Racing: Mullins lines up Cheltenham targets for Sir Oj

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The Independent Online

An electric talent is to be treasured but after two scintillating victories in his first two runs over fences it was as if the ex-French gelding had been switched off at the mains when pulled up at Leopardstown last month. His unplugged display was a mystery until it was discovered he had been suffering from some sort of allergy that affected his breathing. Ah, if only they could talk.

But yesterday Nickname let his actions speak. He attacked his fences with verve from the front under Conor O'Dwyer and though Sir OJ, much more experienced in this sphere, ranged upsides and outjumped him four out, Nickname was back on terms by the straight, led over the last and gave best to his older rival only in the last few strides of the two-mile Grade Two contest.

"I was absolutely delighted," said Brassil. "Effectively, that was only his third run over fences and he was a novice taking on his seniors, and the winner is very decent indeed. We think a great deal of him and although we found there was something wrong last time, and we'd got him over it, it's always a worry when they return.

"I was so pleased with the way he came back at the other horse after being headed and Conor was thrilled with him too, said he felt like his old self."

Nickname could have run against his peers yesterday in the two and a half mile novices' chase won by the longshot Lordofourown, but Brassil elected to take on the tougher competition over a less testing trip.

His stable star holds an entry in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham but British racegoers are unlikely to get a sight of the horse's talents, for the softer the underfoot conditions the better for him. "He'd be unlikely to get that ground at the Festival," added Brassil. "We'll keep him over here this season." A Grade Two race at Navan next month is the target.

Sir Oj, as game in his length and a half win in the sticky conditions as his younger rival was in defeat, is no stranger to Prestbury Park, having won the Robin Cook Memorial Gold Cup there in December, and yesterday's performance over two miles, well short of his best, earned him favouritism for one of the feature Festival handicaps, the Racing Post Plate.

The nine-year-old is engaged in the Ryanair Chase and William Hill Chase. "He's a lovely horse and very tough," said his trainer, Noel Meade. "He has a few options at Cheltenham. He'll go up in the weights for the handicaps after today's win, but though we got a penalty, we also got forty grand, and I think we'll settle for both."

Sir Oj is also in the Grand National, set to carry 10st 8lb. "He might be the ideal type," said Meade. "He stayed two miles five well at Cheltenham and he could hack for a circuit at Aintree and might just get home."

Sir Oj was cut to 25-1 from 40-1 for the National yesterday and is now the same price as a horse moving in the other direction, Silver Birch. When the Aintree weights were announced the Paul Nicholls-trained grey, winner of a Becher Chase and Welsh National, was put in as third favourite, as short as 10-1 in some lists.

But two pulled-up runs since, at Wincanton and then in a hurdle race at Chepstow on Saturday wearing first-time blinkers, have dented his credentials and left Nicholls needing the talents of a Dr Doolittle and x-ray vision.

He may be the champion trainer-elect, but Silver Birch has him baffled. "I have no explanation," he said yesterday. "He has come back fine again, like the time before, and the blinkers had no effect. He's been checked over by the vet and everything looks fine. There is something wrong somewhere but I can't put my finger on it.

"If we could find out what is wrong and put it right then we could still go the National but we need to know why he is running like he is. There would be no point in going to Aintree if he was going to run the way he has ran the last twice."

One big-race fancy in rude health is Champion Hurdle favourite Brave Inca. He is due one more serious piece of work before his date with destiny two weeks tomorrow. "He's very well," said his trainer, Colm Murphy. "If we can get him to Cheltenham in the same form he'll have a right chance."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Latif (Wolverhampton 1.55)

NB: Desperation

(Wolverhampton 4.35)