Thomas sets sights on Aintree

TOP jockey Sam Thomas could return to the saddle in time for the John Smith's Grand National.

He took an important step towards returning to racecourse action by riding out yesterday morning, less than three weeks after suffering a serious neck injury on the gallops at Paul Nicholls's stable.

Thomas, winner of the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup aboard Denman, missed this month's National Hunt Festival and expected to be out for six weeks.

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After riding out for West Country trainer Tom George, the rider hopes his hairline fracture will heal in time for next week's Aintree meeting.

"I'm back riding – I tried for the first time and it feels really good," said Thomas. "I'm taking it slowly and carefully and one step at a time – I don't want to make any promises I can't fulfil.

"Obviously I would love to get back as soon as possible and I will try to ride every day from now on.

"I have been seeing a specialist and, hopefully, it is all going to work out."

In other National news, the Charlie Mann-trained Air Force One will swerve Aintree in favour of Sandown's bet365 Gold Cup in late April – the finale to the jumps season.

The aforementioned Denman is a surprise entry for next month's Scottish National – with a view to a possible Aintree tilt next year.

Nicholls says he is a "very likely runner" in the 200,000, Coral-sponsored chase, provided the ground is not too quick, as it is "the obvious race to go for" after the 10-year-old finished runner-up to Imperial Commander in this month's Gold Cup.

HAVING missed a first Cheltenham Festival ride after being concussed in a fall at Catterick, young Yorkshire conditional jockey James Halliday made up for lost time by riding a double at Market Rasen yesterday.

He booted home Pokanoket

(8-1) and Issaquah (5-1) for his boss Malcolm Jefferson, who trains at Malton.

Jefferson says Pokanoket will be aimed at Ayr's Scottish National meeting before a possible career over the bigger obstacles. He added: "Issaquah did it well, she quickened up again when they came at her and she will probably go for the boys' race at Liverpool (John Smith's Handicap Hurdle). She finished second in it last year."

On the same card, Brave Rebellion took his winning haul into double figures under a good ride from trainer Keith Reveley's son James.

Reveley senior said: "Brave Rebellion has a little bit of a kink – last year he got into the habit of refusing at the last fence.

"It was a real bad habit and I thought he might do it again, but James is quite strong and made his mind up for him and got him home."

QUEEN Mother Champion Chase hero Big Zeb will be aimed at next month's Punchestown Festival.

The nine-year-old was a brilliant winner of the Queen Mother – Yorkshire's Kalahari King was a creditable third –- and will bid to follow up in the Kerrygold Champion Chase on April 20, a race in which he was beaten just a head by Master Minded last year.

Immediately after Cheltenham, trainer Colm Murphy was in no rush to commit him to Punchestown but he has been pleased with Big Zeb.

"We're coming back down to earth again now but it was an absolutely fabulous day," said Murphy. "He's come out of it in good form and I'm delighted with him, so the plan is for him to go back to Punchestown for the Kerrygold."

Today's jumps meeting at Exeter has been abandoned because of a waterlogged track.

Middleham to open its doors

AWZAAN, the winner of the prestigious Shadwell Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket last season and a leading contender for this year's 2,000 Guineas, will be one of the stars on show at the Middleham Stables Open Day on Good Friday.

Awzaan, trained by Mark Johnston, is fourth favourite at 12-1 for the Newmarket Classic on May 1.

Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum's three-year-old colt is unbeaten in four starts. Last season he followed an impressive win in the Dubai Duty Free Mill Reef Stakes at Newbury with a Group 1 success in the Middle Park at Newmarket.

Johnston will be holding a question-and-answer session at his Kingsley House stables during the event.

The open day will be launched at 9.15am by TV personality Kathryn Apanowicz and Gary Verity, chief executive of sponsors Welcome to Yorkshire.

The yards are open to the public from 9.30am to 1pm. Free parking is available in Middleham or Leyburn, with bus links between car parks and the outlying stables. Admission is 6 in advance for adults or 7 at the gate. Children under 12 are free.