Ballabriggs pleases on Aintree trail


The difference between tradition and routine, or between the perfunctory and the nearly pointless, was just about the only illumination available in the gloaming at Leopardstown yesterday. There was a time when Irish punters would glean vital late Cheltenham clues from workouts after racing there, just nine days before the Festival. But the institution gradually became a victim of its own success. Most trainers nowadays prefer to complete their meaningful preparations in relative privacy, and there is an increasingly ritual quality to the whole occasion.

Things reached a fresh, absurd nadir yesterday, when the 30-odd horses that stretched their limbs were dignified for the first time with number-cloths. Drying conditions, however, ensured that most barely trotted round.

Funnily enough, the only Festival contender to do anything in any kind of earnest was also confined to a spin over the Flat, though in his case at least there was a spot of prize-money at stake. Jezki, highly regarded by trainer Jessica Harrington, returned to the scene of his debut success in January for a stylish win in the bumper. "He's a possible for Cheltenham now, as I don't think he did any more than a gallop there," Harrington said. "He learnt a bit more and I think a faster pace will suit him better."

As for those horses that actually left the ground, the weekend was primarily about the John Smith's Grand National. But not everyone will have been as convinced by Junior's trial at Doncaster on Saturday as those bookmakers who have now promoted him to favourite. Any horse able to win at both Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham Festival clearly has the basic ability, but the manner of his performance at Doncaster strengthened suspicions about his aptitude for the singular demands of a National.

With a frequent tilt to his blinkered head, Junior lacked zest at some of his fences and looked painfully indolent under pressure. Nor can he be counted obviously well treated nowadays, having soared up the weights after his 24-length romp at the Festival last year. In fairness, he failed only by a nostril to give 22lb to Ikorodu Road – whose trainer, Matt Sheppard, deservedly enjoyed the biggest success of his career – and David Pipe will reliably bring him to a fresh peak on the day that matters.

Plainly, there can be no quibbles about the competence for the Aintree challenge of Ballabriggs, who less than an hour later made his first appearance since winning the National last year. Though he ultimately beat only the 250-1 outsider in a field of five, in a conditions chase at Kelso, his performance left his trainer, Donald McCain, legitimately satisfied. Still going well at the last, Ballabriggs jumped into the lead but tired on the long run-in, beaten around nine lengths without being given an unduly hard race. Jason Maguire, his jockey, reckoned it a better run than when beaten in the same race last year. Pleasingly, after that very demanding experience at Aintree, Ballabriggs showed plenty of enthusiasm and was reported to have emerged in fine heart yesterday.

"We were chuffed with his run," McCain said. "I tried to warn people that he would come on for it. They've just gone a very slow gallop, sprinted at the finish, and he's just got a bit tired and flattened out. He's where we want him at this stage, and absolutely fine this morning, so we'll kick on from here."

Though he sent out another three winners at Sedgefield yesterday, McCain continues to exude a degree of disquiet about Peddlers Cross, who was evidently too sore after his Kempton defeat at Christmas to absorb as much schooling as his trainer had intended. McCain hopes to get some more into the horse this week, before committing on his Festival options.

The frailties of these mighty creatures were reiterated in dispiriting fashion yesterday when James Fanshawe announced that Deacon Blues, whose progress last year volunteered him as the outstanding British sprinter for the forthcoming Flat season, will miss the whole campaign with a tendon tear. As for Kauto Star, who suffered a relatively trivial setback in his notorious schooling fall, it is all sounding quite promising. Having originally proposed a day off, Paul Nicholls was yesterday able to give him "a strong canter" over 10 furlongs. No number-cloth, perhaps, and no television cameras – but that definitely sounds more positive than anything on view at Leopardstown.

Cheltenham countdown: 8 DAYS TO GO

My top fancy for the Festival: Nigel Twiston-Davies, trainer: "Astracad in the Grand Annual. He's proven round the course and, as he showed when he won round there last time, never stops trying. He's got 10st 9lb so if [top weight] French Opera stays in, that would be lovely."

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's Nap: Made In Time (4.45 Hereford)

Has progressed nicely since being sent chasing by his new yard, including when midfield in a much better race at Cheltenham last time, doing well to get back involved after being hampered.

Next best: Catch That (2.45 Hereford)

Has shown precious little in qualifying for a mark but has looks and pedigree on his side and should find out more today stepped up in trip with Tony McCoy for the first time.

One to watch: After acquiring a modest rating over timber, Great Kicker (Simon Burrough) showed instant improvement switched to fences for his first handicap at Taunton on Thursday, failing only in a photo after a mistake three out.

Where the money's going: Baile Anrai is 12-1 from 20-1 with Paddy Power for the Fulke Walywn-Kim Muir Chase at Cheltenham.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty

Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Designer Oscar de la Renta takes a bow after showing his Spring 2015 collection in September, his last show before his death
fashionThe passing of the legendary designer has left a vacancy: couturier to America’s royalty, says fashion editor Alexander Fury
Life and Style

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album