Ben Linfoot reflects on a super Saturday for Paul Nicholls, who had a magnificent seven-timer headed by McFabulous - but another Kempton winner is on the Cheltenham radar.
There was a time when January was thought to be Paul Nicholls’ least productive month of the winter. A mid-season pit stop, with his horses’ flu jabs the equivalent of a refuel, affecting his strike-rate as Team Ditcheat prepared for all those big closing laps in the spring.
It wasn’t the case every season, but his January strike-rate did sometimes notably dip. For a yard that normally operates in the 20-per-centers and higher in the height of the National Hunt season, the Januarys of 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 didn’t hit those standards.
But then last January he had 15 winners from 46 runners at 33 per cent. Not bad going. Two of the winners came on the equivalent Kempton card as Frodon won the Silviniaco Conti Chase and Saint Xavier landed the three-mile novices’ hurdle – two trophies Nicholls was in no mood for returning 12 months on.
But if that was a good day, Saturday was an incredible day. Seven winners from 18 runners for Nicholls, headlined by the well-named McFABULOUS who sauntered to a career-best victory in the rescheduled Doman Engineering Relkeel Hurdle at Kempton, showing all of his Grade One promise in a Grade Two race.
The official figures said this was wide open. Seven horses, all of them rated in the 150s, with none particularly past their prime – all connections were entitled to fancy their chances to some degree.
But the market spoke otherwise. McFabulous was sent off the 10/11 favourite on the basis that he had more improvement in him than any other horse in the field and that proved spot on as he outclassed his rivals, despite racing wide, Harry Cobden holding him together as he popped over the last to seal a comfortable two-and-a-quarter length win over On The Blind Side.
He struggled at the start of his novice hurdling season, but moving up in trip provided immediate returns and he has not stopped improving since. So much so, he’s a general 12/1 for the Stayers’ Hurdle now, but it’s hard to fancy him for that assignment and it’s one Nicholls is unlikely to even give him.
Not only does the trip look too far for him – at this stage – but the track is one he’s yet to tackle when obstacles are in the way and the flat terrain of Kempton looks much more his bag.
“We tried the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and he wasn’t beaten far, but I’m not convinced I want to give him a hard race against those horses at this stage of his career if he is going to be a super chaser,” Nicholls said at Kempton on Saturday.
So what could change Nicholls’ mind? A dry run up to the Festival for starters, as a three-mile slog wouldn’t be on the agenda for this future chaser just yet. But, more importantly, the race becoming a winning opportunity, which means something going awry for either or both of Paisley Park and Thyme Hill, the horses that were too strong for him over three miles at Newbury.
It’s more likely we’ll see McFabulous at Aintree where he’d have the option of the Aintree Hurdle – his most likely spring target over 2m4f – or the Ryanair Stayers’ Hurdle over three miles. Both Grade Ones, his destiny calling, although you get the feeling his master trainer believes it will be a bonus if he achieves a win at that level before he tackles a fence.
So which of Nicholls’ Magnificent Seven is on the radar for the Festival?
Not MASTER TOMMYTUCKER, who won the Ladbrokes Silviniaco Conti Chase by 12 lengths despite a Kauto Star-esque, fence-splitting error at the last.
He was cut for the Ryanair Chase after this, but he fluffed his lines in the 17-runner Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham last month and all of his victories over fences have been achieved in small fields. Indeed, he hasn’t won a chase that has had more than four finishers.
Here is a horse that can do without distractions and perhaps he was just idling when ploughing through the final fence, Harry Cobden doing well to keep the partnership intact.
The race was bookended by drama as there were sharp intakes of breath all round at the second, too, where Imperial Aura, normally such an assured jumper, unseated David Bass after diving at the fence. It looked as though something caught his eye as he cocked his jaw on approach and trainer Kim Bailey blamed a shadow.
Not the ideal prep for the now 7/1 second favourite for the Ryanair, then. He remains a grand prospect, but a lot of potential is factored into his price and with this blemish now on his record he could well drift in that ante-post market – as long as that strong Irish challenge is allowed over to race.
But back to Nicholls. If not McFabulous and not Master Tommytucker, did he unearth a potential Cheltenham Festival winner this weekend?
The one I was most taken with was BARBADOS BUCK’S, related to behemoth staying hurdler Big Buck’s and running in the same Stewart Family colours, who impressed when defying a 10lb penalty in the novices’ hurdle that Nicholls won last year with Saint Xavier.
He might not have beaten much, but to give all that weight away shows he’s a stayer firmly on the upgrade and I liked how he put the race to bed approaching the final flight, as four were still in with a chance jumping the second last.
At the line he was firmly in control and four lengths clear, without the need for too much persuasion from Cobden, and he looks to have all the tools to thrive in the Prestige Novices’ Hurdle at Haydock next month. Brindisi Breeze won that race before winning the Albert Bartlett in 2012 and this horse's odds for Cheltenham – currently 25/1 – will contract significantly if he wins again there.
Nicholls has yet to win the Albert Bartlett. But he used to take a dip in form in January, as well, and look how that’s turning out these days.
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