Contrasting fortunes for top trainers
This was the centre piece of Henderson’s four-timer on a day of contrasting fortunes for the country’s top two trainers. While Riverside Theatre, owned by actor James Newsbitt, saw his Ryanair Chase odds trimmed, Nicholls was mourning the loss of Pride of Dulcote – one of his Gold Cup entries.
Having unseated Nick Scholfield, the progressive horse suffered a fatal leg injury while galloping free up the Ascot run-in. It illustrated the highs and lows of jump racing.
As Henderson celebrated, Nicholls came to terms with the latest setback to afflict his yard which is struggling to maintain its previous levels of consistency.
Riverside Theatre, who scored by six lengths from Gauvain, is 7-1 from 10s for Cheltenham’s Ryanair Chase – a race where Ferdy Murphy’s Kalahari King is a leading contender.
“He’s learnt a lot in the jumping department and it’s a good compliment to Long Run,” said Henderson after collecting £84,495. All four winners – including the very promising novice chaser Master of the Hall – were ridden by in-form Barry Geraghty.
“He stays all day and it’s much slower ground than it was at Kempton for the King George,” reported the jockey.
“I suppose the Ryanair could be a race for him, but it’s really up to Nicky.”
Henderson – who recently landed his 3,000th career winner – landed the last of his two trainers’ championships in 1986-87 shortly before Martin Pipe’s unprecedented level of domination.
Nicholls has been the undisputed No 1 since ending Pipe’s stranglehold in 2005-06 – but this year’s title race (determined by prize money) could be settled by the outcome of April’s John Smith’s Grand National if both trainers maintain their expected high standards at Cheltenham next month.
Ironically, it is a race that neither man has won – and the Lucinda Russell-trained Silver By Nature, a galloping grey, is one of the new ante-post favourites after winning Haydock’s National trial for a second successive year.
Despite carrying top weight and enduring bottomless conditions, this was an emphatic victory for the Scottish handler whose partner is Peter Scudamore, the former champion jockey.
Owned by St Johnstone Football Club owner Geoff Brown, the horse could become the first Scottish-trained winner of the Aintree showpiece since Rubstic in 1979.
But the greater challenge – more so than the National’s 30 formidable obstacles – could be persuading Brown’s wife to run Silver By Nature in such a gruelling race.
Scudamore has winning form in this department. When assistant to Nigel Twiston-Davies, he was among those who persuaded Raymond Mould’s late wife, Jenny, to run Bindaree in 2002 – and he won.
After carrying 5lb more to victory than 12 months ago, Russell was delighted with Silver By Nature after a weather-disrupted winter at her Tayside yard.
Now 14-1 for Aintree she added: “I’ll have to speak to his owner who has been very keen on winning the Scottish National.
“This horse does like the heavy ground and I would prefer to go to Aintree because it is less likely to be heavy at Ayr.”
Spotted landing an Irish point-to-point race four weeks ago, Back In Focus could be the new talisman of Northern racing after jumping into Cheltenham contention by emphatically winning his first ever hurdles race.
Ridden by Yorkshire-based Brian Hughes, the latest acquisition to Howard Johnson’s County Durham yard is 10-1, from 50s, for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the NH Festival after easing past Emma Lavelle’s well-regarded Court In Motion.
After the shock 16-1 Haydock win, Johnson’s assistant Ray Hawkey said of the six-year-old: “That was impressive,wasn’t it? I thought he would run well, although he was pitched in at the deep end.”
Ferdy Murphy will be more than satisfied with Grand National prospect Big Fella Thanks after finishing fourth to Riverside Theatre at Ascot. A blemish at the fourth last put paid to his chances.
Less pleased with be Malcolm Jefferson after King Fontaine was pulled up in Haydock’s National trial, though his According To Pete returned to form in the handicap chase at the Lancashire track.
After a final fence blunder, he was denied by Sue Smith’s Douglas Julian. The three-time steeplechase winner will be given entries for Cheltenham’s handicap chase.