There is nothing complicated about this Rigmarole. A sparkling victory in yesterday's Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton promoted the six-year-old of that name to the position of chief pretender to Rooster Booster's Champion Hurdle crown. The progressive gelding, trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by Ruby Walsh, briskly clipped the wings of odds-on Intersky Falcon, over the last two flights in the two-mile contest and is now as short as 9-2 for next month's Cheltenham title.
It was an impressive, almost effortless, display from a young horse who has done nothing but improve all season. Yesterday's race was the 12th of the campaign for Mark Woodhouse's colour bearer, who started back in May as a mere summer jumper but earned the right to be taken more seriously with two defeats of his supposed betters at Cheltenham in the autumn. In the second of those, the Bula Hurdle in November, he had no less than Rooster Booster himself back in fifth.
He has now proved conclusively that he belongs among the élite. Intersky Falcon, hitherto the second favourite for the Champion Hurdle, came to the fray himself off a defeat of the reigning king, in the Christmas Hurdle, but had no answer to Rigmarole's power up the home straight.
The pair had drawn clear at that point but once Walsh, who had patiently kept Liam Cooper on his rival in his sights throughout, said go, his partner did and a daredevil leap at the last settled the issue. Rigmarole had three and a half lengths to spare at the line and it took his rider, standing high in the irons, quite half a mile to pull him up, such was the verve with which he galloped past the post.
In 12 seasons with a licence, Nicholls has had just one Champion Hurdle runner and he expects his second to perform rather better than did his first, Santenay, who was ninth last year. "Roll on Cheltenham," he said. "He's got a serious chance on that form. We have left plenty to work on between now and then and I am absolutely delighted. He has already shown he loves bowling down the hill at Cheltenham and we know he has a great turn of foot."
The former England footballer, Terry McDermott, the head of the partnership which owns the Jonjo O'Neill-trained runner-up, was gracious in defeat. "We were beaten by a better horse on the day," he said, "and I've got no excuses, but what I would say is that we set it up a bit for the winner. Maybe at Cheltenham, if we can get a lead off another horse, we might get a different result."
With a treble, Nicholls was very much the man at the Somerset course yesterday. Before Rigmarole caused him such obvious pleasure, with the excitement of the moment and next month's anticipation rolled into one emotional package, there was a satisfying 1-2 in the Listed three-and-a-quarter mile chase, courtesy of Exit Swinger and Royal Auclair, separated by half a length. The pair were formerly trained by Martin Pipe, currently trailing Nicholls in the race for the trainers' championship. In the race, the 2002 Grand National runner-up What's Up Boys, off the course since falling at Wetherby 15 months ago, made a satisfactory comeback in fourth.
The other Dicheat star bound for Cheltenham, Thisthatantother, regained the winning thread with a comprehensive demolition of the two of his rivals who condescended to start in the two-mile novice chase. Graham Roach's seven-year-old is just 2-1 to follow in his stablemate Azertyuiop's hoofprints with victory in the Arkle Chase.
At Ascot, Our Vic, trained by Pipe, enhanced his own Festival claims as he toyed with the opposition in the Reynoldstown Chase. The big bay six-year-old tended to jump left under Timmy Murphy, but hardly came off the bridle to beat Rosslea six lengths. He holds entries in both novice fencing contests, plus the Cathcart, next month, but his presence in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase would surely pave the way for David Johnson's other talented Pipe-trained rookie, Therealbandit, to take on Best Mate in the Gold Cup.
"He has always jumped a bit to the left," said Johnson, "so Cheltenham will suit him better. Martin will decide which race he goes for, but that was an impressive performance, going the wrong way round."
At Newcastle, Tyneandthyneagain put up a most gallant performance to capture the stamina-sapping Tote Eider Chase under top weight and in so doing give trainer Richard Guest a realistic Grand National candidate on his specialist soft ground. Ridden by Henry Oliver, the gelding was never out of the first three and in a war of attrition won, with the luxury of easing down, by two lengths from confirmed course specialist Robbo and Magical Bailiwick.
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