McCoy favourite to oust Thomas

If poor Sam Thomas thought things could hardly get much worse, at Folkestone yesterday they did. Paul Nicholls' No 2 jockey has had a nightmare run in high-profile races since stepping into injured Ruby Walsh's shoes 17 days ago but his ill-luck continued even away from the spotlight with two falls from two mounts at the lowly Kent track.

Most galling was the capsize of the favourite Zacharova at the second-last in the staying handicap chase, for the Venetia Williams-trained gelding was poised to give his young rider a much-needed confidence-boosting victory. Since Thomas tumbled off Big Buck's at the last in the Hennessy Gold Cup three days ago, debate has been rife about his being replaced on Master Minded in Saturday's Tingle Creek Chase. And yesterday Tony McCoy was installed 4-11 by William Hill to partner the two-mile champion on his return to action.

Master Minded, the highest-rated horse in training, was one of 13 entries yesterday for the Grade One contest at Sandown. His rivals will include the best of last year's novices, Tidal Bay, who opened his senior campaign with an easy win at Carlisle a month ago.

Nicholls was named jump trainer of the year for the fourth consecutive year in the annual Derby Awards yesterday with Walsh, who hopes to return to action at Cheltenham on Friday week, top jump jockey. The Flat laurels went to Johnny Murtagh and Aidan O'Brien, who was not present due to the death of his father.

There will be a top-level bonus on Saturday with the re-routing of the Fighting Fifth Hurdle to Wetherby after its loss at frostbound Newcastle. The two-mile race is set to feature a clash between Sublimity, winner of the Champion Hurdle last year and Punjabi, third this.

One of the heart-gladdening moments of the weekend was the sight of Brave Inca travelling like the top-class horse he is for most of the Hatton's Grace Hurdle before running out of puff in the closing stages of the two-and-a-half mile contest and yesterday came the splendid news that the 10-year-old, who missed all of last season with a leg injury, emerged from his first outing for 584 days perfectly unscathed. "He's been down to the river and will be out in the field later," reported trainer Colm Murphy.

Brave Inca's next intended target is the Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown's post-Christmas meeting. Although his old rival Hardy Eustace will take him on again in the two-mile contest (the score in their nine meetings is 7-to-2 in Brave Inca's favour) the signs are that Catch Me, his conqueror on Sunday, would swerve another clash with the 2006 Champion Hurdle winner, over the minimum distance at least.

"Taking Brave Inca on over two miles is one thing, beating him is another," said the six-year-old's trainer Edward O'Grady. "Over that trip, I'm not sure we'd jump well enough to cope with him on anything quicker than heavy ground." The three-mile Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown is Catch Me's most likely target.

*David Ashforth claimed the title of Racing Journalist of the Year for the second time yesterday. Ashforth was previously honoured in 1996 when working for the Sporting Life . He now works for the Racing Post.

*Times have been hard in the bloodstock world this year but quality will out and last night at the Tattersalls breeding stock auction the top-class Saoirse Abu was sold for 1.95 million guineas. The Jim Bolger-trained filly, winner of the Phoenix Stakes (beating Henrythenavigator) and Moyglare Stud Stakes (beating Listen) as a juvenile and third in the 1,000 Guineas this year, has joined Sheikh Mohammed's broodmare band and will be mated with Authorized next spring.

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