Paul Nicholls sends a couple of runners on the long trek north to Ayr this afternoon and I thought it was significant that the 11-time former champion trainer admitted on The Opening Show on ITV on Saturday morning that he had backed stable jockey Harry Cobden – at 33/1 – to be champion jockey.
The current champion Brian Hughes is 4/6 favourite and, at the time of writing, heads the table by seven – 42-35 – over Cobden in what looks a virtual match with the winners drying up for Richard Johnson who has lost the patronage of Olly Murphy and is stable jockey to Philip Hobbs whose string have been slow to come to hand. Hughes will ride plenty of winners in the north, but I believe Nicholls’ has the firepower to get Cobden – 13/8 with William Hill – over the line.
Whiskey Lullaby (12.30) finished second in her sole Irish point and occupied the same berth at Newbury in February in a decent Bumper. She is taken to make a winning debut for Nicholls’ and Cobden in the opening Mares’ maiden hurdle. Wild Polly will win her share of races this term and can follow the favourite home. The mare is 5/6 at William Hill.
In the Novices’ Handicap Chase Do Not Disturb is a horse who can make his mark over fences this winter, but I am not convinced he stays this extended two-and-a-half miles. Preference is for Ruth Jefferson’s Lemon T (1.40) who made all to score at Newcastle on his penultimate start and has had a wind operation since disappointing at Wetherby back in February. The ew selection – 10/1 with William Hill – ran well first time out last season and I hope to see the grey run a big race from the front.
Costly Dream must go close in the 3m chase near the foot of the weights but Asking For Answers (2.50) looks well treated if he can just avoid the mistakes that have plagued his chasing career to date. His second to Skyhill over today’s C&D at the turn of the year is, arguably the best form on offer given the winner is now rated 20lbs higher in the weights and the selection has been dropped a couple of pounds. It is fair to say that it is not a race that will take too much winning. Martin Todhunter’s 7-y-old was put in at 13/2 but is now 4/1 with BetVictor.
The star on show this afternoon is Minella Indo (3.15) who begins his road to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March in Wexford’s Grade 3 Chase where he must give 5lbs to the race-fit Milan Native who won the Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival back in March and won a small race at Galway earlier in the month.
The selection – 8/15 with 10bet – was beaten first time out last season when he was not put into the race over an inadequate trip, but I still can’t believe how he failed to win the RSA Chase in March when beaten a length by Champ having looked all over the winner half way up the Cheltenham hill.
Andy Dufresne (3.50) never quite lived up to expectations over hurdles – although he did beat Captain Guinness at Punchestown in January – but he won his sole point-to-point and is taken to make a winning start over fences in the Beginners Chase over two miles for which he is 8/11 at Boylesports. In the long term I see Gordon Elliot’s six-year-old as more of a Marsh Chase candidate over 2m 5f rather than the Arkle, but connections must feel this is an ideal starting point.