Options wide open as Lady Buttons passes stamina test

PHIL Kirby says he will take it 'one step at a time' with Lady Buttons after this magnificent mare won a third high-profile race on the bounce.

Daynamic duo: Jockey Adam Nicol and Lady Buttons.
Daynamic duo: Jockey Adam Nicol and Lady Buttons.

The in-form trainer’s seventh win since Boxing Day means he is not ruling out a tilt at the Cheltenham Festival next March with his stable star.

“I’m definitely not ruling it out for sure,” he told The Yorkshire Post before driving his horsebox from his stables near Catterick to Haydock.

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“The important thing is everything is fine with Buttons. We will sit down with the owners and come up with a plan. One step at a time.”

The dilemma is the only two-mile chases at Cheltenham’s flagship meeting are the prestigious Queen Mother Champion Chase, which features steeplechasing superstar Altior, and the concluding Grand Annual Chase, a big field handicap run at a frantic pace.

Even before this season Lady Buttons had proven herself to be one of the most versatile mares in the country with wins over hurdles and fences.

However, her three victories this season have all come at a higher level under regular rider Adam Nicol, whose own confidence is soaring as a result of his association with such a popular horse.

Victorious in a Listed hurdle at Wetherby on Charlie Hall Chase day, Lady Buttons then won a two-mile handicap chase in imperious style on Newbury’s biggest raceday of the year, Sizing Tennessee taking the feature Ladbrokes Trophy.

Both of these were two miles. Yet, by winning the Yorkshire Silver Vase Mares’ Chase, another Listed contest and with a total prize fund of £75,000, at Doncaster on Saturday over two-and-a- half miles she opens up more options – either racing against colts or sticking to mares only races.

The success vindicated Kirby’s decision to swerve last Thursday’s Castleford Chase at Wetherby because he felt the ground was unsuitable for a horse who is in the form of her life in spite of a tendon injury in the past, which resulted in 630 days on the sidelines.

“It was tough enough in that plan A was always Wetherby,” explained Kirby. “When I saw the ground at Wetherby, and then the entries for Doncaster, I thought it was the more sensible option.

“It was having to change everyone’s plans at fairly short notice, but the owners (Keith and Jayne Sivills) were brilliant. It was the right decision.”

The five-runner race soon became depleted after Sister Sibyl suffered a fatal injury after the sixth fence, with Atlanta Ablaze then unseating her rider at the ninth.

It left Lady Buttons trailing Rene’s Girl and Drinks Interval, but Nicol’s mount was always making up ground at every fence with her slick and accurate jumping.

In tight at the first two fences in the home straight, she sauntered clear, dispelling pre-race fears about her stamina before idling on the run-in.

By then owner Jayne Sivills, who runs a pub near Whitby, was already running across the paddock at some speed to greet her horse.

So, too, were her family and friends, many dressed in the same purple and white colours carried by the winner.

Now the winner of 11 out of 25 races, Lady Buttons – who turns nine on New Year’s Day – once again showed a remarkable zest for racing.

The challenge now, says Kirby, is finding suitable races, both in Britain and Ireland, for a horse who needs good ground to be seen at her best.

“She’s shown she can stay two-and-a-half miles at this level,” he added. “Whether she can step up to the next level at this trip, I’m not sure.”

Irrespective of future plans, Lady Buttons will be ridden by Nicol, who is on the brink of recording his best season in terms of prize-money accrued.

“She’s a pleasure to ride,” said a beaming Nicol. “I probably got to the front soon enough. She’s so clever and it’s a long run-in. She doesn’t do a tap in front. On better ground this winter it has given us more of a chance.”

Nicol has even more reason to savour such successes because his girlfriend Jennie Durrans rides Lady Buttons on the gallops.

As she said: “What an awesome day. So very lucky to be part of the amazing Lady Buttons career. Love her.”