Nicholls on the Festival comeback trail

When you think of Paul Nicholls, the mind is instantly drawn back to his superstar horses Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded, and See More Business, to name just a few. The master trainer swept up all around him when it came to the season’s biggest races back then, with superstars winning pretty much every Grade 1 race on the calendar.

Since then, however, the 12-time Champion trainer has struggled to find horses anywhere near as talented as that team of legends. Nicholls hasn’t won a Gold Cup since 2009 or a Champion Hurdle since 2012, albeit that he has made the King George at Kempton his own through Frodon, Clan des Obeaux and this year’s performance by Bravemansgame. The paucity of success at the Festival however is scarcely credible when you think of his former embarras de richesse

He has even started to bypass the Cheltenham Festival in recent years, instead waiting for the Aintree Grand National meeting the following month.

Ditcheat has found another gear

But times are changing at Nicholls’ Ditcheat stables this season. He has started to form a formidable squad full of talented young horses now ready to take on the best in the game. Betting markets and the latest betting tips are now full of Nicholls runners, including Bravemansgame with odds of 9/1 for the Gold Cup and Greaneteen available at 16/1 for the Champion Chase. Could it be time for the trainer to hit the summit of National Hunt racing once again at the meeting where it all counts?

Horses such as Bravemansgame and Greaneteen have put the Ditcheat stable back in the limelight this season with their Grade 1 successes and, with the Cheltenham Festival now fast approaching, it must be an exciting time for everyone involved with team Nicholls.

The new star squad


Bravemansgame is Nicholls’ new stable star. A Grade 1 winner as a hurdler, the 8-year-old has come into his own since being sent chasing, winning six of his seven starts. Two of those successes have come at the top level, most recently a 14-length win in the King George VI Chase at Kempton at Christmas.

He is still progressing at a rate of knots over the larger obstacles and has earned a tilt at this season’s Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup. Will he prove to be as good as Nicholls’ heroes of the past? We will find out in March.


Another current star of the Ditcheat stable is the Queen Mother Champion Chase hopeful, Greaneteen. Like Bravemansgame, Greaneteen has proved to be a far better chaser than hurdler and has been particularly impressive this season with his Haldon Gold Cup win and second-place performance in the Tingle Creek.

He is currently being overlooked in the betting markets for the Champion Chase but he has all the attributes needed for a race of that nature and shouldn’t be disregarded as an also-ran.

With the likes of Pic D’Ohry (Ryanair Chase), Frodon (Gold Cup), and Hermes Allen (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle) also among Nicholls’ strong Cheltenham squad, this could prove to be a comeback year for the Champion trainer at the sport’s Holy of Holies.

Seeing these Cheltenham classics without a Nicholls runner over the past few years has been disappointing. There hasn’t been enough home-bred opposition to prevent a trouncing by Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott. Together, Nicholls and Henderson present the best chance of rebalancing the old Anglo-Irish rivalry, and Nicholls old adversary in Lambourn also has some impressive firepower. But this is the strongest team Paul Nicholls has possessed since the heady days of Kauto Star and Denman. 

If they prove to be half as good as those two, then the future is bright at Ditcheat.

King George offers stellar cast

This year’s King George is building toward a race that simply must not be missed. Even the briefest of glances at the entries is enough to make one salivate.

If the market is any guide, the race trophy is already headed back to Ditcheat, just as it has on a previous 11 occasions through the efforts of great steeplechasers like See More Business, Kauto Star, Silvianaco Conti, Clan des Obeaux and Frodon. The champion trainer is four-handed in the race, with Charlie Hall winner favourite Bravemansgame, Hitman, Pic d’Orhy and the enthusiastic Frodon, who will be re-united with regular rider Bryony Frost, back from injury as racing returns this week.

There was an assuredness about Bravemansgame’s victory in the Charlie Hall that swept him to favouritism in short order. He had Ahoy Senor and Eldorado Allen behind him that day, but the recent history of the Charlie Hall is not littered with Gold Cup or King George winners, only candidates. He will have to improve again and his official rating of 161 leaves him needing improvement to win.

Hitman has a rating 1lb lower after narrowly being touched off in the Old Roan at Aintree back in October. He was a well-backed winner of a graduation chase at Haydock last month, but this is the deep end. Again, were he not in the Nicholls camp, his odds might be longer than the 4/1 generally available.

Frodon knows his way around Kempton already, having won this race for Bryony Frost in 2020, and there is little doubt that he and Frost are well suited to one another with a string of wins to their belt, including a splendid weight-carrying performance in the Badger Beer Handicap in November. Frodon was no match for Protektorat in the small field Betfair Chase however, and his days at the highest level may be numbered, cruel as it is to admit it.

Candidate number four is Pic d’Orhy, winner of the 7 runner Peterborough Chase last month at Huntingdon, where Millers Bank was behind him. On the face of it, he has a little to find, but he may yet be withdrawn for an easier target.

There is little doubt that Nicholls holds something back for Christmas, a time of year he excels. Despite the shutdown for the weather, his string is firing on all cylinders, with as good a strike rate as anyone in the business. You could certainly do worse than back any of his runners.

Nicholls’ one time protege is also a stable on fire this autumn, banging in big Saturday winners as if they are going out of fashion. Dan Skelton is the man most likely presently to topple Nicholls from his champion’s perch, and fields Protektorat, who turned up the heat on Henry de Bromhead’s Gold Cup winner A Plus Tard in some style in the Betfair Chase. That 11l rout also left Eldorado Allen and Frodon in its wake, and on ratings alone, Protektorat should be favourite. He is many people’s fancy as the champion long distance chaser elect, but Kempton is very different to the galloping tracks of Haydock or Cheltenham, and the ground is its compelling factor; good ground is standard fare at Kempton and Protektorat has to date not won on ground faster than Good to Soft. Is this his Achilles’ heel?

Venetia Williams has two entered, at opposite ends of the betting market. L’Homme Pressé has been the great white hope for the resurgence of British steeplechasing to counter the Irish since he won the Brown Advisory at last season’s Festival, with Ahoy Senor behind. Those positions were reversed 3 weeks later at Aintree, since when these two rivals have avoided each other. L’Homme Pressé’s record this season is impeccable – one from one. He won the Rehearsal Chase comfortably, but what did he beat that day? It was an excellent placement by his trainer to win a valuable prize without sizing up to anything comparable. On his rating alone, he has the beating of several of these, including the Nicholls’ trio but his 2/1 price doesn’t appeal.

Of more interest is Venetia Williams’ other contender. Royal Pagaille has won the last two runnings of the Peter Marsh in Haydock mud each January, and this may yet be his target again. But with a rating of 164, only Protektorat has his measure if he brings out his A game on his seasonal bow. At prices up to 25/1, he represents a value each way bet.

Ireland won this last year with Tornado Flyer but the Irish record in this race is weak. The Leopardstown Chase in Dublin provides a suitable alternative without crossing the Irish Sea in mid-winter. Nevertheless, this year’s two entries provide a cross-channel conundrum.

Envoi Allen had the likes of Conflated and Kemboy behind him when winning the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal in October. He would be an enormously popular winner for the de Bromhead family after the tragic loss of their son a few months ago.

Of more appeal is recent Aintree winner Noble Yeats, yet another top flight animal in the Waley-Cohen colours. Noble Yeats certainly seems to like Aintree. After his Grand National win in April, he returned there last month for a convincing victory in the Grade II Many Clouds Chase over the Mildmay fences. He has earned a chance to make his case among the top three milers.

Races like this only happen twice a year. Now that the snow has gone, we look set for an uninterrupted Christmas racing week. Make the most of it, and enjoy the thrill of the King George.

A little recouped, and much to anticipate

New recruit Hermes Allen repaid a little over 1% of his purchase price when winning the Maiden Hurdle at Stratford on Saturday, earning £4,084 toward his splendid £350,000 purchase tag. The Kirkistown maiden Point-to-Point winner of last November made a smooth Rules debut under Bryony Frost for Paul Nicholls and his power-team of owners that include Sir Alex Ferguson, Ged Mason and John Hales. This is precisely the role of our smaller venues in providing opportunities for the stars of the future to learn their trade, and star appeal was here in abundance.

Whilst the five runner field was hardly the cavalry charge of a Ballymore Novices in its heyday, the winner took control of the race from early, and never saw any danger, winning unopposed by 27l.

It was a day for the ladies, with half the races won by lady riders, and whilst it doesn’t do any more to draw attention to these coincidences, they still remain remarkable insofar as the odds remain stacked against women succeeding at the same rate as men.

The opening contest was a rare hurdle race confined to women riders, and drew the full range of expertise, from Bryony Frost and Gina Andrews, with 600 winners between them, to 7lb claimers. On this occasion, the latter won the day, when Thomasina Myers conjured up a last gasp run from Man Of The Sea between the last and the winning line to win by 3/4l from My Poem and Zamond. Thomasina was riding her fifth winner of the term, and seventh in all, for boss Neil Mulholland, also riding high with 33 Jumps winners under his belt.

At the opposite end of the card, Lilly Pinchin made all on David Dennis’s Flying Verse to land her twelfth winner of the season to date, and second in as many days, in the 2m6f handicap chase. Lilly is earning a reputation as a go-to conditional with Gloucestershire trainers like Ben Pauling, Charlie Longsdon, DJ Jeffreys and David Bridgwater.

Flying Verse and Lilly Pinchin [right] leads all the way to victory at Stratford. 15/10/2022 Pic Steve Davies

It was another Wiltshire trainer who showed his liking for Stratford when Milton Harris won his seventh race of the Stratford summer with four year old mare Aliomaana under Mitchell Bastyan in the Mares Handicap Hurdle. Harris has frequented Newton Abbot and Stratford with equal enthusiasm this past few months, and with pretty much equal success. This 28th winner of the term keeps him in the top flight whilst the big guns keep their powder dry.

One such, who hasn’t been fielding runners much this summer, is Kim Bailey. When the weather dried up back in the Spring, many of his horses were sent away on their summer break, but there’s evidence that they are fresh and ready to run in a couple of winners and promising form among those now reappearing. One example is Samatian, not likely to be one of Thorndale’s star performers, who nevertheless started his season in the best possible fashion with a 2l victory over Lazy Lover Boy in the William Hill Best Odds Guaranteed Handicap Hurdle. Just 40 runners have contributed to Bailey’s five winners, but on the basis of the past few richly endowed seasons, we can expect some higher profile excitement.

An eventful Pat Smyth 60th Birthday Handicap Chase saw thrills and spills in equal measure from the seven runner field as Nick Gifford celebrated a 40/1 winner in Fairway Freddie. Midnight Jewel, seeking a fourth summer victory under Lilly Pinchin, set a brisk pace which caught out Godrevy Point at the ninth, also bringing down Ahead of the Field. Thereafter, Pinchin appeared to have the rest of the field on the back foot, but James Davies harried her and Midnight Jewel all the way from the second last, and was able to capitalize when Midnight Jewel tipped up on landing at the final fence. Gifford’s horses are in good form; this was his second winner in as many runners, but Findon is sadly not the powerhouse of 25 years ago.

Fairway Freddy and James Davies [far] jumps the last with Midnight Jewel [about to fall] before victory at Stratford. 15/10/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Stratford bows out on October 27, so we hope you’ll join our swansong before the winter kings take over.

Five in a row for lucky Presentandcounting

There was a distinctly end-of-summer feel to this final weekend’s fixture at Stratford on a Saturday when racing competed with the delights of the popular Moreton Show, not 45 minutes down the Fosse Way. Those that attended were not disappointed however.

Hang In There, previous winner here and runner up in the Summer Plate at Market Rasen last time, led from the off in the feature Happy Birthday Jamie Bristow Handicap Hurdle for Emma Lavelle and joint owners Tim Syder and Andrew Gemmell. Despite carrying 16lbs more than his rivals, this in itself reduced by a 10lb rider claim by young Joe Anderson, he was able to brush off his rivals when they joined him at the second last, and from a 1 1/2l lead at the last, with an enormous leap, suddenly the race was all over. The winning distance of 7 1/2l told only part of the story. It will be no surprise to see Hang In There in some of our better handicaps through the winter.

Hang In There and Joe Anderson win at Stratford. 4/9/2021 Pic Steve Davies

The Keogh & Hows Handicap Chase won’t rank in the pantheon of high quality chases, but three time course and distance winner Franz Klammer approached it with a mind to make this four for local trainer Peter Pritchard. Making every post a winning one, he retained the lead, even after a blunder at the second last, and was only swallowed up by winner Rythmn Is A Dancer in the run to the last. A trier all the way, Franz Klammer lost nothing in defeat, and there will be other races – probably here at a course he clearly enjoys. The winner, trained at Ditcheat by Paul Nicholls with Harry Cobden in the plate, won by 7 1/2l to record his debut steeplechase victory.

Percy’s Word, successful here last month for the Skelton team, followed up in different circumstances with a hard-fought half length victory over the Philip Hobbs’ trained Camprond in the opening National Racehorse Week 12-19th September Novices Hurdle. Officially rated just 114, Percy’s Word looks much better than this, and can improve again.

This worthy celebration of the equine athletes at the centre of our sport is the brainchild of Richard Phillips, absent from Stratford whilst promoting new syndicates at Moreton Show. Yards all over the country will open their doors from next weekend to those registering on the national website. Phillips’ small yard at Adlestrop has already capped numbers at 300, so it’s reasonable to expect huge crowds at the open days in Epsom, Malton and the Henry Cecil Open Days in Newmarket. Former racehorses were paraded before racing to mark the week ahead.

ROR Racehorse Parade at Stratford. 4/9/2021 Pic Steve Davies

Presentandcounting was lucky to complete his hat-trick of Stratford wins in the Pardy’s Dairies Novices Chase under Brian Hughes. A winner here at each of the past two meetings in a golden summer that has also included novice chase wins at Worcester, Perth and Cartmel, Donald McCain’s charge made all but was headed by Hooper coming out of the final bend. It looked like Hooper’s race but he met the last all wrong and luckless rider Ben Ffrench-Davis was catapulted out of the side door.

That said, Presentandcountung has done nothing but improve all season; since his debut novice chase triumph at Worcester back in May, he has improved 32lbs, and there’s nothing to say he can’t figure among our top novices provided he can manage winter ground. Presendandcounting has made a valuable contribution to McCain’s excellent start to the season, where 26 winners to date have garnered over £200,000 in prize money.

Hughes was also successful in the Naf Racing Handicap Chase over the minimum trip later in the afternoon, notching a third winner this term for Charles & Adam Pogson from their Nottinghamshire yard. Having led much of the way, Larch Hill was headed at the sixth, but given a breather, was able to reel in Romanor from Seamus Mullins’ yard on Salisbury Plain to finish full of running.

Worcestershire trainers were able to keep some of the prizes nearer to home in the remaining two races. Well-backed favourite Bagan, held up in rear, moved smoothly through the field in the Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle to win the Seller comfortably by 7 1/2l for Tom Gretton. Rare for selling races nowadays, the winner found a new owner afterwards when Simon Prout paid £11,250 for this winner of 3 races.

Bagan and Jason Dixon [left] win at Stratford. 4/9/2021 Pic Steve Davies

The closing bumper was won by Strensham Court, trained by Sam Drinkwater within earshot of the eponymous service station on the M5. Kept up to his work by Danny Burton, the winner showed good speed to put distance between him and the placed horses, finishing full of running.

We woz robbed: a night of footie analogies as McPherson is denied in weight incident

It was an evening when England football held the thrall of much of the country as England beat Germany to progress to the quarter-finals of the Euros, but the action was quite as exciting as Stratford reached its halfway point of the summer.

Harry Cobden is making up for lost time over Jockeys’ Championship rivals since his return from injury on June 11. The West Country rider, out since Aintree in April, is riding with his usual gusto, and took the opening novice chase with Rhythm is A Dancer, opening his account over the bigger obstacles after 4 hurdle wins for Paul Nicholls. Winning owner William Harrison-Allan is a former sponsor of the Cheltenham Foxhunter with his company the CGA.

Rhythm Is A Dancer impresses in his novice chase
Rhythm Is A Dancer and Harry Cobden [left] jup the last with The Bull McCabe and Ballymoy [about to fall] before winning at Stratford. 29/6/2021 Pic Steve Davies

This was a good quality novice chase despite just 5 runners, and throughout, any one of four of the runners could have been a winner. Runner-up The Bull McCabe is already a course and distance winner over hurdles at Stratford, and he and the winner jostled for the lead throughout, until joined at the last by Ballymoy, who looked highly dangerous, until falling. This didn’t help third placed Premier D’troice, but in truth, he was held at that point. The winner lengthened away nicely to win by 6 1/2l.

We were treated to another chase 30 minutes later when Irish Point-to-Point graduate Scardura rewarded trainer Neil Mulholland with a third win since joining the stable in October 2019 in the handicap chase. Sam Twiston-Davies led pretty much throughout to test his rivals and was never under duress in the 5 1/2l victory. The Mulholland yard can do no wrong presently. They enjoyed a four-timer at Les Landes Racecourse on Jersey – one hurdle and 3 flat wins) last week, which went pretty much unreported, even if the quality of racing in the Channel Islands leaves a bit to find on the mainland.

Scardura and Sam Twiston-Davies lead all the way at Stratford. 29/6/2021 Pic Steve Davies

The last of the three chases looked to be in the hands of Chris Honour’s Shortcross Storm turning in for the 2m 3f novices Handicap chase, with Sparkleandshine and eventual winner Authorize off the bridle. Over the last pretty much together, SparkleandShine hung right, whilst Authorizo, from Henry Greenall’s Cheshire yard, stayed on dourly to win by 2 3/4l. The Greenall stable already has 10 winners on the board and a handsome 25% strike rate for its chasers this term.

The middle distance handicap hurdle produced a terrific finish as Graeme McPherson’s Calum Gilhooley and Nicky Henderson’s Chives battled for supremacy over the last 150 yards. But whilst Kielan Woods’ efforts on the former delivered a neck victory at the line, the previous 100 yards was littered with various pieces of tack that had come adrift from under the saddle, leading to an inevitable objection by the Clerk of the Scales for weighing in light. The winner was disqualified, denuding the Stow-on-the-Wold yard of its fifth winner of the summer. Given his robust attitude to racing however, it surely can’t be long before this game horse finds another race of his own.

Favourite backers got behind 11/8 market leader Butte Montana to improve on his runner-up berth at Uttoxeter at the start of the month in the Maiden Hurdle, and Paddy Brennan took the race by the scruff of the neck and made no mistake about ensuring the winner lost his maiden tag. This was a 25th winner of the new term for the Ravenswell team, that have carried on the good work from the Spring.

Lucy Wadham’s youngsters are always to be respected in bumpers and novice or maidens, and Ocean Heights, a son of Dubawi no less, prevailed to break his duck at the fourth attempt in the concluding bumper, under conditional Corey McGivern, enjoying a third career winner.

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