HOW times change. Twelve months ago champion trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Sam Twiston-Davies monopolised Saturday’s big races with a string of high-profile successes.
Fast forward a year and the Nicholls stable has found the winner’s enclosure elusive despite the uplifting success of four-year-old hurdling prospect Connetable at Sandown seven days ago.
Yet, with the Cheltenham Festival approaching and horses from the yard of Ireland’s all-conquering champion trainer Willie Mullins dominating the ante-post betting markets, the stakes could not be higher when Nicholls gives Twiston-Davies the leg-up this afternoon on Dodging Bullets ahead of Newbury’s Grade Two Betfair Exchange Chase, one of the highlights of the track’s ‘Super Saturday’ pre-Cheltenham card.
The winner of last season’s Queen Mother Champion Chase, this will be the first time that Dodging Bullets has raced since breaking the heart of the ever popular veteran Somersby, ridden by North Yorkshire’s Brian Hughes, in a pulsating finish.
Owned by Sir Martin Broughton, a former chairman of British Airways, Dodging Bullets represents the best hope of a Nicholls winner at Cheltenham despite an 11-month lay-off and the Mullins-trained Arkle winner Un De Sceaux being hot favourite for the Champion Chase.
Yet Nicholls remains unperturbed, despite becoming accustomed to big race success thanks to iconic horses like Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded and Big Buck’s.
“It has been one of those seasons for us, with the injuries to him and several others – it has not been plain sailing,” said Nicholls, whose success in this race 12 months ago with Mr Mole was overshadowed by the winning rider Sir AP McCoy announcing his retirement.
“He was going to Cheltenham in November but we schooled him one morning and two days later he was hopping lame. But for a week afterwards, we could not work out what was wrong with him. Then he threw an enormous splint so we had to give him a month stood in his box and treat it. He had lots of walking and bits and pieces as we waited for him to come sound again.
“For the last eight weeks, we have had absolutely no problems with him. He looks in great shape and is good in his skin. Whatever he does, a race will make a big difference to him ahead of Cheltenham. Last year he needed his first run and then won three Grade Ones. Of course, he will come on for the run – he has to – but he should be at the peak of his powers now.”
With Nicky Henderson’s Wetherby winner L’Ami Serge set to line up in the Kingmaker Hurdle at Warwick, Dodging Bullets may only have three rivals for this gentle racecourse reintroduction.
Even though Nicholls is on course for his ninth trainer’s title since ending his bitter rival Martin Pipe’s near monopoly in 2005-06, he remains vulnerable to Mullins dominating Cheltenham and winning other big races like today’s Betfair Hurdle – Europe’s richest handicap hurdle and known as the ‘Schweppes’ in the era when the much-missed Sir Peter O’Sullevan was calling the horses.
While Nicholls saddles Modus in this ferociously competitive race, Mullins sends a formidable five-strong raiding party across the Irish Sea to the Berkshire track headed by the JP McManus-owned Blazer.
However, Nicholls, or Mullins, should not discount the chances of Yorkshire challenger First Bihan who is owned by Tickhill’s Phil Martin and trained at Malton by the in-form Brian Ellison.
Despite being beaten by the Rebecca Menzies-trained Tomkevi at Catterick last time out, Ellison’s recent run of success has coincided with the resurgence of Thirsk jockey Danny Cook who is enjoying a career-best season and is in the saddle today.
“Forest Bihan got there a bit too soon at Catterick and was probably a bit unlucky not to win,” said Ellison, whose Bothy was second in the 2011 renewal to John Quinn’s Recession Proof.
“I’m not really concerned about dropping back in trip. Two miles, three furlongs around Catterick is similar to two miles at Newbury on testing ground and you need to stay to win these big handicaps. I think he is probably the best horse I have run in the Betfair Hurdle. He is a quality horse and whatever he does now he will be class next year.”