CHAMPION jockey Richard Johnson continued his rich vein of form at a packed Stratford on Saturday when landing the day’s feature Class 2 DB Heating Worcester Bosch Handicap Hurdle to close the gap on table-topping Harry Skelton in this season’s title race, writes David Hucker.
When jump racing resumed after its short summer break just over three weeks ago, Skelton had a lead of 26 over the three-time champion, but Johnson has gradually reduced the deficit and, after booting home 11 winners in the last two weeks, came into the meeting only 12 behind.
He had just three rides on the card and scored on the second when Innocent Touch led into the straight and, despite a clumsy jump at the last, held off the challenge of the Skelton-ridden Mister Universum.
Seven lined up for the opening City Sign & Graphics Novices’ Hurdle over an extended two mile trip, with dual winner Competition a hot 1-2 favourite to get back on the winning trail after being narrowly denied in his hat-trick bid by West Drive at Fontwell Park.
Second favourite was Panko, who had won twice on the flat for Edgecote trainer Alex Hales and, although the two had every chance, it was 14-1 shot Noah And The Ark who proved the stronger, overcoming an untidy jump at the last flight to score by three and a half lengths.
After winning a Flete Park point-to-point, Noah And The Ark was sold out of the Jill Dennis stable and transferred to Cheshire trainer Donald McCain, for whom he made his debut under Rules in a Stratford bumper in July.
Sent off favourite, Noah And The Ark finished last of the six runners and had been beaten in his two subsequent runs over hurdles, being banned from running for 30 days after his last race at Bangor-on-Dee when his trainer and jockey were found guilty of schooling in public.
Returning to the track, Noah And The Ark, ridden by conditional jockey Harrison Beswick, finished strongly on the inside rail to quickly put the race to bed after jumping the last and bring up McCain’s 28th winner of the season.
The Grundon Waste Management Novices’ Chase became the first ever race to have LED advertising displays on its fences following the decision of the British Horseracing Authority last month to allow racecourse trials.
As a spectacle, the contest was very much devalued by the absence of both El Terremoto and Flashing Glance, the two most likely to challenge favourite Golden Birthday, who was looking to follow-up his win over the course last month.
Rated at 144 over hurdles, Golden Birthday had looked a horse with a future when easily brushing El Terremoto aside that day and, despite a tendency to jump to the left, he had too much firepower for his sole rival Cotton Jenny this time, winning hard-held with Kieron Edgar.
Favourite backers were collecting after Vive Le Roi, who was always in the front two, stormed clear of his rivals after the penultimate flight to land the Kieran O’Neill 75th Birthday Conditional Jockeys’ Selling Handicap Hurdle by 11 lengths from Affaire D’Honneur.
Runner-up on his last two starts, Vive Le Roi was winning for the first time in two and a half years and, after some spirited bidding at the post-race auction, was bought back by connections for 6,200 guineas.
Top-weight Monbeg Legend made all the running with Nico de Boinville to land the Class 3 George Pragnell Gold Cup Handicap Chase, running on strongly from the final fence to see off the challenge of Easy Street.
Although taken on early by course winner Our Three Sons, who faded on the turn for home, Monbeg Legend had the field on the stretch with Easy Street, who had lived up to his name when winning convincingly at Warwick in May, looking the only danger.
But, despite the burden of 11-12, Monbeg Legend found more when needed, scoring by two and a quarter lengths, to give Nicky Henderson his 39th winner as he looks to land a third successive trainers’ championship.
Ontopoftheworld was always disputing the lead in the Keogh & Hows Handicap Chase and benefitted from the last fence fall of favourite Alexander The Grey to beat top-weight Ink Master, before Itchy Feet stepped up on his debut at Fontwell Park in April to run out a facile winner of the concluding Andy Townsend Memorial Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race for Wilmcote trainer Olly Murphy and jockey Gavin Sheehan.