The Weatherbys Portman Cup here in January is next on the agenda for Cheltenham winner Yala Enki, following a pillar to post front-running performance under Bryony Frost in the Grade III Jewson Click & Collect Handicap Chase at Cheltenham today. Yala Enki and Frost have teamed up to win this 3m 4f conditions chase in each of the last two years.
The weather is hopefully the principal culprit in the small fields plaguing the big races at Cheltenham this weekend, although it would appear there is a financial threshold at which owners and trainers will take a chance. Self-evidently from the five runners in the £60,000 Jewson – sponsored race, this is not enough, whilst the £160,000 of the Paddy Power Gold Cup tips the threshold. There’s a hoary old argument to be had however about the valuable Pattern races, especially for novices, which consistently run up smaller and smaller fields, even at Grade I level. Time was when racecourses could see a modest sized field for a Grade II novice event as an investment for the future, but when only 8 turn out for the Supreme Novices, then a wholesale review may be required.
Those Somerset trainers that did pitch in their horses had good reason to be satisfied with a good weekend’s work, not just at Cheltenham but across the 3 other fixtures further afield.
Paul Nicholls could justifiably have felt he was being upstaged by former pupil, now rival for championship honours, in Dan Skelton. Whilst the latter enjoyed a rollercoaster weekend of contrasting fortunes, with big winners in Nube Negra and West Cork in Sunday’s big Schloer Chase and Unibet Greatwood Hurdle, he also hit the bar a few times, notably with the upset of My Drogo on Friday, who tipped up with his race won, and a 3/4l second from Protektorat in the weekend;s feature.
Nicholls finished the weekend tail up however, with a treble today, headed by Yala Enki, nice young novice chaser Threeunderthrufive, owned by the McNeill family, and bumper Timeforatune. It seems scarcely credible however, that these were the first Cheltenham winners for the champ since November 13 2020. His successes have been elsewhere as his older horses meet the down grade and youngsters have not been ready for the biggest stage of all.
Not so Philip Hobbs, who is putting the underperformance (by his exacting standards) of last season firmly behind him. Sporting John looked to have a little in hand in winning the Listed 3m Handicap Hurdle, and could be a lively contender for the Stayers Hurdle now his chasing days seem firmly behind him. Hobbs teamed up with Ben Jones for a double at Uttoxeter too to make a cross-card treble. A good day’s work.
This report wouldn’t be complete without a word for Lalor, transferred from Kayley Woollacott’s Crewkerne yard over the summer to Paul Nicholls, who ran a smasher in the Paddy Power to be 2 1/4l third. Woollacott won’t have been the first to lose a top flight horse to a bigger better known trainer, and she certainly won’t be the last. Lalor was the apple of her eye and she was doubtless watching with a wistful eye.