We are well and truly into the business end of the Jump season now and with just nine days to go until the bet365 Jump Finale at Sandown, the battle for this year’s Jockeys’ title took another twist at Cheltenham on Thursday.
On what could prove to be a crucial day under the spring sunshine, we sent Nick Seddon to speak to the winners on the day …
HUGHES STRIKES BACK WITH A CRUCIAL WINNER
It’s been a long time since we’ve had such a close race for the Jump Jockey’s Championship – we have the likes of AP McCoy and latterly Richard Johnson to thank for that – but it’s impossible to look away from this year’s battle, which took another twist at the Home of Jump Racing on Thursday.
Harry Skelton’s double on yesterday’s card saw the challenger shortened into a 1-8 chance to win the title having stretched his lead to three winners, but Brian Hughes won’t like down and he knocked the deficit back down to two with a game success on 9-1 chance Bannixtown Glory in the Listed Citipost Mares' Handicap Hurdle.
Hughes certainly hasn’t given up on the dream just yet, though trainer Donald McCain made it clear that his long-time ally was very much the underdog in this fight.
He said: “We’ve nearly accepted it, but he’s been very gracious about the whole thing and the only thing we’re trying to do is our job properly. We’ve got some lovely horses and we’re not running horses for the sake of it, he’s riding really well and we’re just trying to do what we can do.”
Referring to Harry Skelton being given rides by 11-time champion Jump trainer Paul Nicholls with less than a fortnight of the season remaining, McCain continued “When they’re reeling in the likes of Paul Nicholls into the situation it becomes David and Goliath, but we’re just trying to train winners.
“We’re always the underdog, maybe we’ve been punching above our weight all season but we’ll see what we can do.”
COLEMAN LOOKING FORWARD TO THE FUTURE WITH MARTELLO SKY
The attention may have been on Brian Hughes and Harry Skelton this afternoon, but there were plenty of talking points away from the title race, which included a rather taking performance from Martello Sky in the opener, the Listed Irish Thoroughbred Marketing Mares' Novices' Hurdle.
Admittedly, the five year old rather benefitted from a couple of significant non-runners – which saw her sent off as 10-11 favourite – but Aidan Coleman was impressed with what he saw from the mare on what was her first try over two and a half miles.
He said: “The race cut up a little bit, but she’s a very nice mare. I really fancied her before the non-runners and that made it a little bit easier but she’s still got to go out there and do it.
“She won nicely and flicked her ears a little bit approaching the last, but she was always going to win and jumped super which is the main thing, so we’re very happy. These mares’ programmes are great, as they’re relatively new they’re not ingrained just yet! But there’s loads of options for her next term.
“It was her first time over the trip, we didn’t go very hard so it was a little bit of a false reading in that respect but she will stay I have no doubts about that and there’s plenty options for her.”
HER INDOORS COULD HAVE FLAT CAMPAIGN
There was a rare defeat at Cheltenham for an Irish raider as the well-supported 9-4 favourite Scholastic was reeled in by the Alan King-trained Her Indoors, who sealed a three and a half-length success in the feature Grade Three NAF Fillies' Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at odds of 6-1.
Afterwards King revealed he has been eager to find some opportunities on the Flat for his likeable filly. He said: “I was delighted. It’s a good race to target and we’re delighted with her.
“We thought the smaller field would help her - she just got a bit intimidated in the large field in the Fred Winter, but she came out of it in good form and the one thing she does do is stay very well, so she was always going to power up the hill.
“I would think she’ll go back on the Flat for a few runs now. I wouldn’t think she’ll run over hurdles for a bit and then we’ll see what next winter brings.”
Winning jockey Adrian Heskin added: “I think she was a bit star struck in the Fred Winter last month, but the experience stood her in good stead there.
“She’s a good tough filly and this race was always going to be run to suit with a few front-runners in there. She wants a stiff two miles - her stamina came into play after the last and she won nicely.”
WILLIAMS PLOTTING FRENCH RAID WITH WIN MY WINGS
With jump racing slowly winding down on these shores for the time being, trainers are forced to rather think outside the box a little when it comes to placing their horses and Christian Williams revealed that he may well head to France next with Win My Wings – who impressed when winning the Catesby Estates PLC Mares' Handicap Chase.
Things have really clicked into place for the eight year old, who recorded her first victory over fences in fine style, bowling away in the closing stages to seal a 10-length victory.
And Williams hinted that he may head over the Channel with his mare to Compiegne, where there is a valuable hurdle race over two miles and two furlongs next month.
He said of the 9-2 winner: “That was lovely. We thought she was a nice horse years ago and she wanted this trip, but she just hasn’t quite been maturing enough until now.
“There’s a nice race in France on the 17th May – the Prix Pansa at Compiegne – and then she’ll go onto her owners for the summer. It’s onwards and upwards with her next year, maybe she could be a Listed type, we’ll see.”
BEAU LOVES HER TRIPS TO CHELTENHAM
One of the biggest smiles of the afternoon belonged to trainer Michael Scudamore, who could not hide his delight at the performance of Northern Beau, who sealed a deeply impressive 14-length success in the Visit racingtv.com Mares' Handicap Chase.
A second straight victory in this race means that Northern Beau (11-4 Jt-Favourite) now has three course wins under her belt and Scudamore was thrilled with the mare, who has enjoyed an extraordinary resurgence over the last couple of years.
He said: “She’s just an unreal little thing really, this was her third win here and she’s just a different horse when she steps out at this place.
“She was rated about 35 on the Flat and was sold to be a riding pony and then the 13 year old girl who had her took her cross country and everything else, so they decided to run her in a point-to-point. She won two in that sphere and now she’s won three races here, so it’s unbelievable.
“They’re not the biggest races of course but to win any race round here is great and the owners have been so good to us – so there’s certainly worse places for her to like!”
ROWLEY KEEN TO HANG ON TO IMPRESSIVE THE PLAYER QUEEN
Last but not least, we were treated to an impressive performance by The Player Queen, who looked to have plenty of ability when winning the finale, the Spreadex Sports Betting Mares' Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race.
The five-year-old had come out on top in a point-to-point prior to this last year and her owner Philip Rowley admitted he was keen to hang on to the mare.
He said of the 11-2 winner: “She’s a lovely filly. We bought her as a three year old and ran her in a point-to-point and after she won that impressively we tried to sell her. We put a nice reserve on her but didn’t get anything, so my wife Mel has her to train and we’ve come here.
“She’s so tough and is by Yeats so she’s got a lovely pedigree, so I’d like to re-syndicate her and keep her in my wife’s yard. She’s very exciting and I really want to keep hold of her.”