Nicholls leads home charge on day two at Cheltenham

Dodging Bullets’ success in Queen Mother Chase the highlight for Britain’s champion trainer

As Cheltenham gestures go, a 1,429/1 Day Two hat-trick highlighted by Dodging Bullets' Queen Mother Champion Chase was a particularly defiant one by Britain's leading trainer Paul Nicholls.

Willie Mullins's opening day Grade 1 four-timer looked to firmly realign the Anglo-Irish Cheltenham power balance and three more Irish trained winners on the second day hardly resulted in some significant mood swing among the visitors.

But with David Pipe also supplying the favourite Moon Racer to land the concluding Bumper, there was a feeling of the home team’s ‘old firm’ reminding the visitors they aren’t invariably going to get their own way.

Certainly Irish hopes in the feature were reduced when Mullins’s big hope, Champagne Fever, was ruled out of the race with a setback, leaving the raiders to rely on a trio of outsiders for the two-mile crown, including the veteran former champion Sizing Europe.


But it was Sizing Europe’s stable companion Special Tiara who made a bold bid to make all and was still competing for the lead at the last when Dodging Bullets eventually got the better of him and the 33-1 outsider Somersby.

For a famously competitive man like Nicholls, who’d landed the preceding Coral Cup with Aux Ptits Soins, and later had a 1-2 in the Fred Winter Hurdle, the importance of securing a fifth Champion Chase, not to mention a first Grade 1 at this festival for the home team, wouldn’t have been lost.

“Willie is always hard to beat with the ones he has at the moment but you have to do your best,” he said. “It depends on the horses. You can only win with what you have. We had Kauto Star, Big Bucks and Master Minded running at the same time but that doesn’t always happen.”

And for someone who still appeared irked afterwards at Dodging Bullets not being favourite for the race, Nicholls might not have been overly disposed to understand many people’s reflex to check the trio of ex-champs struggling behind as the new champion passed the post.

Sire De Grugy wound up a tired fourth while Sizing Europe was in seventh, leaving Henry De Bromhead to admit considering retirement for the 13-year-old although stressing no decision would be made in the heat of the moment.

That looks a straight-forward call compared to the conundrum represented by the 2013 hero Sprinter Sacre, well beaten when pulled up by Barry Geraghty before the last.

The horse once rated the best since Arkle and Flyingbolt has had heart problems, bled from his nose in last month’s comeback behind Dodging Bullets, and never appeared happy.

“I knew at the first down the back we were beaten,” reported the jockey.

Trainer Nicky Henderson waited on test results but insisted: “No predictions about his future can be made now. He has been a great horse and if it is wrong to go on we won’t do that. But if we can find a switch to get rid of whatever is wrong with him, then who knows.”

Nicholls handled the career of another great two-mile champion in Master Minded and admitted: “I never thought Dodging Bullets was a Master Minded or an Azertyuiop but he’s winning the same races they did now.

“I really love this race. I know the other two (Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy) were past champions but I couldn’t see why we were behind them in the betting. It must have been sentiment. Dodging Bullets was the progressive young horse and it’s them that usually come out on top. He should have been favourite.”

Special Tiara outran his 18-1 odds and De Bromhead said: “He could run next at either Sandown or Punchestown and ran a savage race. We’ll see about Sizing Europe, but you can see how he’s stood the test of time. That was his fifth time to run in the race and it was only a second time for the other former winners.”

Sam Twiston-Davies cemented his role as Nicholls’s stable jockey with his biggest career win on Dodging Bullets and earlier secured a narrow Coral Cup victory on the trainer’s French recruit Aux Ptits Soins, edging out the Irish hope Zabana by a neck.

“I’d no idea how well handicapped he was because he’d won two novices in Auteuil and had worked really well but that doesn’t tell you anything really,” Nicholls said. “I’m learning about him and did say he might win but I didn’t know.”

The 25-1 Qualando beat Bouvreuil for a Nicholls 1-2 in the Fred Winter, as Twiston-Davies on the apparent stable number one, All Yours, had to settle for fifth.

Moon Racer landed a major gamble in the Weatherbys Bumper, overcoming a slow start to come through under Tom Scudamore and top a clean-sweep for British trained runners. Vigil and the always prominent Supaesundae did best of the Irish runners.