Menorah looking to defend Wetherby Chase title

RICHARD JOHNSON has not looked back since winning last year’s bet365 Charlie Hall Chase on the magnificent Menorah – the scintillating success was the catalyst of a succession of big race triumphs for the second most successful jump jockey in history.

Menorah and Richard Johnson jump the last fence and go on to win the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby (Picture: PA).
Menorah and Richard Johnson jump the last fence and go on to win the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby (Picture: PA).

Now Johnson is hoping that Menorah can join the Wetherby greats by defending his title this Saturday and boost, still, further his quest to top the jockeys’ standings for the first time after finishing runner-up to the now retired 20-times champion AP McCoy on 16 occasions.

It will not be straight-forward as the Philip Hobbs-trained veteran prepares for his seasonal reappearance.

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The 11 entries also include Crabbies Grand National hero Many Clouds, a former course winner, multiple Grade One winner Cue Card, and David Pipe’s Dynaste and Ballynagour who were both victorious at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival.

The previous dual winners of Wetherby’s signature race, run in memory of the venerable North Yorkshire trainer Charlie Hall, read like a who’s who of racing – Wayward Lad, Celtic Shot, Barton Bank, One Man, See More Business and Ollie Magern.

However, Menorah, who has not raced since winning Sandown’s season-ending bet365 Oaksey Chase in late April, is likely to get his favoured good ground – rain is forecast at Wetherby tonight before a relatively dry week – and businessman Grahame Whateley, who co-owns the chaser with his wife Diane, is looking forward to a mouth-watering contest.

“It’s going to be a tough race, but Menorah should have his ground and Richard rides,” Whateley told The Yorkshire Post.

“He is absolutely cock sure – I spoke to Philip last week while the horse was being worked and he couldn’t have been happier.

“I can’t tell you how much pleasure we get from being involved in our racing – Menorah, Captain Chris and Wishfull Thinking who ran his heart out at the age of 12 to finish second, conceding seven pounds, to the much younger Sound Investment in Aintree’s Old Roan Chase. We’re incredibly lucky.”

Whateley is equally effusive when he talks about Johnson and his quest to win a long-overdue championship.

The jockey is travelling the length and the breadth of the country – Johnson was at Ayr yesterday where a treble took him to the 111-winner mark for the campaign and extended his dominant lead over his nearest pursuers, headed by Aidan Coleman, to 37.

“He was champion conditional in 1995 and, at 38 years of age, will give his eye teeth to be champion jockey,” added Whateley.

“More importantly, I think he deserves it. He is a real gentleman of racing.

“His communication skills are second to none, he doesn’t throw his toys out of the pram, he is a family man and he works like a dog seven days a week. He’s an athlete, and I can think of few better in any sport.”

As for Johnson, he is relishing the race. “You can’t knock him, he’s been an amazing horse for the yard,” he told betway.com. “I sat on him last week and he feels in really good order.”

If Many Clouds prevails on Saturday, he will become the first National winner to win a subsequent race since Bindaree – victorious at Aintree in 2002 - landed the Welsh National at the end of the following year.

Other notable entries include Jonjo O’Neill’s Holywell, fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Paul Nicholls-trained pair of Rocky Creek and Sam Winner, and Master Of The Hall from the yard of in-form Middleham trainer Micky Hammond.

Wetherby chief executive Jonjo Sanderson reports advanced ticket sales to be up on last year and he is particularly pleased that the supporting bet365 West Yorkshire Hurdle – won last year by subsequent Cheltenham Festival hero Cole Harden – has 17 entries.

Previously years have seen the race reopened because of insufficient entries, but this year’s line-up could include former Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby and the Sue Smith-trained pair Cloudy Too and No Planning.

Meanwhile, ground conditions will determine the participation of the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Splash Of Ginge, who missed the aforementioned Old Roan Chase because of unsuitably fast ground at Aintree.

Connections of the 2014 Betfair Hurdle winner at Newbury are keen for the horse to have a run before he lines up in either the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham next month – Malcolm Jefferson’s Oscar Rock is leading fancy – or Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup.

Owner John Neild said: “The Old Roan was always the plan, but we had to do what was right by the horse.

“The rain didn’t arrive in Liverpool, which was particularly annoying given it had rained all week where I live in Spain, but we said we would never run him on good or quick ground again so we made the decision to pull him out.

“We have entered him in the Grade Two over three miles at Wetherby on Saturday and we feel that is a good race for him off level weights and going left-handed. We’re leaning towards the Hennessy at the moment. It would be difficult to go to Newbury without a run, though.”