NEXT stop Cheltenham. After racing away with Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase – and then landing the Grade One Betfair Chase with a masterful display of jumping – Paul Nicholls is now reaching for the stars with Silviniaco Conti.
The young pretender’s next appearance, says the champion trainer, will almost certainly be the Cheltenham Gold Cup, steeplechasing’s blue riband race, rather than a clash with stablemate Al Ferof, the Paddy Power Cup winner, in Kempton’s King George Chase on Boxing Day.
On a day when crowds flocked to Haydock to watch the legendary Kauto Star, a four-time Betfair Chase winner, parade in front of the packed grandstands before the big race, Nicholls conceded that Silviniaco Conti’s pulsating progression is comparable to the career development of the recently retired champion.
Even though he has repeatedly said that no horse will ever replicate Kauto Star’s brilliance, and 16 Grade One wins over a range of distances, he has no doubts that six-year-old Silviniaco Conti is Gold Cup class after the second season chaser pulled clear of Long Run, the 2011 Cheltenham hero.
“If he is fit and healthy you go. Kauto did when he was six and this horse jumps better than Kauto,” said a bullish Nicholls.
“This horse is a really sound jumper and he can only improve, He hasn’t been to Cheltenham before but I never worry about that too much. He has been around Haydock, he has been around Wetherby, he went around Aintree and he is fine.
“Kauto won this as a six-year-old and went on to win the Gold Cup in the same season, and this horse is very, very exciting. He jumps, he has speed and he stays very well.
“Being by Dom Alco he can only improve and it’s fantastic to have a young horse like this in the yard. I had tears in my eyes watching Kauto go in front of the stands today. He and the other old boys have moved on and it’s so exciting to see the younger horses come through. It really is a dream come true.”
A cold and grey afternoon – the rain held off until the post-race presentation – this was a sedately-run race, just like the Charlie Hall, and Silviniaco Conti still has to prove that he has the temperament to handle a fastly-run contest at the highest level.
To begin with, a mercurial Ruby Walsh aboard the winner was content not to take Long Run out of his comfort zone.
Yet, as the pace increased, Long Run’s jumping faltered under amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen and he could only plug on and finish second, two-and-a-half lengths behind the victor.
Back in third was David Bridgwater’s The Giant Bolster who tired on the run-in after some sloppy jumps – a combination of bottomless ground and Walsh gradually accelerating the pace in the closing stages.
Nicholls confirmed that Silviniaco Conti is unlikely to run again between now and next March – he’s a 6-1 ante-post chance with Ladbrokes for the Gold Cup.
“I said if he won today we’d go for the Gold Cup and that is the plan. You couldn’t leave him in his box on Gold Cup day after that performance,” added the trainer.
“I’m not going to rush him and I might go straight to the Gold Cup with him. He wants to be fresh and I’m not going to run him through the winter in the mud.
“He definitely won’t run in the King George, I don’t think Kempton is his track. He won’t run anywhere over Christmas. I thought he didn’t get the credit he deserved at Wetherby.”
Walsh, who partnered Kauto Star to both of his Gold Cup victories, is hopeful this horse can give him the hat-trick.
“The Gold Cup looks the logical step. You win the Charlie Hall, you win the Betfair, it’s the obvious target for him,” he said. “He’s a good stayer, he’s not slow. I’d love to ride another Gold Cup winner. If you are going to take the next step up, this is the kind of performance you have to put in.”
Despite coming off second best to the seemingly unstoppable Nicholls-Walsh team yet again, trainer Nicky Henderson was far from despondent.
“He had a desperately hard race last year and he’s finished off his race nicely today. Hopefully, it’s onwards and upwards and the King George is where we’ll go,” he said.
While some armchair riders were critical of Long Run’s amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen – his father Robert owns the stayer – the rider was upbeat.
Waley-Cohen, who was in the saddle when Long Run landed the 2010 King George and 2011 Gold Cup likens racing the “sport of fools” as he juggles business commitments in the City of London with riding out and making the most of his limited opportunities on the racetrack.
“We thought it was a good introduction to the season and gives us a good platform to go to the King George on,” said the jockey. “We were keen to avoid a repeat of his hard race against Kauto Star last year. It was very much about doing what you can but not leaving your whole season at Haydock.”
Long Run was not the only Henderson stable star to falter; Finian’s Rainbow, the reigning two-mile champion chase, trailed home in last place at Ascot after an abject round of jumping in the Amlin 1965 Chase.
The four-runner contest was won by a rejuvenated Captain Chris, who is now on course for the King George Chase on Boxing Day – the Philip Hobbs-trained gelding was third in the contest last year behind the aforementioned Kauto Star and Long Run.
Hobbs believes that Captain Chris, beaten 10 lengths by Silviniaco Conti at Chepstow in October 2010, is better suited by right-handed tracks like Ascot and, significantly, Kempton.
The trainer, who had been struggling with flooded roads around his Minehead stables, said: “He always jumps right on the racecourse, but his schooling has been a lot better this year.
“The King George would be the obvious race to go for now. He’d like better ground.”
Winning jockey Richard Johnson said: “The ground would not have suited
“But if he hadn’t run today he might not have run until March given the weather. He jumped pretty straight and something like the King George would be on the agenda now – he deserves his chance.”
As for Finian’s Rainbow, Henderson had a ready-made excuse – the testing conditions.
“Barry (Geraghty) told me to ignore the run, the excuse was ground, ground, ground and ground,” he said.
“They either go in it or they don’t. We haven’t learnt anything today and you wouldn’t think about the King George if it was soft.”
Henderson’s Oscar Whisky, however, thrived in the conditions and was in a class of his own in the Coral Hurdle.
A final-flight faller 12 months ago, the favourite was always in command and cruised eight lengths clear of Raya Star.
“He loved the ground, and that was a very smart performance,” said Henderson.
“If it came up soft, you’d have to run him in the Champion Hurdle.”
Heavy rain continues to disrupt the fixture list with today’s meeting at Southwell abandoned because of a waterlogged track.
Tomorrow’s card at the Nottinghamshire track is also off, while an inspection today will determine whether Lingfield has any chance of racing.
Meanwhile prospects are bleak for Wednesday’s card at Wetherby after 35mm of rain on Saturday night left the back straight under water.
Clerk of the course Jonjo Sanderson will inspect today at 2pm.
He said: “When the water table and rivers are so high, there’s nothing you can do.”
Fontwell will inspect at 3pm today ahead of Wednesday’s meeting – and Newcastle are already concerned about the weather prospects for the prestigious Fighting Fifth Hurdle on Saturday.
But Newbury are not expecting the weather to disrupt their three-day Sportingbet Winter Festival meeting, culminating in the Hennessy Gold Cup on Saturday.