a mercurial AP McCoy left racegoers in no doubt about his unequalled brilliance in the saddle when producing a riding masterclass to land Doncaster’s feature Sky Bet Chase.
The lightly-raced novice If In Doubt, running over fences for just the fourth time, had no right to be winning this £75,000 race in which Yorkshire’s Crabbies Grand National hope Night In Milan was a creditable third.
Even the soon-to-be 20-times champion jockey, now in his 41st year and in far less injury discomfort than at the end of last year, harboured doubts about the prospects of owner JP McManus and trainer Philip Hobbs entering a horse whose only previous victory over fences was a modest four-runner race at Catterick last month.
He was right to do so – If In Doubt’s jumping could not have been more haphazard and unpredictable. In arrears from the off in this three mile test over 18 obstacles, the seven-year-old had, in fact, made up some ground before yet another mistake at the ninth saw McCoy’s mount drop back to last.
However, the favourite jumped into contention at the 13th – his first fluent leap of the contest – as McCoy sought a wide route to give If In Doubt a clearer sight of his fences.
As the field turned into the home straight, he was finally travelling with poise as he swept past the fading Night In Milan.
Even then, McCoy was not certain of victory – the horse was far from foot perfect at the final two fences – but had sufficient in hand to hold off the fast finishing Baileys Concerto.
Afterwards, he explained how he had to put his two decades of race-riding to the test just to remain competitive and record his 191st winner of the current campaign.
“He’s not a natural jumper so I switched him to the outside to get some light,” he said.
“I didn’t want to put his jumping under any pressure in the straight but I went on and he stayed on well.
“To be honest, I didn’t fancy him much coming here because he had been beaten off the same mark over hurdles. He’s got a lot to learn. He’s just not a natural, but it was his first run in a big handicap. He just needs to learn to jump better, but there is no better place to open a horse’s eyes than Doncaster.”
As for Night In Milan, jockey James Reveley could not have been happier because the frenetic early pace forced him to ride the horse more conservatively – tactics which will be essential in the National itself. “It’s a relief to know that he doesn’t have to make it,” he added.
Earlier winner 190 for McCoy came when he drove home the John Ferguson-trained Three Kingdoms in the Grade Two Lightning Novices’ Chase.
A blunder three out handed the initiative to McCoy’s great friend and rival Ruby Walsh aboard Solar Impulse but Three Kingdoms battled back to win by a neck.
However, McCoy and Walsh were both denied victory in the OLBG.com Mares’ Hurdle by Intense Tango who provided Leyburn trainer Karl Burke with a rare win over obstacles – he is more readily associated with Flat horses like 2013 Dante winner and Epsom Derby second Libertarian.
The four-year-old was in receipt of a handy weight allowance but she travelled supremely well in the hands of the aforementioned Brian Hughes, who pounced as McCoy and Walsh tried to outwit each other on their respective mounts Pass The Time and Analifet.
No jump jockey in the north is riding better than Hughes, 29, whose week had started with Katie T’s win in Leopardstown’s prestigious Boylesports Hurdle for his first boss Kevin Prendergast. Now on the 73-winner mark, it would be a tremendous accomplishment if he could complete a first century by the end of the April.
Connections certainly hope so – Intense Tango’s owner Paul Gaffney described how Hughes travelled to North Yorkshire in all weathers to school the winner.
His praise of the jockey’s worth ethic was shared by Burke who added: “There is nothing wrong with Brian. He’s a very, very good rider. He’s a sensible lad, very professional and very under-rated.”
With regard to the horse who has modest Flat form, she’s likely to skip the mares’ race at the Cheltenham Festival and line up in Aintree’s Grade One contest for four-year-olds.
“I would say we will stick to her own age group. We will be sensible and we could perhaps go to Aintree,” said Burke who said that he enjoyed the jumping game “because it doesn’t feel so much like business”.
As for Cheltenham’s own Festival Trials Day, Oliver Sherwood’s Many Clouds will be targeted at the Gold Cup after winning a thrilling BetBright Chase from Smad Place and Dynaste.
Fast ground in March would be the only concern for the Trevor Hemmings-owned chaser, who won at Wetherby in December 2013 before taking the Hennessy at Newbury.
As for Dynaste, jockey Tom Scudamore indicated that his grey was more likely to defend his Ryanair Chase title than tackle the Gold Cup.
It would also leave him free to ride David Bridgwater’s course specialist The Giant Bolster, who has been placed in the last three Gold Cups, and who delighted connections with his fourth-placed finish on Saturday.
As for the support races, Doncaster winner Peace And Co franked the form with another success – the JCB Trimuph Hurdle is his aim – while Saphir Du Rheu evoked memories of the great Big Buck’s with victory in the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle.
Like Big Buck’s, the winner is owned by Andy Stewart and trained by Paul Nicholls. And like Big Buck’s, the horse was reverting to the smaller obstacles following a mishap over fences.
The race also saw jockey Sam Twiston-Davies time his winning run to perfection. Having taken up the running on Big Buck’s in the corresponding race last year, and then been caught on the line, he delayed his challenge to great effect – the Ladbrokes World Hurdle is now the target.
Meanwhile, champion conditional jockey Gavin Sheehan continues to impress and took the handicap chase aboard Annacotty for Yorkshire-born trainer Martin Keighley with a late surge to deny the admirable veteran Big Fella Thanks.