Dream ending to Nicholls's nightmare week
Racing:It was to prove yet another glorious Cheltenham Saturday for Paul Nicholls as the champion British trainer’s four-timer included almost every race of consequence.
In a week which started with the acrimonious departure of retired jumping great Kauto Star, it ended with Nicholls’s 18-year-old nephew Harry Derham coming of age aboard the equally youthful Unioniste in the feature Paul Stewart IronSpine Charity Challenge Gold Cup.
Then, just over half an hour later his stablemate Zarkandar claimed top honours against title holder Grandouet and reigning champion hurdler Rock On Ruby in the stanjames.com International Hurdle.
Unioniste was the first four-year-old to land the established Grade Three handicap chase, and had only sneaked into the line-up as a first reserve.
As with Al Ferof, winner of the Paddy Power Gold Cup at the last meeting, Unioniste (15 to 2) carried the familiar yellow silks of John Hales as he forged 11 lengths clear under a patient ride from the conditional.
Walkon, the 7 to 2 favourite, was forced to settle for the runner-up prize in the Paddy Power and once again here, despite Robert Thornton’s best intentions.
Derham said: “You’ve got Ruby (Walsh), Daryl (Jacob) and Ryan Mahon in the stable, so there’s a pecking order and I was absolutely delighted to get the chance in my second year as a conditional.
“The horse made my life very easy, he’s very strong for a four-year-old and I always knew I had a bit left.”
Nicholls, who had five winners on the day courtesy of Rocky Creek’s strike at Doncaster, said: “I thought he had to run here off a mark of 137 as he wouldn’t get another chance and he’s not like a normal four-year-old, he’s a real professional and he knows how to jump.
“I’m so pleased for Harry, he has had to be patient but we’ve preserved his claim for big races like this.”
Nicholls went on: “After the week we’ve had, I can assure you I’ve never had a more embarrassing or unenjoyable week like that in my life.
“I apologise for everything that has gone on and I’ve never been more embarrassed, so to end it with a win like this is great. It’s onwards and upwards.
“This horse will have a month off now. I’ve got novice chasing to go back to if I want and he’ll have an entry for the RSA in March.”
Unfortunately for Nicholls, his other runner Cristal Bonus suffered a fatal injury in the race.
Zarkandar (6 to 5 favourite) was in receipt of 4lb from Grandouet and Rock On Ruby and ended up beating the pair by a respective two and six lengths in a fascinating tactical battle for the valuable Grade Two event.
Nicholls said: “I don’t think he was himself last year, especially after he fell at Aintree He’s the right age and I think he’s still improving. He’ll probably go for the Kingwell in February, but I haven’t made up my mind.”
Zarkandar is just half a point behind 5 to 1 favourite Hurricane Fly with the sponsors and Nicholls said of Ruby Walsh’s potential choice: “There’s never a shortage of jockeys if Ruby wants to pick Hurricane Fly, but this horse will have reminded him of his ability.”
Nicky Henderson was delighted with Grandouet, not seen since his victory 12 months ago and is also considering the Kingwell, while Rock On Ruby’s trainer Harry Fry felt a combination of the heavy ground and lack of match practice told.
This has been a frustrating period for Henderson amid Nicholls’ domination, but Oscar Whisky (1 to 5 favourite) ended the day well for Seven Barrows when retaining the Osborne House Relkeel Hurdle in a canter.
“Oscar always gets us out of the mire,” said Henderson. “When you see him win like that, you can’t possibly believe he won’t stay three miles. But if the entries for Cheltenham (Festival) were tomorrow, God knows what you’d put him in.”
Walsh started the day helping Nicholls’ Far West (2 to 9 favourite) cement his position as the best juvenile seen so far when strolling clear in an effective match race with Handazan in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial.
Nicholls said: “He’s a real stayer and will maybe come back here in January before going for the Triumph.”
The Jenny Mould Memorial Handicap Chase produced a thrilling finish between the sport’s top two names as Walsh and the Nicholls-trained Shooters Wood (11 to 4 joint-favourite) thwarted an incredible late charge from Tony McCoy and His Excellency.
Coneygree (11 to 10 favourite), a half-brother to the late Lord Oaksey’s Hennessy hero Carruthers, demonstrated a bottomless depth of stamina in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle with trainer Mark Bradstock keeping options open before the Festival.
Emma Lavelle, who had a terrific four-timer across the country herself, was not present to see mud-lover Highland Lodge (2 to 1) come home 22 lengths clear under Barry Geraghty in the Ryman Stationary Novices’ Chase.