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Five things we learnt this weekend

Article 24th March 2019

By Graham Dench

CAN KING ARTHUR TURN BACK THE CLOCK AT AINTREE?

While much of the talk ahead of the Randox Health Grand National in less than a fortnight’s time has been about last year’s winner, his predecessor was busy this weekend remind us that he’s not a spent force either.

Tiger Roll, who won at Aintree last year and was impressive in landing the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase at The Festival™, presented by Magners by a huge 22 lengths earlier this month, is as short as 3-1 to repeat his success.

But One For Arthur’s 2017 Grand National victory is still fresh in the memory and, while things haven’t gone to plan on the track this season, he looks certain to line up in the 40-strong field come 6th April.

He enjoyed a clear round in a schooling session after racing at Carlisle on Sunday, with his National winning partner Derek Fox on board. And Erin Walker, who rides him in training, believes he is working as well as he ever has back at the yard.

At 33-1 there will be many hoping that he is the former winner who ends up in the winners’ enclosure next month.

ALTIOR COULD BREAK JUMPS RECORD AT AINTREE

Whoever said the Jump racing calendar revolved entirely around the Cheltenham Festival hadn’t banked on the stellar line-ups awaiting us at Aintree between 4th and 6th April.

While there is no doubting the Randox Health Grand National is the showpiece event which the world stops to watch, Thursday and Friday’s cards are more than enough to set a Jump racing fan’s pulse soaring.

Now the possibility of Altior heading to Liverpool in an attempt to break the record of 18 consecutive victories is nothing short of mouthwatering, with trainer Nicky Henderson suggesting he is on the verge of doing just that.

Henderson, who has all but conceded defeat in the Jumps trainers’ championship to rival Paul Nicholls, is set to enter the mighty Altior in the JLT Chase (registered as The Melling Chase) on Friday 5th April.

As hors d’oeuvres to the world’s greatest steeplechase go there won’t have been many tastier.

RACING GETS IN THE QUEUE TO CELEBRATE THE LAST NOEL WINNER

It wasn’t quite the victory procession that we were anticipating, but Get In The Queue got the job done for Noel Fehily in Newbury’s Goffs Bumper and ensured that he retired not only on his own terms, but also on a winner. 

Evidence of the high esteem in which Fehily is held by both professionals and the public had been building on a daily basis since the modest and understated Irishman announced his imminent retirement at The Festival. 

By the time he made his way out from the changing room to the Harry Fry-trained five-year-old through a guard of honour and then returned to a hero’s welcome 10 minutes later the goodwill was overflowing.

It was the perfect send off - a winner at his local course in late-afternoon sunshine, for a trainer with whom he has built the closest of bonds, and with 22 members of his extended family over from Ireland to celebrate with him alongside his wife Natasha and two young children. 

Fehily is not disappearing and will continue buying and selling young horses and bringing them on at home while he contemplates his next move. But there will be much that he misses from the day-to-day involvement of racing’s travelling circus, not least the camaraderie of the weighing room.

Racing will miss him too.

JONJO AT THE DOUBLE WIITH NEWBURY SUCCESS

One of the beauties of our sport is that the cast - both equine and human - is constantly changing, and as one top jockey was departing the scene one of racing’s brightest young prospects enjoyed arguably his best day yet. 

Jonjo O’Neill Junior no doubt enjoyed some advantages as the son of a dual champion jockey and Gold Cup and Grand National winning trainer. But sharing the same name as a famous father brings its share of pressures too and invites obvious comparisons.

The 21-year-old enjoyed a landmark success on Big Time Dancer in the Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton Park in January, and his Cheltenham win on Early Doors in the Martin Pipe Conditional Riders’ Handicap Hurdle, for Joseph O’Brien and JP McManus, took him to another level. 

However, while O’Neill will never forget that Festival first, it was his misfortune that it came in the last race on a day dominated by Willie Mullins’ first Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup win with Al Boum Photo, and so it did not receive quite the coverage it deserved. 

Newbury on Saturday was different altogether, and his double on Chic Name and Annie Mc in competitive televised handicaps, both against hardened professionals, was a great showcase for his talents. 

He’ll go a long way.

CELEBRITY SHARES HELP BROADEN RACING’S APPEAL

Annie Mc’s runaway win under top weight in the mares’ final attracted publicity way beyond racing’s usual boundaries, thanks to reality TV star Chris Hughes. While he is best remembered for his appearances on TV’s Love Island racing is reaping the benefits.

An ambassador for the Coral Champions Club which owns the horse, Hughes is passionate about our sport and widening its appeal. 

This is no passing fad for a man who was brought up in jump racing’s heartland. He has often ridden Annie Mc at Jonjo O’Neill’s, rode out for several other leading trainers while preparing to ride in a charity race last summer and he has impressed with his enthusiasm and understanding whenever interviewed.  

Two days earlier Carol Vorderman had been at Chepstow to see Subway Surf, whose owners also include fellow TV star Richard Hammond, win her second bumper and confirm herself just the type for next year’s mares’ final.  

Vorderman is another racing fan of long standing. For nearly 20 years ago she had a share in a Ripon winner called Mare Of Wetwang who ran in the name of Countdown host Richard Whiteley. 

Hughes has some 477,000 Twitter followers and Vorderman 393,000, so their influence should not be underestimated.

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