A REJUVENATED Junior will attempt to underline his status as one of Britain’s best senior steeplechasers when he lines up at Wetherby on Boxing Day.
The Rowland Meyrick Chase has been named as the next target for the chestnut gelding, who is approaching 10 years of age, after he defied top weight – and heavy ground – to land Newcastle’s Rehearsal Chase last Saturday.
It was a welcome return to winning ways for the David Pipe-trained chaser who was a second fence faller in the Grand National before pulling up in the Scottish equivalent.
Second in this year’s Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster when ridden by in-form Tom Scudamore, Junior has an unique place in racing history – he won races at both Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham Festival
He is owned by a syndicate that operates under the Middleham Park Racing banner which is based at Barton-upon-Humber.
Its bloodstock manager Nick Bradley says the Newcastle victory showed that Junior is back to his best.
“Things went wrong for him in the Grand National, so we put a line through that run. Up at Ayr he made a noise. Tom Scudamore said he needed a wind op and that’s what he’s had,” said Bradley.
“He might run at Wetherby on Boxing Day in the Rowland Meyrick. There is nothing before then and that is on the agenda at the moment. The National is possibly a target again, but we’ll take it race by race. How he runs in the Rowland Meyrick will dictate where we go next, but I wouldn’t rule Aintree out.”
Ballabriggs, the 2011 John Smith’s Grand National hero, is among 23 entries for the Betfred Becher Handicap Chase at Aintree on Saturday.
Donald McCain’s 11-year-old heads the list for the first race over Aintree’s signature fences since they were modified following two fatalities in this year’s National.
The last two winners of this race, Hello Bud and West End Rocker, feature. Locally, West Witton trainer Ferdy Murphy has entered Poker de Sivola.
The shorter Grand Sefton Chase over one circuit of the National course features Sue Smith’s Gansey.
Owner Andy Stewart believes it is “highly unlikely” a dream clash between Big Buck’s and star mare Quevega will happen.
Big Buck’s barely came off the bridle when securing his 18th consecutive victory at Newbury on Saturday and he is already odds-on to win the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival for a fifth year on the bounce.
With challengers few and far between, some have suggested the Willie Mullins-trained Quevega should tackle the mighty stayer, but she will be bidding for a fifth successive Cheltenham win of her own in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle.
The only conceivable place the pair could meet is at the Punchestown Festival, but Stewart appeared to rule out an end-of-season trip to Ireland.
Stewart said: “I think the only way they would meet is if Big Buck’s changed sex. Ruby (Walsh) obviously rides Big Buck’s and Quevega and I just don’t think it will happen.”
Jockey Barry Geraghty believes Hennessy Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth deserves to be the ante-post favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Last season’s RSA Chase winner, trained by Nicky Henderson, turned in a virtuoso display when defeating Tidal Bay at Newbury on Saturday.
“He just does as much as you ask him to do – nothing really flash – but every time you ask for a little bit of an effort, he delivers,” said Geraghty. “He has the right profile for the Gold Cup – he’s an RSA winner and is four from four at Cheltenham. There’s every reason for Bobs Worth to be at the head of the market.”
All-weather racing, the lifeblood of Flat yards in the winter, is in turmoil after an assessment of Southwell confirmed that the Notts track will not reopen until early February because of flooding damage.
Seven of Southwell’s 11 all-weather January fixtures have been switched to Wolverhampton, with the other four taking place at Lingfield. The National Hunt meetings on January 3 and 21 will be offered to all jumps courses.
However, Wolverhampton has had to abort its fixtures on Thursday, Friday and Saturday following the forecast of freezing temperatures.
Although this afternoon’s fixture goes ahead, last Saturday’s evening card at the West Midlands track was abandoned after just three races when jockeys raised concerns about the Polytrack surface balling under the horses’ hooves once temperatures had dipped markedly.
Safety inspections are planned for this week, with Wolverhampton’s cancelled fixtures being switched to Lingfield.
As of now, it means just two of Britain’s four all-weather venues, Lingfield and Kempton, are operational – resulting in an expensive round-trip of at least 480 miles for Yorkshire-trained horses, stable staff and jockeys.
As well as Doncaster winning a top award for its customer service, Beverley won two categories at the Racecourse Association’s annual awards for its racebus and fashion week – while York was honoured for exploiting the Frankel factor when the world’s best racehorse competed on Knavesmire in August.