Quinn looking confident for tilt at Festival

THE Yorkshire challenge at this year’s Cheltenham Festival is set to be headed by John Quinn’s mare Aurore D’Estruval after the five-year-old overcame turgid conditions to win a Listed contest at Sandown and confirm her burgeoning reputation.

TOP RIDE: Aurore D'Estruval ridden by jockey Tony McCoy, left, jumps the last to go on and win the 32Red.com Mares' Hurdle at Sandown Park. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA.

An impressive winner at Wetherby on Charlie Hall Chase day before finishing second to Irving in Newcastle’s Group One Fighting Fifth Hurdle, she is second in the betting to Annie Power for the Olbg Mares’ Hurdle at the National Hunt Festival in March.

With record-breaking six-time winner Quevega retired, and Annie Power’s plans in a state of flux following a training setback, Malton-based Quinn can look forward to Cheltenham with confidence.

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It remains to be seen whether he runs Aurore D’Estruval at Doncaster at the end of the month – the comfortable manner of the two-length winning margin belied the fact that this two-and-a-half mile race was run on stamina-sapping ground in desperate weather.

The silks of 19-time champion jockey AP McCoy were barely recognisable and he used several pairs of goggles during the race just to get a good sight of the flights at the Esher track.

Conceding four pounds to her rivals, Aurore D’Estruval was still travelling well two out before a classy jump at the final flight put the race to bed and completed the second leg of a short-priced treble for jump racing’s winning-most rider. “She is a mare with a bit of class,” said McCoy, who explained that the horse will be even better on a sounder surface.

“She jumps and is a good little mare. She didn’t mind the ground but has plenty of class and would be happier on better ground.”

Quinn, whose last Cheltenham Festival winner was 2012 JCB Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame, was represented by his travelling head lad Paul Childs, who said: “Tony said it might be best not to run her again before Cheltenham. She’s a classy mare, gets the trip well, and with Quevega retired looks the one they all have to beat.”

On an otherwise mediocre card that struggled to live up to Sandown’s Grade One billing, the John Hales-owned Unioniste – resurgent after treatment for debilitating stomach ulcers – staked a claim for the Crabbie’s Grand National after coming home unchallenged under man of the moment Noel Fehily in the 32Red Casino Handicap Chase.

No horseman in Britain, or Ireland, is riding with more style and confidence than Fehily, who enjoyed a Christmas to remember thanks to Silviniaco Conti’s King George VI Chase win, Rock On Ruby’s stirring success at Cheltenham and his wife Natasha giving birth to their second child.

As the imposing Relax made the running, the Paul Nicholls-trained winner gradually weaved his way through the field. Grabbing the latter at the penultimate fence, he powered up the hill to beat Bertie Boru by 10 lengths.

Hales, whose 2012 National winner Neptune Collonges finished second in this race on his way to Aintree glory, said: “He’s just turned seven and it all depends on whether the handicapper gives us a chance.

“Some people want me to leave it another year, but I won’t take too much notice. He just couldn’t have done more than that.”

Nicholls’s assistant Tom Jonason said: “The plan has always been the National, and you can’t ignore a prize like this along the way. He’s done it really nicely.”

As for the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle, this four-runner affair went to L’Ami Serge to provide out-of-sorts trainer Nicky Henderson with a much-needed morale boost following a desperately disappointing season for the 2012-13 champion trainer.

Barry Geraghty’s mount is vying for favouritism for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle –Cheltenhan’s curtain-raiser – and may not race again before March. L’Ami Serge raced six times in France before making a winning UK debut at Newbury in late December.

There were significant doubles for two North Yorkshire-based riders at Newcastle.

Brian Hughes showed all his know-how to win on Runswick Royal after Yorkist misjudged the last fence in the novice chase before partnering Walser to victory. He is on the 68-winner mark for the season as he seeks a first career century.

As for Middleham-based Henry Brooke, the former champion conditional is rebuilding his 
career after ending his association with Donald McCain at the end of last season and his wins on Chavoy, for Brandsby trainer Rebecca Menzies, and then Boric for Morpeth-based Simon Waugh, both caught the eye.

The eighth and ninth wins of the campaign for the rider, Brooke remains an unfulfilled talent whose career will get back on track if he continues to seize his opportunities in this style.