In his 20 years at Ditcheat, Paul Nicholls reckons he has never known a tempest to compare with the one that prompted him to abandon third lot yesterday. At the home of the Derby, meanwhile, staff had been evacuated after roofing and insulation was ripped off Epsom's new grandstand. And racing at Ayr was abandoned, despite somehow surviving an initial inspection – by mid-morning it turned out that broken and hanging branches on a nearby tree would prevent the RaceTech lorry taking its position, and thereby the provision of television, commentary and PA services.
As the gale blew itself out, however, the champion trainer quietly introduced fresh impetus to a division that seems to contain several of its own whirlwinds. In what was no more than a footnote to his Betfair column, Nicholls revealed that he intends to run his best novice chaser, Al Ferof, in open company for his next start. Though he has only had two races over fences, Al Ferof is being targeted at the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot a fortnight on Saturday.
Among the seasoned campaigners lying in wait will be two of last season's top novices, Wishfull Thinking and Finian's Rainbow. The latter, successful on his belated return at Kempton's Christmas meeting, is a stablemate of Sprinter Sacre – whose electrifying defeat of Peddlers Cross, on that same Kempton card, reiterated the vintage standards to be met by the winner of the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
But the fact remains that Al Ferof did beat Sprinter Sacre over hurdles at last year's Festival, and while the latter was always considered likely to prove better again over hurdles, Nicholls plainly holds corresponding views of his own charge. After all, he sent him to Cheltenham for his first steeplechase, in the prestigious race sponsored by this newspaper at the November meeting, and thence to a Grade One over the notoriously tricky fences at Sandown.
For now Ladbrokes offer Sprinter Sacre at 5-2, with Peddlers Cross 6-1 – his trainer being adamant he was not himself at Kempton – and Al Ferof 7-1.
Nicholls has also entered Kauto Stone in the Victor Chandler, but the idea is that Kauto Star's brother will instead step back up in trip for the Betfair Ascot Chase, also at Ascot, the following month. Nicholls added that Sonofvic, who never remotely approached Al Ferof's fluency at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, will be returned to hurdles for the rest of the season.
Nicky Henderson, trainer of Sprinter Sacre and Finian's Rainbow, yesterday confirmed Long Run will probably go to Newbury next month to warm up for his defence of the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup. After two defeats by Kauto Star, Long Run is now likely to have his ear-plugs removed. Henderson feels that the horse has become, if anything, too relaxed and no longer needs a device intended to calm him during race preliminaries.
Henderson has entered a highly regarded French import, Captain Conan, for the 32Red Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday, one of just nine entries mustered for this Grade One race.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Grand Vision (3.0 Huntingdon) The handicapper has taken a chance with this one, who was clear of two subsequent winners last out when running a useful one close at Hereford.
Spot The Ball (2.10 Southwell) Much improved of late, has already won under his excellent conditional partner, and will be just as effective back over hurdles.
One to watch
Forgotten Gold (Tom George) continued his progress at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, responding so generously when passed – by a pair ridden more patiently – that he should do better again back at three miles.
Where the money's going
Captain Chris (14-1 from 20-1) and Bobs Worth (6-1 from 8-1) are in demand with Coral for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup and RSA Chase respectively.