TOP trainer Nicky Henderson’s orders to jockeys AP McCoy, Barry Geraghty and Andrew Tinkler ahead of today’s Grade One Betfred Bowl at Aintree are likely to be along these lines: “Whatever happens, make sure you all finish in the first three.”
Henderson is bidding to become champion trainer for the first time in 25 years, and he trails his great rival Paul Nicholls – the current champion – by just £17,000 in a title race which is determined by prize money and reaches its climax in a fortnight.
And Henderson, whose 151 winners this season have accrued £2.263m, knows today’s feature race will have even more significance – it is worth £84,405 to the winner – and he has proven horses in Riverside Theatre, Burton Port and Master of the Hall.
For the record, Riverside Theatre won the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, Burton Port was a dogged fourth in the Gold Cup, and Master of the Hall beat last year’s National winner Ballabriggs at Kelso last month.
In comparison, Nicholls only has one entry, Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2010 winner What A Friend, whose form has been spasmodic at best – illustrated by a heavy second fence fall in the Gold Cup.
“We need as much money as we can get if we are to win the championship,” said Malton’s Andrew Tinkler who rides Master of the Hall. “You know Nicky is going to throw as many darts as he can. He deserves to be champion and hopefully, as a team, we can do it.”
Henderson’s resurgence – helped by a record seven Cheltenham winners – has coincided with 26-year-old Tinkler enjoying a career-best season.
He is now on the 45-winner mark, two more than the 43 that he achieved in 2003-04 when he enjoyed a weight allowance as a young conditional.
The 26-year-old also missed most of December with a hand injury, including a dream ride on the electrifying Sprinter Sacre who went on to win the Arkle Trophy and who could be one of the most dominant two-mile chasers of all-time.
“Some days you’re riding very good horses and other days you’re just watching, so it can be frustrating,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
“One day you’re riding four favourites, the next you’re on an outsider at a minor meeting. From my point of view, you just have to roll with the punches.
“It’s good to be surrounded by great riders like AP and Barry – that gives you confidence – and that helps when you’re riding good horses. I’m far clearer in my own mind about my role now.
“AP was on Master of the Hall at Kelso, hopefully I can benefit today, although Riverside Theatre and Burton Port will be hard to beat.
“He’s grown a lot in confidence for the win and there will be plenty of pace. Hopefully they cut their own throats up the front – my boy will be doing his best work at the end. He beat Ballabriggs and According To Pete at Kelso. A win (today) will significantly boost their form on Saturday.”
It is a measure of Henderson’s title aspirations that Tinkler is unlikely to ride in the National. Instead, he will be at Chepstow for his boss. “Every winner will count,” says the jockey, who would like to record 50 successes this season.
Though the Ryanair Chase was over two miles five furlongs, Geraghty believes an extra half mile today will not be a problem for Riverside Theatre, who is owned by actor James Nesbit. “There was a lot of talk beforehand about whether he’d handle the track at Cheltenham,” said the Irish rider.
“He didn’t jump the first two well, and he found everything hard work. I’d be more than happy over three miles – he looked like a stayer at Cheltenham, maybe he even wanted further.”
The unknown today is the remarkable Hunt Ball – the Keiran Burke-trained horse has gone up over 80lb in the ratings since November 28 with seven wins and a second in eight starts.
His latest success came in the Pulteney Land Investments Novices’ Handicap Chase at Cheltenham where he carried 12st to victory. “He’s been very good and we’ll see how good he is. He’s had a long season but the first few races he won really easily, so they didn’t take much out of him,” said Burke.
Of course, today’s racing – Nicholls is also banking on Big Buck’s to record a 17th successive victory – will be rendered redundant, in title terms, if either trainer saddles the Grand National victor on Saturday.
The champion trainer will be represented by the durable grey Neptune Collonges while Henderson runs Sky Bet Chase runner-up Shakalakaboomboom.
As neither man has won the world’s greatest steeplechase, they will be even more determined to make their mark in the Betfred Bowl.