Paul Nicholls will be crowned champion jumps trainer for the fifth year running at Sandown on Saturday, but he cannot have especially enjoyed the season's final week. On the first day of the Punchestown Festival he saw one of his best steeplechasers, Twist Magic, plant himself at the tapes and yesterday the difference in Denman proved pretty technical.
Denman did consent to start the Guinness Gold Cup, and eventually finished fourth to a surprise winner in Planet Of Sound, but everything he did in between was very much on his own terms. Even Tony McCoy had severe difficulty keeping his increasingly wilful partner under control, and while Denman was plainly uncomfortable with the right-handed track, he ran suspiciously like a horse going off the rails altogether.
An ungainly leap at the first set the tone. He jumped left throughout, ran wider with each turn, and was hanging on and off the bridle between fences. Turning into the back straight he received a couple of cracks from McCoy, but only his essential class – and the perseverance of his rider – stoked the embers of hope for his backers once into the straight. He had squandered too much energy, however, and kept on only at one pace as another former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, War Of Attrition, offered a humbling contrast in enthusiasm.
The old horse's pursuit was unavailing, however, as Planet Of Sound dramatically quelled any doubts about his stamina to hold on by three and a half lengths. Cooldine, who had raced energetically in the lead for much of the race, held on for third, another two lengths away.
The winner was contributing to a strong finish to the campaign by Philip Hobbs. "He choked at Cheltenham so we had him in a tongue-tie for the first time," the Somerset trainer explained. "He was the forgotten horse. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, the price he was today. It was his first time over the trip but he stayed on very well."
Nicholls, meanwhile, was adamant that Denman had simply lost his bearings. "Going right-handed used to be an issue but we certainly didn't think he would run like that," he said. "It was obvious he was going left after three fences and the further he went, the worse he got. AP [McCoy] said he would have won a minute going the other way round. He has to go left-handed these days, it's as simple as that. He'll come back, and probably run in the Hennessy in the autumn."
Michael O'Leary, his owner, confirmed that War Of Attrition would now be retired while Willie Mullins was delighted with Cooldine's jumping and felt that he is now "coming right".
After his Grade One treble on the first day, Mullins unsurprisingly has a central role today in the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle, with two of his three runners disputing favouritism. Quevega is preferred, having landed heavy support in the mares' hurdle for the second year running at the Cheltenham Festival, but she has always shown such speed that the extra half-mile must be a concern. Mourad also tries three miles for the first time, but has flourished for every new test of stamina and in his case the doubt is rather the drying spring ground.
The other Grade One prize is the Ryanair Novice Chase, where Captain Cee Bee must belie the reputation for fragility he compounded when breaking a blood vessel at Cheltenham. Riverside Theatre kept on too late that day, but a good run over hurdles here last year suggests he could get himself properly involved this time. The most compelling candidate, however, is Psycho, who has taken to fences with terrific flair and finally looks on the brink of fulfilment following a wind operation.
This meeting is very much a final fling for the top jumpers, of course, and the big news on the Flat yesterday was that Kieren Fallon is staying loyal to Seta in the Stan James 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket on Sunday week. Fallon was unmistakably impressed by Music Show when she won the Nell Gwyn Stakes last week and it might prove hasty to treat his decision as a literal commentary on their respective chances. His first obligation was always to Luca Cumani, who agreed a partnership with Fallon on his return from suspension last summer.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Backstage (3.45 Perth) Still going well when unseating at the 20th in the Grand National and faces limited competition for this valuable prize.
Tia Juana (4.40 Beverley) Picked up cheaply from Godolphin but booking of Kieren Fallon suggests he could defy a modest rating.
One to watch
Hurlingham (M W Easterby) Was set to take advantage of a dwindling mark but was trapped in midfield traffic at Thirsk.
Where the money's going
The novice Fairoak Lad is 8-1 from 12-1 with William Hill for the Bet 365 Gold Cup at Sandown on Saturday.Reuse content