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Nicholls eyes more glory at Warwick

Conas Taoi (on the outside) on his way to victory at Warwick Racecourse last year.
Conas Taoi (on the outside) on his way to victory at Warwick Racecourse last year.

NINE times champion trainer Paul Nicholls is facing a stiff challenge in this year’s title race from Irishman Willie Mullins and he will be out to land more winners at Warwick on Thursday afternoon, writes David Hucker.

The success of Vicente in Saturday’s Coral Scottish Grand National at Ayr took Nicholls back to the top of the table and he has entries across the seven-race card, starting with Boa Island and El Bandit in the opening Close Brothers Maiden Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs.

Boa Island, who hasn’t been seen out since pulling up on his hurdles debut at Exeter in November, is also engaged at the Devon course this afternoon.

El Bandit was third to the progressive Walking On Air over the course last month, form which would entitle him to go close here.

There is £11,000 in the prize fund for the Close Brothers Finance Handicap Hurdle over three miles and a furlong and Lambourn trainer Nicky Henderson has four entries, including the top two in the weights in Cup Final and Hunters Hoof.

Nicholls has two entries in Easter Day and The Eaglehaslanded, who won by six lengths at Cheltenham a week ago. Course winner Mustmeetalady has been raised 6lbs for her success at the last meeting, but she won well in what was a competitive-looking race and can’t be ruled out.

Highlight of the card is the Class 2 Close Brothers Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase and the £25,000 prize money has attracted two entries from the Mullins stable in the shape of McKinley, well beaten behind English raider Kylemore Lough in a Grade 1 race at Fairyhouse last time out, and the lightly-raced Rolly Baby, a winner at Navan on his most recent outing.

Nicholls could saddle Stilleto, a faller at the Cheltenham Festival, but previously successful in heavy ground at Leicester, having not declared him to run at Newton Abbot on Monday.

The consistent Thomas Crapper, trained at Great Alne by Robin Dickin, finally got his head in front over fences at Newbury when beating Fox Appeal and would run from just a 3lb higher handicap mark here.

There are 20 entries for the afternoon’s longest race, the Close Brothers Handicap Chase over three miles and five furlongs, and course winner Conas Taoi sits nicely at the bottom of the handicap.

He was making his first appearance for four months when runner-up to Any Currency at Cheltenham last week and could record his seventh win of the season.

There is a massive entry of 44 for the Close Brothers Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race, including the unraced Brio Conti from the Nicholls stable.

Known as “bumpers” these races are designed as an introduction for young horses starting out on their careers and it usually pays to keep an eye on runners trained by Dan Skelton, who scored with Aintree My Dream at the last meeting and Robin Roe at the one before. He has two entries today in the unraced pair Asum and Al Shahir.

Last Saturday proved a red-letter day for the Alcester trainer, an ambassador for the course, as he took the Scottish Champion Hurdle with Ch’Tibello and then made it 100 wins for the season in Great Britain with Two Taffs.

Both horses were ridden by his brother Harry, who moved to within two wins of his own maiden century.

Final race of the afternoon is 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 20th century, who won 50 of his 108 races between 1948 and 1960, including the Welsh Grand National when ridden by Dick Francis.

At Warwick, he was successful seven times over jumps and four times on the flat. On The Bridge, who made a winning debut in this sphere at Ludlow, is the clear form choice.

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