to see Deise Aba back here for the Hunters’ evening on May 31.

Deise Aba and Zac Baker win unchallenged at Stratford. 21/4/2024 Pic Steve Davies

A closer look at some of the trainers who will be sending horses to Stratford this summer

With the new season at Stratford starting on the 21st April after the last fixture fell foul of waterlogging, Stratford’s summer programme of racing provides the perfect opportunity for some of the very best jumps trainers in the business to keep their stables ticking over.

This summer’s jumping fixtures look set to be of the highest quality and several stars will be on show. Let’s look at who could be making an appearance at the track over the course of the next few months.

Dan Skelton

Dan Skelton has emerged into one of the UK’s most prominent trainers. The leading British trainer at the 2024 Cheltenham Festival, Skelton is no stranger to success at Stratford. His position leading the Trainers’ Championship has temporarily been usurped by Grand National – winning Willie Mullins, but he may yet find his way back to the top of the leaderboard in the final two weeks of this season. Three seasons ago, a string of April winners at Stratford helped brother Harry to become champion jockey.

Whilst most of his top Cheltenham and Aintree stars will be put away to prepare for a new winter campaign, some of his younger and newest recruits should be on show throughout the summer. 

Skelton has made no secret of his desire to be crowned as the UK’s leading trainer and he has been quick to recognise the role that meetings like Stratford can play in achieving that aim. Even if summer horses have taken a lesser role in his success in recent years, Stratford is his local course, and a track he’s keen to support.

Look for Skelton to play a leading role across many races this summer.

Nicky Henderson

It has been a mixed first quarter of 2024 for Nicky Henderson. With his stable hit by illness over the Cheltenham Festival, one of the UK’s most prolific ever trainers was unable to add to his impressive haul of 73 Festival winners. 

Only Willie Mullins has trained more winning horses at Cheltenham than Henderson and make no mistake about it, Henderson will be intent on closing that gap over the next few years.

Similarly to Dan Skelton, Henderson holds racing at Stratford in the highest regard and several promising horses should be declared to race over the next few months. The Seven Barrows winner machine always includes some top-of-the-ground horses.

Paul Nicholls

For those who have a passion for jumps racing, Stratford provides the perfect opportunity for those to watch some top class action. With every race being able to be bet on the best sportsbooks, for years Paul Nicholls has been a punter’s best friend and he has reigned supreme at the top of the UK training rankings. Punters love that among all the trainers, Nicholls tells it straight every time.

With an all-conquering stable of horses, Nicholls doesn’t attend Stratford as often as the duo of Skelton and Henderson but when he does send a horse to the track, you can be assured that horse racing betting sites up and down the UK will be taking it very seriously. 

To consistently win the UK Trainers’ Championship is certainly no easy feat and winning races at Stratford can prove valuable in the long run. To get the new season off to a bang, expect Nicholls to maintain his excellent record in the Spring before the ground dries up, and from September when his winter horses are ready for their first run.

Gary Hanmer

Whilst Gary Hanmer might not be as well known as some of the other trainers on this list, he is a name to keep an eye on over this Stratford season.

The leading trainer at Stratford for steeplechases, Hanmer currently holds a 31% strike rate in chases held at the track and he will be looking to keep that impressive strike rate intact this summer. The likes of multiple winner Steel Wave kept his tally moving forward last year.

Fergal O’Brien

A distinct pattern of the first few months of the season in recent years has been a plethora of runners from Ravenswell, home to Fergal O’Brien. Like many before him, he has used the summer programme both to build a lead in the Trainers’ Championship, and to enhance his reputation whilst some of the big boys have focused on their winter horses.

Over the last three years no trainer has enjoyed as much hurdles success as Fergal O’Brien at Stratford.Over that timeframe, O’Brien can boast an impressive 26% strike rate in hurdles races over the course. Keen to keep that strike rate high, look for O’Brien to continue his strategy of going into November still in the lead in the Championship.

David Christie

Runners from Ireland are generally pretty rare at Stratford, but there’s one meeting where horses trained by Ulsterman David Christie should always command respect. The Hunters’ evening on May 31 draws the Point-to-Point community from both sides of the Irish Sea together. Christie has saddled at least one winner in each of the past 2 years, and he’s sure to have candidates this time around too.

There are several other trainers to keep an eye on this Stratford season.

Jonjo O’Neill is racing royalty, one of the few men in racing who has won the Gold Cup multiple times as a jockey, he has trained well over 900 winners as a trainer and is one of the most respected trainers in the business. He is a go-to trainer for big handicap winners.

O’Neill boasts an impressive strike rate over both hurdles and chases at the course and will be hopeful of even more success this summer after a fruitless Cheltenham and Aintree.

Ben Pauling has enjoyed a wonderful winter season and notched another Cheltenham Festival winner at this year’s festival.

Regarded as one of the sharpest trainers in the industry, Pauling’s stock is on the rise and Stratford provides the perfect platform for him to show off many different horses from his impressive stable. He is a name to watch out for, and another that makes hay whilst the more established among his rivals wait on easier ground conditions.

First-timers guide to racing at Stratford

Stratford Racecourse is a prominent fixture among the UK’s racing circuits. Situated in picturesque Warwickshire, it specialises in thoroughbred jump racing, offering more than a dozen meetings annually from March through to November. Renowned for its relaxed ambience compared to the grandeur of Ascot or Epsom, Stratford is an appealing venue for first-timers seeking a day at the races. There’s no pretension here, and you needn’t be shy about asking questions about what’s going on.

What to expect on raceday

The left-handed course, which has sharp bends within its triangular shape, features eight fences per circuit. It is notable for its speed. It boasts three distinct enclosures: the Centre course, Tattersalls Enclosure, and the Club enclosure from where you can watch the day’s action take place.

Visitors to Stratford can enhance their racing experience with a racecard, available for purchase throughout the venue, offering insights into each race such as tips, racecourse details, current performance of trainers and jockeys, longest-distance travellers, and essential form information. Additionally, it serves as a guide to navigate the course and highlights entertainment options available between races.

Sine Nomine and John Dawson are last over the water jump before winning the Point-to-Point Champion Novices’ Hunters Chase at Stratford. 2/6/2023 Pic Steve Davies

You can also upgrade between enclosures effortlessly by paying the price differential. Typically, you’ll have the chance to enjoy around seven races but variations may occur with occasional pony races held after the final official event. Gates open two hours before the first race, allowing ample time to get to know your surroundings. If you’re in the two higher-priced enclosures, the riders walk through the crowd to reach the parade ring. You don’t get that close to the players at old Trafford or Anfield.

The Spring has been wet as we are all too aware, but the public enclosures offer hard surfaces, so you won’t be needing wellington boots. But inevitably, the early season fixture list has been marred by a few cancellations when the adjacent River Avon took an unwelcome part in proceedings.

Time to place your bet

When it comes to the all-important betting, there are two ways to wager on races. You can physically place your bet at the venue or do it online. If you’d prefer to wager in person, decide on the amount and type of bet, then choose where to place it: either at the Tote or in the betting ring. Approach the betting operator, stating the horse’s number, your bet amount, and the type of bet (e.g., “Number 3, £5 to win”). Receive your ticket and keep it safe until after the race. If you’re betting direct with a bookmaker in the ring, then state the horse’s name instead of number.

If you want the ease and convenience of betting online then it’s important to choose a reputable operator. Check out independent review sites and read other customers’ experiences. The growth of online gambling, incorporating sports betting, slot games, and live casinos featuring popular games like poker and roulette, has created a very competitive market. Just as guides around the best roulette sites UK detail a platform’s strengths, bonus offers, and reputation for those keen on betting on traditional casino games, you must ensure you choose a regulated sports betting operator with a good track record.

Get the most from your day

Before each race, we recommend taking a moment to observe the horses in the parade ring. It’s a unique opportunity to appreciate these magnificent animals up close before they compete. Depending on your ticket privileges, make use of the various viewing areas available. Watching each race from different vantage points, especially from high up in the Grandstands or close up to an obstacle, offers a fresh perspective on the excitement.

Personally, I love being at the start to hear the starter’s instructions, and jockey chit-chat as they circle before the scheduled off time. “Who’s making it? My horse jumps left, don’t come up my inner” mixes with “I’ve tickets to Coldplay this weekend, do you want to come?”, emphasizing that for the riders, this is an ordinary day at the office.

Owner Stephen Walker, Trainer Gary Hanmer and Jockey Tabitha Worsley after Steel Wave had won at Stratford. 21/5/2023

In addition, after each race, head to the Winners’ Enclosure. Witness the victorious and placed horses return alongside their delighted owners and trainers, and enjoy the presentations to the winning connections. Embracing everything that Stratford Racecourse has to offer, from watching the race build up to the action itself and the betting that goes along with it, will ensure you get the most out of your day.

The biggest upsets in the Grand National

The 2024 Grand National is just around the corner as betting punters and horse racing enthusiasts alike focus on Aintree for one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar. Steeped in history, tradition and class, the National represents the elite pedigree of horse racing and is a true test of skill for those looking to write their name in the history books, with Merseyside’s Aintree course one of the toughest to navigate due to the plethora of challenging fences. The visibility for the sport provided by Aintree stimulates interest at places like Stratford.

Last year saw a dominant display from favourite Corach Rambler, who cruised to victory in a performance that ensured the protestors’ pre-race shenanigans didn’t overshadow the festivities. Indeed, the forced restart if anything benefited Derek Fox, who joins an exclusive list of multiple National winners, navigating One For Arthur in 2017 before the victory on the Rambler.

Fox will be hoping to retain his title in this year’s event, coming in at 5/1 in antepost odds but the likes of Vanillier and Willie Mullins-trained I Am Maximus are other fancied shots.

The National is so unique in that the fences make even the best in the world of jumps have to think about their approach, and the race’s unpredictability ensures an upset is always on the cards. The form book can sometimes go completely out of the window once the race starts, and other variables like conditions and weather mean an underdog can always have its day. Ground conditions have always been a factor in producing unexpected results.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some outsiders who defied the odds and caused some of the biggest upsets in the history of the Grand National.

Aurora’s Encore – 2013

Ryan Mania has established himself as one of the best jockeys of the modern era, but few knew his name until he got aboard Aurora’s Encore, who shot to success in 2013 at odds of 66/1 to see off competition from Cappa Bleu to win by nine lengths. The  bay gelding, trained by Sue Smith, defied the odds after transitioning to steeplechasing, and while he had a good record in novice races at Sedgefield, Carlisle, and Ayr, few would have imagined he would be this dominant on the grandest stage of them all.

Mon Mome – 2009

For just the second time in history a horse had won at odds of over 100/1. This is the story of Mon Mome’s massive achievement in 2009. You’d have to go back as far as 1967 to Foinavon for the last time anyone had picked up a result as spectacular as this, and Venetia Williams became the second woman trainer to win race as Mon Mome saw off defending champion and 8/1 favourite Comply Or Die, to the surprise of the trainer and even the best Grand National betting offers.

“It’s an absolutely unbelievable finish, I had the perfect run through the race, he jumped brilliantly for me,” said rider Liam Treadwell, tragically to take his own life some time later.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet, all I can say at this moment in time is it is unbelievable. A couple of times loose horses fell upsides me and went under his legs but it didn’t really affect the horse.

“He gave me such a great ride. He was an absolute pleasure to ride. He is so genuine. I had a quick look round but I wasn’t really sure how far in front I was.”

Last Suspect – 1985

They say age is just a number, and while there have been some young winners of the Grand National, Last Suspect was believed to be past his peak when he picked up victory in the 1985 edition of the race. The Duchess of Westminster – owned thoroughbred had pulled up at Warwick and wasn’t given much of a chance heading to Aintree, yet managed to win by one and a half lengths, using its unconventional style and powerful running to finish in front of Mr Snugfit.

The winner was owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, and trained by Tim Forster, whose riding instructions to jockey Hywel Davies were “keep remounting”! Unable to recapture that same spark the following year, an almost 13-year-old Last Suspect barely making weight and pulling up at the 18th, but his victory in the 1985 National will always have its own place in history.

Foinavon – 1967

Only the keenest racegoers had heard of Johnny Buckingham before the 1967 Grand National. A journeyman jockey, he was on the unfancied Foinavon, a rank outsider in the 1967 National for his first ever ride in the race.

Foinavon had been the intended moun t of his trainer John Kempton, but he couldn’t make the weight. Buckingham was his third choice rider, booked just 3 days before the world’s greatest steeplechase.

A pile-up initiated by a riderless horse at the fence after Becher’s on the second circuit allowed Buckingham to steer around the outside of the trouble. Virtually the entire field was halted in its tracks, allowing him to build a 30l lead with just 7 fences left.

The rest is history… Johnny Buck’s place in history was assured, with a 100/1 winner so unfancied neither his owner nor trainer had bothered to turn up at Aintree. Buckingham went on to make a successful career as a jockey’s valet.

Does Skelton’s Festival success herald a changing of the guard?

Amidst all the hand-wringing over the quality of British competition against the Irish, one bright light shone through on a week dominated by the Willie Mullins winner machine. Four winners for the Alcester yard of Dan Skelton, ridden by brother Harry, suggested it’s not all one way traffic west.

A Wednesday double courtesy of Langer Dan in the Coral Cup and Unexpected Party in the Grand Annual was re-inforced the following day by a Grade I double of Grey Dawning in the Turners and Protektorat in the Ryanair. The total haul catapulted the Warwickshire yard into first place in the Trainers’ Championship.

The Skelton brothers outlined their plan for more of the same in an interview on Luck on Sunday with the eponymous Nick Luck. The big fixtures at Aintree, Ayr and Sandown will define where the championship ends up.

It’s anything but over yet however. Paul Nicholls is chasing a 15th championship and is unlikely to give way readily. Equally, the troubled yard of Seven Barrows may see a resurgence, and winning the Grand National can be a gamechanger.

But for the first time in a decade, the pre-eminence of the old guard among trainers looks rocky. Challenger yards like Ben Pauling’s, Fergal O’Brien’s and Lucinda Russell’s are all making their presence felt at the top table. These are yards unafraid to run their horses on the premise that if you’re not in, you can’t win. Their winning strike rate is lower than Nicky Henderson’s for example, but they run more horses pro-rata. They and Skelton are already snapping at Ditcheat’s heels and festival success at Cheltenham or Aintree would introduce them to the sort of wealthy owners that could accelerate their progress into the top 5, and in Skelton’s case, to the number one slot.

The Festival was undoubtedly diminished by the absence of so much high quality bloodstock from Seven Barrows, and it is to be hoped that the all-clear comes in time for Henderson to reassert himself at Aintree or Sandown. But at 73, he’s in the twilight of a career spanning 50 years. He might be forgiven for focusing on quality rather than quantity. He’s not going to be chasing a champion moniker just for the sake of it.

One outlier performing well beyond themselves this term is Venetia Williams. Courtesy of performances from L’Homme Pressé, Royal Pagaille and Chambard, she finds herself in 5th position in the table, and were it not for Willie Mullins Festival exploits, she would be 4th. The yard isn’t large enough to go all the way to the top, but it’s been an outstanding season, and is far from finished.

Paul Nicholls though has plenty of ambition yet. Expect him to be looking to close the gap in the remaining six weeks of the season to make for a nail-biting championship finish. He won’t take being beaten by his former protegé without a good ding-dong.

Stratford novice Sine Nomine wins Cheltenham Foxhunter

The St James’s Place Foxhunter turned in a feel-good story to close out Gold Cup day at Cheltenham with the victory of Sine Nomine, 22 years on from owning a previous winner of the race for Robin Tate. Stratford followers will recall seeing the grey mare win the novice hunter championship here back in early June 2023.

Trained by daughter and Catterick Clerk of Course, Fiona Needham and ridden by John Dawson, the game grey mare showed a good turn of foot after the last to make up around 3l and outpoint 11/8 favourite, It’s On The Line, and retain the Festival’s largest trophy in Britain once again.

Back in 2002, it was Fiona Needham in the plate to win the race on Last Option, but this time around, it was senior statesman of the Yorkshire Area changing room, John Dawson, who guided the 8 year old mare to success. Dawson is a veteran of over 900 rides between the flags, and nearly 200 winners, but this will rank right up there with the best. “We didn’t really know what we had,” he told Racing TV, “but I always knew she had that little bit of something else.”

Hunting round the first circuit, Sine Nomine took closer order at the top of the hill joining a group of 7 after Ferns Lock had cut out the running for the first circuit and a half. Time Leader and Shantou Flyer were both prominent throughout, and favourite backers could have been forgiven for thinking their horse was cooked as It’s On the Line was pushed along down the hill. Two out, Time Leader asserted, pressed by the favourite, who hadn’t left Dawson and Sine Nomine room on the inner. Switching before the last, the grey mare responded to her rider’s urgings to win by 3/4l. 

Dawson continued, “I was hoping the race would pan out in her favour. If we were travelling coming down the hill, we’d be galloping at the top.”

Sine Nomine has been lightly campaigned since winning the novice hunter championship at Stratford last June, but with this target in mind. A 3l second in an Alnwick Open last December, her only other run at Wetherby in early February, where a bloodless victory over Bennys King brought race fitness without really finding anything more detailed, have been a product of the abysmal weather which has forced the abandonment of half the first half of the Pointing season. 

But the back-to-back victories of English-trained winners in Pointing’s showcase race offer encouragement to those growing the sport as a nursery for young horses and riders, even if john would agree that epithet no longer describes him. This is one race where home-trained horses have largely kept the Irish at bay, and gives a massive fillip to pointing in Yorkshire, whose 11 fixtures provide plenty of stirring entertainment. 

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