Paul Nicholls admits that he would have struggled to have framed a race with better conditions than Taunton’s Weatherbys Portman Cup for his strong stayer Yala Enki, so it’s no surprise that the 11-year-old is a warm order to repeat last year’s win in the race.
When Yala Enki won 12 months ago from Rock The Kasbah, who re-opposes on Saturday, he had most recently finished a close third in the Coral Welsh Grand National. By coincidence, that will be the case once again, only at Chepstow this time Yala Enki raced off a 4lb higher mark than last season, so it has been rated a new personal best.
Nicholls said: “The Portman Cup suits him ideally, as he’s top weight in most handicaps but gets into this conditions race without a penalty. That gives him a nice advantage, as he’s the highest rated horse in the race on 161.
“It’s just a perfect race for a horse like him. The trip and ground are ideal for him too and my only slight reservation is that it comes only two weeks after a hard race in the Welsh National, which was postponed this time. He’ come out of that race really well though, and he’s such a tough and hardy horse that I’d say he’ll be absolutely fine, so hopefully he’ll go and win again.”
Yala Enki might well have gone on to the Grand National after last year’s win if the race had taken place, and Aintree could be on the agenda once again.
Nicholls said: “We took him to Aintree last month for the Becher to see how he got on, and he went and fell at the first, but it was just one of those things and it didn’t tell us much. He was in the National last year and would probably have run. He’ll definitely get an entry again.”
The former Kauto Star Novices’ Chase winner Royal Vacation won the inaugural running of the Weatherbys Portman Cup in 2019, and the principal threat to Yala Enki on Saturday ran in the same race this season.
Harry Fry’s former Grade 1 hurdle winner If The Cap Fits was only third behind Shan Blue at Kempton on Boxing Day, doing almost nothing right until the finishing straight. However, he was flying over the last three fences, looking very much like a chaser who will appreciate Taunton’s extra half mile.
If The Cap Fits is not the only threat to Yala Enki. Rock The Kasbah needs respecting again, while Richard Newland introduces a fascinating recruit from France in Al Roc, who has a BHA rating of 158 and whose eight wins and multiple placings earned former connections £370,000.
Newland won the Grand National in 2014 with Pineau De Re and bought Al Roc with another crack at the race in mind after a Grade 2 second at Auteuil in the summer.
He said: “We bought Al Roc in France hoping he might be a National horse, but he’s still got his stamina to prove and he’s not actually qualified for the race yet. He’s got to finish in the first four in a chase of three miles or more, and so this is a bit of a fact-finding mission.”
He added: “He’s a nice horse, but he went up massively for his last run at Auteuil and he’s probably too high in the ratings now, so I hope they drop him a bit when they’ve seen him here.
“His French form is all over shorter distances and he can be quite keen, but hopefully he’ll jump round all right and finish in the first four.”
The Weatherbys Portman Cup was devised by Stuart Middleton and his team of the BHA’s race planning department, at the request of Taunton’s racing manager Bob Young, who explained: “We wanted a centrepiece for the card when it was moved from its traditional Thursday spot to Saturday in a swap with Wincanton, and Stuart suggested there might be a place for a three-and-a-half mile chase, with certain conditions.
"We named it the Portman Cup, as the racecourse is in Orchard Portman on land donated by the Portman family and Weatherbys are a long-time friend and supporter of the racecourse so a perfect sponsor.”
He added: “It’s our longest race of the season and this will be its third running. We’ve been rewarded with another classy field, but we are just short of the magical eight-runner mark once again, so one day we may go back to race planning to see if they can suggest a tweak or two.”