Sue Montgomery: Master Minded still smart enough to turn the tide back in favour of Nicholls

Inside Track
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Paul Nicholls, who has swept all before him for the past five seasons, is in the unusual situation right now of playing the role of King Canute, with the rising water represented by his rival Nicky Henderson.

Since the turn of the year, Nicholls has sent out seven winners at a strike rate of a miserable, by his standards, 14 per cent. Henderson is on a surge of 26, at 42 per cent. And the shift in fortunes of the two most powerful stables in the country has focused fresh interest in the race for the trainers' championship. Five-times winner Nicholls is still odds-on, but eased to 1-5 from double that, with Henderson's chances halved to 3-1.

The title is decided by prize-money, with Nicholls still £250,000 ahead. That is small enough beer, though, with more than £5m to be played for at the Cheltenham Festival in March and the tide definitely flowing Henderson's way. But this afternoon, Ascot may provide Nicholls with a beachhead to succeed where the Danish monarch did not.

The day's main attraction, the Victor Chandler Chase, is worth nearly £60,000 to the winner, but over and above the monetary value there may be a psychological advantage to be gained. A week ago, Nicholls' pride and joy Kauto Star was humbled by the season's rising chasing star, Long Run, from Henderson's yard. Today it is up to Master Minded, in the same Clive Smith strip as Kauto Star, to repel all comers, who include two of Long Run's stablemates. It will be a fascinating moment in the balance of power stakes.

Nicholls will be under greater pressure, for Master Minded will start a short-priced favourite to complete his task. He has six Grade One victories under his considerable girth already, including two Queen Mother Champion Chases and the 2009 edition of today's race. At his best, he has been one of the most brilliant two-mile chasers ever to grace the sport.

Last term he was below the peak of his powers after cracking a rib early in the campaign. After he lost his Cheltenham crown to Big Zeb he was found to have a problem with his breathing, but close-season surgery seems to have done the trick if his two wide-margin victories, including one over today's track, are an indication.

Whereas a human athlete, who knows all about gold medals, will put himself through discomfort, a horse has no real concept of glory and generally, when running under pressure starts to hurt, they will back off. With an imperfect intake of oxygen, Master Minded will have hit that pain barrier but it seems now he can breathe properly again he has the confidence to allow himself to express his sublime talent to the max.

Ruby Walsh, his sidelined regular rider, has always maintained that the gelding's technique over a fence is the best of any horse he has ridden, full of power and scope but economical of effort with it, in the way he drops his neck forward into his shoulders in the air, more like a showjumper than a steeplechaser. Tony McCoy, who won the Tingle Creek Chase on him more than two years ago, is in the saddle again.

Master Minded should provide his connections with a positive end to a trying week. Petit Robin, the Henderson first string, is perceived as the horse most likely to trouble him today, but he has not done so on the three occasions they have met in the past, most recently when eight lengths adrift at Cheltenham in December.

Master Minded, presently favourite to win his third Queen Mother Champion Chase, has apparently been giving off all the right vibes at home. But then, so was Kauto Star before the King George VI Chase last Saturday. He is now making a steady recovery at home from the low-grade infection subsequently discovered in his system.

Today's race is not one to get involved with because of the punting opportunities it offers (although as an each-way shot the outsider I'm So Lucky may be overpriced); rather, it is a day for horse and people watching. For Henderson, it is a shot to nothing. For Nicholls, it could be either hiding to nothing or a shot in the arm.

Nearly all the Gold Cup horses are now firmly locked safely away until their day of days in March, but those bound for the Grand National in April are still strutting their stuff and, with the weights for the John Smith's-sponsored marathon to be fixed next month, their performances are of increasing interest. Weather permitting, a selection will be out at both Haydock and Gowran Park this afternoon, in the Peter Marsh and Thyestes Chases respectively.

Both three-mile races will provide a gruelling examination of stamina in the forecast heavy conditions. At the Lancashire venue, the sole Irish raider Becauseicouldntsee (3.15) is the one in the field most prominent in the early Aintree market; the enormous chestnut has produced two fine efforts in defeat on his last two runs over fences, at Cheltenham last year and at Leopardstown after Christmas.

The Co Kilkenny contest has spotlighted two National winners in the past seven years, Hedgehunter and Numbersixvalverde, though each time a year in advance. Pomme Tiepy, third when Becauseicouldntsee was second last month, can present her credentials.

Walkon role gives McCain reason for stage fright

The list of winners at Haydock a year ago today was, in retrospect, a pretty fair selection of top-level talent. Our Vic (now honourably retired), Medermit (now a leading novice chaser), Diamond Harry (now a Hennessy winner and bound for the Gold Cup) and Peddlers Cross all graced the circle of honour.

The last-named, unbeaten in seven runs, returns today for his final outing before the Champion Hurdle, for which he is fourth favourite. And despite the fact he disposed of the reigning champion Binocular on his first venture into senior company, his trainer, Donald McCain, is increasingly jittery. "We just want to get the race over and out of the way," he said yesterday. "It looks a good opportunity for him, but I can't say I'm in any way looking forward to it."

Peddlers Cross has just three rivals, the most fascinating of which is the Alan King-trained Walkon, two seasons ago one of the best juveniles but unraced for nearly two years.

The spotlight is also on the Champion Hurdle in Ireland tomorrow, when Cheltenham second-favourite Hurricane Fly takes on his old rival Solwhit in the Irish version at Leopardstown. In four meetings, the score is 3-1 to Hurricane Fly but trainer Willie Mullins is another clutching the talisman of taking nothing for granted. "We're happy with the horse," he said, "but he's had a tough enough schedule in the past weeks and maybe Solwhit was a bit unlucky last time. There's probably not much between them."

Very much away from the subject of elite jump racing, but equally worthy of note, is the passing of the magnificent mare Miesque, who died yesterday at the age of 27. She was not only superb on the track, winner of 10 top-level races, including consecutive Breeders' Cup Miles, but equally great as a matriarch, with top stallion Kingmambo one of her sons.

Turf Account: Sue Montgomery


Roi de Rose (3.25 Wincanton)

Multiple winner in Switzerland who progressed from his first run here to win at Fontwell two weeks ago in the style of one who can defy a ratings rise. As a brother to a Grand Steeple de Paris winner, he will appreciate any stiffer test.

Next best

Medaille d'Or (12.50 Lingfield)

Handicap debutante who may have an opportunity to enhance her paddock value with a victory. She improved each time in maiden company and the step up in trip should suit her well.

One to watch

Credit Crunched (A King) ran far better at Kempton a week ago after a long absence than his ringrusty appearance suggested he might and looks sure to be shrewdly placed in handicaps in due course.

Where the money's going

The gamble on Tocca Ferro for next month's Totesport Trophy at Newbury continues apace, with the gelding cut to 6-1 from 9-1 by Paddy Power yesterday.

Chris McGrath's Nap

Sparky May (1.50 Ascot)