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Nicholls extends lead with Warwick double

El Bandit, ridden by Sam Twiston-Davies, on his way to victory at Warwick on Thursday. Photo by David Pratt (dwprattracingphotography.co.uk)
El Bandit, ridden by Sam Twiston-Davies, on his way to victory at Warwick on Thursday. Photo by David Pratt (dwprattracingphotography.co.uk)

NINE times champion trainer Paul Nicholls brought a strong team of horses to Warwick on Thursday as he looked for more winners to fend off the challenge from Irishman Willie Mullins in this year’s title race, writes David Hucker.

Four winners at Ayr the previous Saturday, including Vicente in the Coral Scottish Grand National, had put Nicholls back in front after Mullins had taken the lead at Aintree the week before, and he followed up with another four-timer at his local course Wincanton on Sunday to extend the advantage.

Sunshine and winds in the days leading up to the meeting had dried out the ground, with the going officially described as good, and there was an eight-race card starting 30 minutes earlier than scheduled as a result of the opening Close Brothers Maiden Hurdle being split into two divisions.

Nicholls, who had ten runners on the day divided between Warwick and Exeter, came into the meeting £43,240 ahead. He wasn’t represented in the first division, won in impressive style by 13-2 shot Holbrook Park, but saddled El Bandit in the second.

Mullins had already won the first race at Perth, cutting into Nicholls’ lead, but the champion hit back as El Bandit, third to the progressive Walking On Air over the course last month, stepped up to record his first success, leading at the penultimate flight to beat 25-1 outsider Thady Quil by four lengths.

A field of 13 runners lined up for the following Close Brothers Handicap Hurdle over two miles and three furlongs, with the weights headed by Que Sera, who had been pulled up behind Knockgraffon at Newton Abbot last time.

Making her handicap debut, Que Sera looked to have a stiff task against more seasoned campaigners and, so it proved, as she could only finish sixth behind Zanstra, who became trainer Colin Tizzard’s 50 winner of a stellar season in which his horses, headed by stable stars Cue Card and Thistlecrack, have won over £1.4m in prize money.

There was £11,000 in the prize fund for the Close Brothers Finance Handicap Hurdle over three miles and a furlong and Nicholls saddled two in Easter Day and The Eaglehaslanded, who had won by six lengths at Cheltenham a week ago.

Sent off the even money favourite, The Eaglehaslanded had no trouble in following up, staying on strongly to beat City Supreme to whom he was conceding 26lbs in weight.

Highlight of the card was the Class 2 Close Brothers Novices´ Limited Handicap Chase worth £25,000 and, although Mullins had made two entries, neither were declared to run. Nicholls was represented by Stilleto, a faller at the Cheltenham Festival, but previously successful in heavy ground at Leicester.

Although making much of the early running, he was headed four fences from home by Hollywoodien and Jayo Time, who is part-owned by well-known commentator Simon Holt. Despite not being fluent at the last, it was Hollywoodien who proved the stronger, running on well for James Davies to score by three and a half lengths.

With four absentees, just six runners lined up for the afternoon’s longest race, the Close Brothers Handicap Chase over three miles and five furlongs, with Band Of Blood heading the betting, closely followed in the market by course winner Conas Taoi.

Conas Taoi was making his first appearance for four months when runner-up to Any Currency at Cheltenham the previous week and, ridden by Denis O’Regan, who moves to Ireland later this year to become first jockey to owner Barry Connell, he comfortably recorded his seventh win of the season by nine lengths from Prideofthecastle.

The field for the Close Brothers Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race included the unraced duo of Brio Conti from the Nicholls stable and Asum trained by Dan Skelton, who has been the man to follow in this type of race of late, scoring with Aintree My Dream at the last meeting and Robin Roe at the one before.

Skelton, an ambassador for the course, had landed a double at Ayr the previous weekend, including the Scottish Champion Hurdle with Ch’Tibello, taking him to 100 wins for the season in Great Britain. Another double at Sedgefield 48 hours later had made it 104 for the campaign, as well as completing a maiden century for his jockey brother Harry.

But, try as he might, Asum couldn’t add to the tally, going down to Irish point-to-point winner ClondawCracker, who made all the running under Noel Fehily in the familiar colours of owner Roger Brookhouse.

The final race of the afternoon was a Hunters’ Chase over a trip of three miles and a furlong, run for The Crudwell Challenge Cup. The race commemorates the achievements of Crudwell, the most prolific winning horse of the 20 century, who won 50 races, including seven over jumps and four on the Flat at Warwick.

On The Bridge, who made a winning debut in this sphere at Ludlow, was the clear form choice and, going off the 10-11 favourite, he beat multiple point-to-point score Mr Madeit and Shoreacres.

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