FORMER champion trainer Paul Nicholls and stable jockey Harry Cobden – one of this season’s breakthrough stars – continued their winter domination when Southfield Stone winning the Sky Bet Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle at Kempton Park.
Despite flattening the final flight and drifting over to the stands side, this exciting novice hurdler still had sufficient in hand to hold off the challenge of the highly-regarded Angels Breath from the yard of Nicky Henderson, the reigning champion trainer.
And while Southfield Stone is due to miss next month’s Cheltenham Festival, the horse’s emergence – coupled with 20-year-old Cobden’s fine form – saw Nicholls maintain an advantage of nearly £400,000 over Henderson in the race to be top trainer for 2018-19.
“He was fit and well and jumped nicely, bar the last. He was a fit horse and we just took advantage of it,” said Nicholls whose resurgence and rivalry with Henderson is one of the season’s sub-plots.
“He is in the Imperial Cup in two weeks’ time, but he might be one to leave to go to Aintree with. It has taken me a little bit by surprise. He is a big, improving horse, though, and will be a cracking chaser.”
Nevertheless, Fusil Raffles could not have been made a more impressive British debut when landing the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle for Henderson and jockey Daryl Jacob.
Though the four-year-old, owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, looks like a legitimate contender for next month’s JCB Triumph Hurdle, the gelding sustained a nasty cut jumping the final flight and faces a race against time to be fit for his intended Cheltenham assignment.
Meanwhile Crosspark provided trainer Caroline Bailey with the biggest success of her career with a battling triumph over 2017 winner Mysteree in the Vertem Eider Handicap Chase at Newcastle.
Third in the Classic Chase at Warwick last time out, the Jamie Moore-ridden nine-year-old relished the good ground for this four mile-plus marathon marred by 2018 winner Baywing, trained by Nicky Richards, suffering a fatal fall at the very first fence – with luckless jockey Ryan Day taken to hospital with a catalogue of injuries including damage to his spleen, liver and ribs.
“I’m absolutely thrilled, this is the biggest race I’ve won so it’s very exciting,” said Bailey. “I’ve won both the hunter chases (Cheltenham with Castle Mane and Aintree with Gunner Welburn), but this is the biggest under rules.
“His owner is 92 so he hasn’t made it up here, it was a bit far for him, but he’ll be delighted and watching on TV. He ran a lovely race at Warwick, Harry Skelton rode him and told us to make a plan and stick to it so we picked this race and it has paid off.
“Coming up the straight I was thinking, ‘this doesn’t happen to me, big races on a Saturday’, so I was riding the finish with Jamie, who gave him a great ride. Today was the plan. We might think about the Scottish National. If he doesn’t run again this year it’s not the end of the world.”
Meanwhile Joke Dancer provided Sue Smith with the perfect 71st birthday present when repeating his win in the Vertem Handicap Hurdle.
On his first run for almost a year and having undergone wind surgery, Joke Dancer travelled well for Danny Cook before hitting the front two flights from home.
“We thought a lot of him last year and he won a few for us,” said High Eldwick-based Smith. “He had some pioneering wind surgery done and it seems to have done the trick. He did his winning on heavy last year, but handled that ground, which is lovely, very well today. He’s in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham, but I doubt he’ll get in.”
Like the Smith-trained Midnight Shadow who still holds an entry in next month’s Stayers’ Hurdle, Joke Dancer runs in the colours of Aafke and Cyril Clarke.
The horse is one of a clutch of exciting prospects from the Smith stable which are likely to go novice chasing next season.
And the yard’s winning form continued when the Cook-ridden Lough Derg Farmer prevailed at Carlisle yesterday – the horse’s first career win over steeplechase fences since being acquired from the aforementioned Henderson.