Merlin’s Wish relishing challenge of Catterick, says trainer Keighley

TRAINER Martin Keighley is optimistic Merlin’s Wish can maintain his climb up the ranks in the North Yorkshire Grand National Handicap Chase at Catterick today.

Western Warhorse ridden by Tom Scudamore (right) beats Victor Hewgo ridden by James Reveley

The nine-year-old grey, a 25-length winner of the Lincolnshire National at Market Rasen on his latest start, has been ante-post favourite for Saturday’s Betfred Classic Chase at Warwick.

However Keighley has chosen Catterick’s feature race of the year – provided the track passes a precautionary 7.30am inspection after further rain was forecast last night.

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“It will be testing going up there and he’ll love that. Obviously he’s just a real improving horse who relishes extreme distances,” said Keighley, who trains at Cheltenham.

“I know he’s gone up in the weights a lot, but he is improving and goes there with a live chance.

“He has the Warwick entry but it’s a nice prize at Catterick as well and we have Any Currency in the Warwick race.”

Both Keighley and his stable jockey Ian Popham, back to his best after his career was hampered by a broken leg, are still on a high after their surprise Grade One victory at Kempton on Boxing Day with Annacotty who took the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase.

This rising star of the steeplechasing ranks now holds an intriguing entry in Doncaster’s Sky Bet Trophy on January 25 – a race that could attract the highly-rated Unioniste from the resurgent yard of former champion trainer Paul Nicholls.

Keighley offered this assessment: “Annacotty is a possible as I think the flat, galloping track at Doncaster will really suit him, though he will have an entry at Cheltenham the same day.

“The handicapper would love me to run him in a handicap to see if he’s got him right and it is tempting. A mark of 144 could be workable as he’s still improving. He’s not an ungenuine horse, he just needs the headgear to keep him focused and it was a good performance at Kempton.”

Back to Catterick where Chac Du Cadran will seek back-to-back wins in this long-distance event 12 months ago. “He’s very well and he’s only 3lb higher than when he won last year,” said the horse’s Lincolnshire handler Chris Bealby.

“We’ve had a fairly quiet time up to Christmas with the string. We had a virus of some sort which we think we’ve got rid of. He’s been aimed specifically at this race again and seems in very good form, so fingers crossed for a good run.”

The class act in the race is the enigmatic Diamond Harry, the 2010 Hennessy Gold Cup hero. The 11-year-old, trained by Nick Williams, is back over regulation fences after running well for a long way over the cross-country circuit at Cheltenham in November when he was fourth to Balthazar King.

Diamond Harry is the mount of Saltburn jockey James Reveley who has ridden the veteran in cross-country races on both sides of the English Channel. He was also aboard the horse in a stirring renewal of the 2011 Betfair Chase won by the legendary Kauto Star.

“The trainer says he’s well, but with Harry it’s difficult to know what he’s going to do next. We go there hopeful,” said owner Paul Duffy.

“We thought it would be the right race for him and over the right distance, so we are giving it a go. He didn’t get up the hill at Cheltenham (in the cross-country race). It doesn’t suit him. He jumped well but the hill, as usual, found him out.

“Catterick is a flatter track. It is unknown territory, but we’ll see how he gets on.”

Western Warhorse could have a promising career over fences after Tom Scudamore’s mount took the feature novice chase at Doncaster yesterday.

The David Pipe-trained runner had a patchy record over hurdles, but he was set off in front by Scudamore and jumped confidently.

However he had to battle hard to repel the late challenge of Victor Hewgo and the aforementioned Reveley.

“He’s a bit of a fruit-loop, but he’s a fruit-loop that does jump and gallop,” said Scudamore. “He is what he is, really, but his jumping has won it.”

Western Warhorse is owned by Roger Brookhouse whose former Champion Bumper winner Cheltenian won at Uttoxeter recently. His colours are also carried by top prospect The Liquidator who is due to reappear at Kempton on Saturday in the rearranged Group One Tolworth Hurdle.

Meanwhile, Forced Family Fun could be a Cheltenham contender for Malton trainer John Quinn after the four-year-old put up a game performance to beat his elders in the Pegler Yorkshire Handicap Hurdle under Brian Hughes.

Asked if Cheltenham’s Fred Winter might be a target, Quinn said: “It could be – he travels round grand and jumps well. The first three times they cantered round and he was helped by the good pace today.”

Diamond King was a 100th winner of the season for Jason Maguire as he continues to lead the pack in vain pursuit of the untouchable AP McCoy who is odds-on to win a 19th consecutive title.

“If you’d said to me at the start of the season I’d get 100 by January, I’d take it,” said Maguire, achieving the mark for the fourth time.

The horse, a potential Cheltenham contender, is trained by Donald McCain, who said: “I’m pleased for Jason, he’s a huge asset to the yard as well as being a mate. We think the world of Diamond King. He’s a young horse and he’s going to be a chaser, so we’ll have to see.”