SUE SMITH has described Midnight Shadow’s second place finish in the Grade One Betway Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown as another “step forward” for her gentle giant.
He will now go straight to the Marsh Novices’ Chase on day three at the Cheltenham Festival where Danny Cook’s mount is likely to reoppose Sandown scorer Itchy Feet.
Jumping smoothly and economically, Midnight Shadow briefly hit the front after the penultimate fence – Gavin Sheehan did well to stay aboard Itchy Feet when his mount’s nose brushed the sodden turf.
But Itchy Feet just had enough in hand on the run-in to provide his trainer Olly Murphy, a rising star of the training ranks, and owner Andrew Brooks, with a first Grade One triumph.
However Smith, who trains at High Eldwick with her husband Harvey, was far from disheartened as she, too, seeks an elusive victory at the highest level of National Hunt racing. This was the fourth time that she’s saddled the runner-up in a Grade One and she knows Cheltenham brings out the best in the seven-year-old Midnight Shadow where he’s a dual course winner in the colours of Cyril and Aafke Clarke.
And in a Cheltenham championship race where jumping will be at a premium, this was Midnight Shadow’s fifth start over fences – the strapping horse has got better with every run – while Itchy Feet was racing over larger obstacles for just the second time. Experience will count in March.
“I’m very pleased. He has run an absolute cracker. He is a very straight, genuine horse,” said the popular trainer.
“He has got lots of talent, so we keep trying him at these bit bigger races and he keeps coming up trumps for us.
“He has been beaten today, but I’m delighted with what he has done.
“It is a step forward to come down here and compete with these horses – he is doing a very good job.
“We will go to Cheltenham next. I think a fraction better ground would suit him better. It would be for the Marsh he would go for.”
The aforementioned Murphy, a former assistant to Gordon Elliott, has made giant strides in his fledgling career to date.
He’s also been helped by the patronage of owners like Brooks who are investing significant sums in their racehorses.
“I’m not an emotional person, but that meant a lot. I’ve always had faith in this lad,” said Murphy who trains in Warwickshire.
“Andrew (Brooks) was very keen to come here and he pays the bills and has supported me since day one. It has been a plan well executed and he got a masterclass of a ride from Gavin, who took his time in testing conditions.
“I’d imagine we will go to Cheltenham for the Marsh. Today is a dream come true.
“I’m 28 and I’ve trained a Grade One winner. It’s a special day.”
Meanwhile Newtide took advantage of the last-fence fall of Boldmere to score a fortunate victory in the William Hill Towton Novices’ Chase at Wetherby.
Kim Bailey’s stout stayer appeared booked for an honourable second place when Boldmere fell at the last under James Bowen.
It left Newtide to win by four and a quarter lengths under David Bass from long-time leader Ardlethen.
“We were lucky,” said Bailey who previously won the race with Harry Topper.
Newtide, winner of his only previous start over fences from just two rivals at Ffos Las in November, holds entries at the Cheltenham Festival in both the RSA and National Hunt chases.
However this year’s Festival may come too soon. “He’s a Welsh National horse on bottomless ground,” Bass told The Yorkshire Post. “We were a bit lucky – but the fences are there to be jumped.”
Minella Rocco put himself bang on course for a return to Cheltenham, and top of many ante-post lists for the Foxhunters, when he eclipsed last year’s Festival hero Hazel Hill in the Hunters’ Chase.
Jonjo O’Neill’s horse, owned by JP McManus, had won the 2016 National Hunt Chase from subsequent Gold Cup victor Native River, before finishing second in the Festival blue riband in 2017.
“He’s loving it – obviously dropped down a grade or two,” said the trainer.
And the race of the day saw course specialist Secrete Stream, owned by Allan Dixon, take the handicap hurdle under Jamie Hamilton, denying Weather Front in a photo finish.
It was a popular winner for Ruth Jefferson two years after her father Malcolm, a much respected and missed trainer, had passed away.
Secrete Stream continued the winning jockey’s 100 per cent record on the horse.
“I’m two from two,” enthused Hamilton who is becoming established as one of the North’s top horsemen.