THE test of horsemanship still posed by Aintree’s Grand National fences was reflected by jockey Gavin Sheehan’s reaction after he won the Becher Chase on the Red Rum-like Blaklion.
“The best buzz I’ve had,” Sheehan told The Yorkshire Post after Blaklion – now favourite for next year’s National – provided trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies with a record sixth Becher win.
It is some statement. The jockey, after all, is a former champion conditional whose career highlights already include Grade One success at the Cheltenham Festival on Cole Harden, the horse that launched his career.
“It’s a different kind of buzz,” elaborated the rider who said his partnership with agent Chris Broad is beginning to pay-off. “Cheltenham is different. It’s the pinnacle of our sport. This was good fun.”
Sheehan says there was still pressure – Blaklion had been backed to 7-4 favouritism – but he knew last season’s Grand National fourth was the best horse in the race and rode him as such as he hunted over the track’s famous fences.
“I was more looking forward to the ride than feeling any pressure,” he added.
“I knew all week that Blaklion and The Last Samuri would be first and second.”
It worked out – but not quite how Sheehan envisaged. After a slow start, he bided his time and actually followed David Bass on The Last Samuri because he knew his rival was a reliable jumper.
Both crept into the field – Henry Brooke and Highland Lodge set a typically brave pace – before Blaklion pulled clear in the home straight after dispelling any fears that the diminutive horse would not jump out of the heavy ground.
The Last Samuri was runner-up after a courageous run under top weight – the aforementioned Bass said the victor’s superior class was decisive – while Jimmy Moffatt’s Highland Lodge was a gallant third.
First, second and third in the last three renewals of the Becher, the Cheltenham Festival’s cross- country race next March could be the target for the veteran.
As for Blaklion, all roads lead back to Aintree for a horse that came to prominence when winning Wetherby’s Towton Novices Chase and Cheltenham’s Grade One RSA Chase in 2016 under Ryan Hatch.
With Hatch a long-term injury absentee, Sheehan was available for Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase last month when Blaklion was a gutsy second to stablemate Bristol De Mai who went on to win Haydock’s Grade One Betfair Chase.
With Charlie Hall third Definitly Red winning the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree on Saturday afternoon for Malton’s Brian Ellison and Danny Cook, the form looks rock solid as Bristol De Mai prepares for Boxing Day’s King George Chase at Kempton.
“I will be hoping to keep the ride on Blaklion,” added Sheehan. “I think he would have a fantasic chance in the National. He’s small, but he’s nimble.
“The fences rode quite big today but he jumped them very well. Very economical. Very class. I enjoyed it.”
So, too, did the aforementioned Twiston-Davies who compared his horse to three-time National winner Red Rum before quickly clarifying his comments.
“He’s got this Red Rum-type of way of getting over the fences – he’s small but very agile and accurate,” said the trainer whose yard is in a rich vein of form.
“I’m sorry to use his name but he reminds me of Red Rum, although he’s got a lot do to be anything like him!”
Joking that any horse, including Blaklion, should have been 7-4 to complete the course, he added: “It was a superb round of jumping, but it’s a relief to see him win.
“It was exactly what we’d hoped for.
“He didn’t seem to quite get home in the National last year, but we dropped back a mile and our prayers have been answered.
“Others will come out of the woodwork for the National I’m sure, but he must have a very good chance if we ride him a bit more restrained, like we did today – we’ve only got eight lengths to find.
“I’ll think about how we get there, he might wait for the Grand National Trial at Haydock and then the National. We’ll think about the Gold Cup, but hopefully we’ve got that sorted with Bristol De Mai.”
There was a record 10th win in the Grade One Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown for the trainer when Politologue, in the colours of leading owner John Hales who was landing the prize for the first time, outgunned Colin Tizzard’s Fox Norton.
Now a leading contender for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, it was the biggest win to date in the burgeoning career of teenage rider Harry Cobden.
The 19-year-old won at Haydock on the grey, and then the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter. On the deck in the race before the Tingle Creek, Cobden exhibted no nerves as he fired his horse at the final two fences.
Cobden said: “He’s a lovely horse, the first day I sat on him was at Haydock over two and a half on heavy ground, he took a bit of my heart that day and he’s got it all now.”
Jessica Harrington expressed her delight as Sizing John made the perfect return to action in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.
All roads again lead to Cheltenham in March for the Gold Cup hero, who made light work of beating dual race winner and favourite Djakadam by seven lengths, although the exact route the 2-1 winner takes to the Festival has yet to be determined.
With the future in mind, Harrington’s decision to skip last month’s Betfair Chase at Haydock over three miles on heavy ground – and with it the chance of a £1million bonus for adding the King George and Gold Cup – almost certainly looks to have been the right one.
Harrington said: “First run of the year, you are always nervous. I wasn’t worried about the heavy ground going two and a half miles, but he was super. The mistake at the second fence woke us all up and he jumped super after that.
“He’s a super jumper and it’s the first time he’s made a mistake in all the races that I’ve been training him. I don’t know where he will go next. It’s always one race at a time.”