It tells you everything about the way his career is going that winning a race with the John Smith's Grand National favourite at Ayr yesterday was just a prelude to the main business of the week for Donald McCain. Ballabriggs, after all, was essentially just keeping out of trouble as he won his second novice hurdle of the campaign, pending a return to fences after the publication of the Aintree weights a fortnight today. And his flourishing trainer has a rather more earnest assignment in mind for the unbeaten Peddlers Cross, who warms up for the Stan James Champion Hurdle on Saturday.
McCain had hoped to give Peddlers Cross his final rehearsal at Haydock 10 days ago, but was thwarted by frost and must now choose between the William Hill Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las and the Totesport Contenders Hurdle at Sandown. Both races were reopened yesterday, but McCain knows that Nicky Henderson will be on his case wherever he ends up – with Binocular heading to Sandown, and Oscar Whisky to Ffos Las. Peddlers Cross beat the reigning champion on their reappearance at Newbury in November, but Binocular has since produced a much more aggressive exhibition at Kempton. Oscar Whisky graduated from novice company with an impressive performance at Cheltenham on New Year's Day.
Ballabriggs certainly looks an interesting Aintree candidate. Yesterday presented a very different challenge, but it can only augur well that he should have been able to see off younger rivals under a penalty on lively ground. Always going with gusto, he was ridden out to win by five lengths and is now clear favourite for the National at 16-1 from 20-1 with Paddy Power. The way he tired up the hill when winning the Kim Muir Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last March does permit some doubt about his stamina, but he set a punishing tempo that day and his all-round dynamism will surely be an asset round Aintree. McCain intends to return him to fences on 5 March, either in a valuable handicap at Doncaster or a conditions race at Kelso.
Nicky Richards' success with Premier Sagas in the novice chase was by no means the first sign that the trainer is turning the corner. This horse carries the silks made famous by Monet's Garden, who is reported by their owner to be responding positively to treatment for a life-threatening hoof infection. David Wesley Yates is increasingly optimistic that the cherished grey could yet enjoy a long retirement.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Valley View (4.40 Folkestone)
Point-to-point winner who makes his chasing debut under Rules in a handicap, off a rating acquired with three spins over hurdles on softer ground.
Tenor Nivernais (3.50 Taunton)
French import who has been given every chance by the handicapper.
One to watch
Somewhatinevitable (Paul Webber) attracted support for a novice hurdle at Huntingdon last week and hinted why as he made up good ground from the rear until hitting two out.
Where the money's going
Solix is 10-1 from 16-1 with the sponsors for the Totesport Gold Trophy at Newbury on Saturday week.