HIS horse may have been beaten a short-head in a controversial finish – but Tom Scudamore could not have been happier with Junior’s Grand National preparations.
“I’m delighted, but he could do with another mile-and-a-quarter. What a trial for the National he has run,” said the jockey after the William Hill Grimthorpe Chase brought Doncaster’s NH season to a thrilling close.
Scudamore had set out to make all on the former Royal Ascot and Cheltenham Festival winner before Pentiffic – in receipt of nearly two stone from the favourite – burst into the lead.
He was still clear at the last, though his advantage was diminishing, before crumpling on land and parting company with young conditional Robert Dunne.
It left Junior and Ikirodu Road, named after one of Nigeria’s most dangerous highways, to battle out a thrilling finish after both had to sidestep Pentiffic.
The photo-finish just went in Ikorodu Road’s favour, the Matt Shepphard-trained horse was a mere 22lb better off at the weights, though many racegoers thought Junior had prevailed for the Barton-on-Humber-based Middleham Park syndicate.
Scudamore did lodge an objection to the winner, saying he was hampered going to the last, but his overtures were rejected by the stewards.
Junior is now vying for National favouritism at 12-1 with the Willie Mullins-trained Prince de Beauchene, and will miss the Cheltenham Festival.
No National winner has ever won a subsequent race since Bindaree prevailed in 2002 but Ballabriggs, last year’s victor for Donald McCain, has an outstanding chance after finishing fourth in his comeback race at Kelso.
He’s 14-1 for this year’s renewal – Jason Maguire’s mount made one mistake in a race won by AP McCoy on Master of the Hall with According To Pete, Yorkshire’s National hope, a creditable second for jockey Harry Haynes and Malton trainer Malcolm Jefferson.
The trainer, who was at Doncaster, said he was impressed by what he saw.
Another National market mover is Niche Market after finishing a close second to Marufo in the Greatwood Veterans Handicap Chase at Newbury under Ruby Walsh.
Trainer Paul Nicholls, who is still seeking his first Aintree triumph, as delighted. “That was an amazing run.
“He’ll go to the National a better horse than last year.”
Back at Doncaster, Malton-based Brian Ellison could send Ultimate to the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase at Cheltenham after he won a handicap chase under 7lb claimer James Best.
However, Saltburn-based Keith Reveley’s Corkage, a very impressive handicap hurdle winner, will miss Cheltenham and head to Aintree. Both Reveley and his son James, who was in the saddle, believe the nine-year-old is better suited by a flat track. The meeting also saw North Yorkshire trainer Ferdy Murphy gallop some of his Cheltenham runners after racing.
Though the pace was sedate, the most eyecatching was perennial Cheltenham contender Kalahari King who looked very fresh – he’s been on the injured list since November.
Murphy indicated that his former stable jockey Davy Russell, now based in Ireland, could replace the injured Graham Lee on the horse in the Ryanair Chase.
The stumbling block is whether Russell is required to ride last year’s Jewson winner Noble Prince. AP McCoy would like to keep the ride – but he has also ridden the hat-trick seeking Albertas Run to his last two victories in the Ryanair.
De Boitron, a market leader in the aforementioned Grand Annual, had his work rider – promising conditional Tony Kelly – beaming with pleasure afterwards.
He was fourth in the corresponding race last year and will be ridden in this year’s contest, the Festival finale, by the in-form Lucy Alexander.
“That was grand. They went a mile-and-three quarters and all the lads were happy,” said Murphy.
Encouragement for Kauto Star
KAUTO Star will step up training this week ahead of a possible sixth successive tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The veteran’s chances were rated as “50-50” by trainer Paul Nicholls on Thursday night, but the signs are now more encouraging.
The horse, already a winner of two Gold Cups, rolled on his back on Saturday after a workout – the first time he has done so since his gallops fall 10 days ago.
Yesterday, the 12-year-old had an hour on the horse walker and then physio before successfully coming through a 10-furlong gallop.
The most crucial day will be Saturday when Kauto Star has his last major preparatory gallop alongside Big Buck’s, who is seeking a fourth successive World Hurdle title.
Nicholls indicated that this would be a full piece of work and that there would be no concessions to Kauto Star’s injury.
In other Festival news, Nicky Henderson’s top novice hurdler Simonsig will contest the Neptune Investment on Wednesday week rather than the Supreme, the traditional Tuesday curtain-raiser to the Festival.
KEITH Mercer, the Richmond-based jockey, faces another lengthy spell on the sidelines after breaking his left collarbone – and suffering four fractures in his right hand – at Kelso.
The rider will undergo surgery today on his hand after his mount, Shan Blue, was brought down at the Scottish track, and then impeded another horse that landed on Mercer.
It was a painful end to his first day back in the saddle after being concussed in a fall at Leicester.
After breaking his leg at Worcester in the summer of 2010, Mercer was out for more than a year and had only just begun his comeback when he was unseated by Ferdy Murphy’s highly-rated Divers at Cheltenham in December and broke a collarbone.