Paul Nicholls is keeping his fingers crossed conditions at Sandown do not deteriorate ahead of Saint Roque’s bid for a fifth consecutive victory in Friday’s Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle.
The seven-year-old has risen 30lb in the ratings with victories at Fontwell, Worcester, Newton Abbot and Cheltenham and now steps up to Grade Two level for a race better known as the Winter Novices’ Hurdle.
Nicholls said: “He’s obviously on a good run and is improving all the time.
“He needs good ground. I haven’t run him since he won at Cheltenham in October because he is at his best when racing fresh.
“He has won four races now, so is not that easy to place. He is very well and I am looking forward to running him again.
“I just hope they don’t get any rain overnight. I don’t think they will, but good to soft ground is as soft as he’d want it.”
Saint Roque features in a six-runner field, with Nicholls’ great rival Nicky Henderson saddling last month’s runaway Ascot scorer Beat That.
Jonjo O’Neill’s Oscar Fortune is on a hat-trick following victories at Huntingdon and Carlisle, while the Charlie Longsdon-trained Killala Quay has also won twice over timber, but was well held at Cheltenham last time.
Likely outsiders Back In June and House Party complete the sextet.
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Trainer Kim Bailey is keen to see how Charlie Hall hero Harry Topper fares on a sounder surface as he faces just two opponents at Sandown on Friday.
The six-year-old struck three times as a novice last season, but failed to complete on his final two outings of the campaign at Kelso and Punchestown.
He made a triumphant return in Wetherby’s feature event in early November, however, igniting dreams of a potential Cheltenham Gold Cup bid.
Harry Topper faces the Paul Nicholls-trained Rolling Aces and Gary Moore’s Vino Griego in the Future Stars Chase over an extended three miles, and Bailey said: “He’s all ready to go and it will be an interesting race as it will be the fastest ground he’s run on I would think.
“It will be an interesting tactical battle as well with only the three runners.
“Every race is a learning curve and this will be new ground, a new track and big fences for our horse, so we’ll see what happens. We’re taking it one race at a time. Let’s get this out of the way before we look any further ahead.”
Rolling Aces is officially rated 3lb above Harry Topper, having raised his game when making a winning return to action in the Powers Irish Whiskey Chase at Down Royal early last month.
Nicholls said: “He won well at Down Royal and is stepping back up to three miles. I think the trip should be fine. He was second in the Racing Plus Chase last season.
“He goes there in good form, he goes well fresh and obviously with Harry Topper in there, it’s going to be an interesting race.
“We did have him in the King George, but we took him out of that. We’ll see how he gets on and then make a plan for the spring.”
Vino Griego has failed to complete the course on his last two starts at Cheltenham and Moore admits it will be a tough ask to beat his two rivals.
He said: “If he can get round that would be a start! Anything other than that would be a bonus, I think.
“He’s facing two tough horses, but hopefully it will be a nice confidence booster for our horse. He’s run in big fields the last twice and has been a bit unlucky to come down on both occasions. He’s made stupid mistakes.
“He’s done plenty of schooling since his last run, so hopefully we’ve put things right and we’ll see how he gets on.”
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Ante-post favourite On His Own is among 24 horses declared for the Betfred Becher Chase at Aintree on Saturday.
The Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old has been among the leading contenders for the last two renewals of the Grand National over the famous Aintree fences and although he has fallen on both occasions, many punters expect him to make it third time lucky over the shorter trip he encounters this weekend.
Ireland’s champion trainer also saddles Vesper Bell, with Henry de Bromhead’s cross-country specialist Sizing Australia a third challenger from across the Irish Sea.
Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot winner Junior heads the weights for trainer David Pipe, who is also represented by Swing Bill and Bostons Angel.
The latter was a three-times Grade One winner for trainer Jessica Harrington, but makes his debut for new connections this weekend.
The McCain family are of course synonymous with Aintree and trainer Donald has a major contender in Across The Bay, who navigated the fences when 14th in the Grand National in April.
Other contenders include Paul Nicholls’ Join Together, the Alan King-trained Walkon, Tom George’s veteran Big Fella Thanks, Nicky Henderson’s Roberto Goldback and David Bridgwater’s Wyck Hill.
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Timmy Murphy has been suspended for nine days following his altercation with fellow jockey Dominic Elsworth at Newbury last week.
Murphy left the track with a dislocated shoulder on Friday and it was later discovered he had been involved in a scuffle in the weighing room.
Grand National winner Murphy had to give up the ride on Our Father in Saturday’s Hennessy Gold Cup and both jockeys were asked to attend an inquiry at Wincanton on Thursday.
Stewards interviewed Murphy, Elsworth, Professional Jockeys’ Association chief executive Paul Struthers and valet Chris Maude and found that Murphy was the instigator and main protagonist in the altercation.
The stewards also found Murphy had suffered a dislocation of his shoulder as a result of having to be restrained by Maude.
Murphy will miss the key action over the Christmas period, having been suspended December 19-22 and 26-30.
Stipendiary steward Paul Barton said: “On the Friday evening we knew Timmy Murphy had to go to hospital but we didn’t know why, although overnight it clearly became obvious something had happened.
“We opened an inquiry into the alleged incident, and spoke to Paul Struthers, Chris Maude the valet and Dominic Elsworth to get their version of events. Timmy Murphy wasn’t there and the earliest we could hold the inquiry was today.
“Timmy Murphy has confirmed there were two incidents in the changing room, both of which were instigated by him. He admitted instigating them, and apologised to Dominic Elsworth.
“The second incident happened probably not long after the first one, and Timmy Murphy’s shoulder was injured when he was restrained by the valet.
“In the rules, the penalties can range from one to 21 days, with an entry point of four. There were two incidents, and it has been aggregated up. It could have been far higher but he is mitigated slightly as he did admit it, and apologised as soon as he could.”
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Sky Lantern, whose flame flickered when she ‘went quiet’ on arrival in Hong Kong, showed that she is now acclimatising to her new surroundings ahead of the Longines Hong Kong Mile with a pleasing visit to the training track on Thursday morning.
The 1,000 Guineas and Coronation Stakes winner looked perky in her breeze of one circuit of the Sha Tin course, with assistant trainer Richard Hannon Jnr and big race partner Richard Hughes spectating.
Hannon reported that tracheal washes and blood tests taken on the grey have come back 100%, and that the Ben Keswick-owned filly would remain in training as a four-year-old.
Keswick’s family own Jardine Matheson, one of the most famous reading companies in the old colony, which was part of the reason for Sky Lantern heading East for her last hurrah of the 2013 campaign.
Hannon said: “She was a bit quiet when she arrived but we’ve done all the bloods and trachea washes. They are fine and she’s in fantastic form.
“The owner living here was part of the reason we targeted this race and we are looking forward to taking on Moonlight Cloud. They are two very good fillies, but it’s not a two-horse race.
“We’ve locked horns with Freddie Head before, in the recent past when Paco Boy and Canford Cliffs were competing against Goldikova. Once again we shall relish the challenge.
“She’s had a nice break since the Sun Chariot but our filly will like the track and enjoy the ground.”
Sky Lantern will be Richard Hannon senior’s last big race runner before he hands over the licence at Herridge and Everleigh Stables to his son.
Hannon Jnr added: “Her assets are that she can sit back but she has plenty of speed, but let’s leave it to Hughsie to do what he likes as he’s pretty good!”
Moonlight Cloud was also out on the training track supervised by Head and the George Strawbridge-owned filly engaged in a routine breeze over six furlongs.
Head said: “It’s all good, she is fine and we are looking forward to Sunday’s race. I don’t know much about a couple of the others, especially the American horse (King Kreesa), and we know Sky Lantern is very good, but I’m delighted with my filly.”
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