Derham in line to succeed with Nicholls family firm
Pedigree always counts for a good deal on the Turf, but sometimes it is sooner a matter of heart than blood. The previous weekend, Joseph O'Brien had turned even an environment as commercially momentous as the Breeders' Cup into one of intimate family celebration. And yesterday, albeit the stakes were not quite so giddy, a second teenage jockey charged another of the sport's great theatres with a corresponding glow of dynastic pride.
At 17, Harry Derham remains a year younger than O'Brien, and an equivalent separation persists for now between their respective potential and achievement. Even so, the cool and verve with which this precocious amateur contributed to another landmark weekend in the training career of his uncle, Paul Nicholls, identified him as a talent equal to both the privileges and pressures of their kinship. Derham's success in the Greatwood Hurdle, one of the most frantic handicaps in the calendar, was only his fifth under Rules. But there was a seasoned flair to the way he observed Ruby Walsh's counsel of restraint, before driving Brampour two and a half lengths clear from the final flight.
Nicholls is long accustomed even to the sort of success he enjoyed during the biggest meeting of the jumps season to date. After a treble on Saturday's card, he had already won the prestigious novice chase sponsored by this newspaper – for the fourth year running, and the eighth time in all – with Al Ferof, and would later land a gamble with Rangitoto. But there was no mistaking the heightened buzz he discovered in seeing his sister's son riding a first Cheltenham winner, on an afternoon when they strained up the hill into a low autumn sun as though to be preserved in some instant, golden aspic of the memory.
Derham will certainly never forget the moment. "I've been coming here since I was 11 with Paul's horses, and watched Ruby come in on so many winners," he said. "So to be part of this is all I've ever wanted. It's a dream, I'm in a daze – to ride for someone who is not just champion trainer, but your uncle as well."
Something of a journeyman in his own riding career, Nicholls stressed that Derham is only being given the chances he earns. "He's a lot better than me, and I'm very proud," he said. "Pony racing has been invaluable to him. He also rode a lot of point-to-points for Richard Barber last year, so he has a bit of experience behind him. He's been with us weekends for a good few years, and is now with us full time. He listens, and puts in a lot of work, but he's naturally gifted – he gave that a peach of a ride. We need to keep his feet on the ground, and he won't be riding four races a day for the sake of it. He must get stronger, and learn more, but he's very grounded and he could be very good."
For all that Derham's 7lb claim was a palpable asset – one that Nicholls intends to guard jealously – Brampour had been set an exacting task at the weights for a four-year-old and should not be omitted from the plaudits. The latest in his stable to benefit from a wind operation, he will now test the Champion Hurdle water, possibly back here next month.
As for Al Ferof, his name will now be carved beneath that of Best Mate himself among previous champions to have announced themselves in the Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase. The grey's Festival calibre is unquestionable, having so far run second in the Bumper and first in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and his first start over fences suggested that he will once again be heavily involved next March – even if it already seems as though a fairly vintage bunch are targeting the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy. After jumping with plenty of energy, Al Ferof came bounding seven lengths clear of Astracad, himself miles clear.
Nicholls seemed relieved as much as anything. "He fell in a point-to-point and a novice hurdle, and a couple of times last season was a bit brave," he said. "So with that in mind we just wanted to see him jump really well today. That couldn't have been better. We won't be aiming too high too soon, because he needs more experience, and I feel he's a better horse in the spring."
Nowadays Nicholls is far too comfortable in his dominion to have been at all unnerved by a fine meeting also for David Pipe, who evoked memories of his father's record-breaking era with a treble on Friday and then won the big race on Saturday with Great Endeavour. And another Somerset stable housing a smart prospect of its own is that of Philip Hobbs, albeit he was mightily relieved to see Fingal Bay regroup from a blunder two out to preserve his unbeaten record in the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle. "He did get the second last completely wrong, but he is still green," said Hobbs. "The Festival is very much in our mind, but will he go up to three miles before then? We'll see."
An established Festival operator, Big Zeb, won the Fortria Chase at Navan for the third year running. He will proceed to the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, and must remain pretty much as good as ever to give Noble Prince 5lb first time out. There are still old soldiers out there, as well as young guns.
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