It would be wrong to suggest that Paul Nicholls (above) has been scraping the barrel all season. The Ditcheat handler has just bagged his latest champion trainer title, seeing off ferocious competition from the biggest of the Irish big guns, Willie Mullins.
We need not revisit the ammunition that Mullins has been aiming at the UK this season, but what of Nicholls?
His star has been, I reckon, Silviniaco Conti but it is admittedly a far cry from the household names he had at his disposal not so long ago in the shape of Master Minder, Kauto Star, Denman and Big Buck’s.
It makes his success at the weekend all the more remarkable and while there are many who would give all the oil in Arabia for some of Nicholls’ stars, they must all fall short of coming close to matching Nicholls’ talent for consistently churning out the winners.
He digs deeper than his rivals, he strives harder than his peers and he refuses to be beaten. If and when the big guns return, his contemporaries won’t know what’s hit them.
One frustrating sideshow on Saturday was the withdrawal of Mullins’ talented mare Vroum Vroum Mag from her place in the field shortly after it became mathematically impossible for the Irishman to overhaul Nicholls.
Mullins openly admitted that he’d save the mare for Punchestown this week rather than run her in a race that she’d never have contemplated running in had it not been for the unusual circumstances of the season finale.
Had Mullins cited a change of ground, he’d have been fined. Instead, he was honest (yes, I am inferring that some others were not, are not and will not be in the future) and got punished financially (irrelevant) and told that he had treated punters with contempt (very relevant).
It is absurd that such accusations — hostile and deliberate — should be levelled at a guy who brought great horses over to Sandown at the weekend to help generate untold publicity for the sport. Of course, none of them would have been declared had he not been in with a shot. And punters are not stupid. They know that.
They came to see Un De Sceaux battle with Sprinter Sacre. And those who were perplexed by a short-priced non runner at the 11th hour? Well, they either got their money back or they left it late to bet on a reformed book because having a flutter enhances their day, regardless of the back story, which was of no interest.
Nobody really lost out. Mullins should be applauded for his candid attitude and the application of common sense ought to have trumped the rule book. Rules are there as a guide; people are there to interpret those rules, make exceptions to the rules, justify the exceptions and steer clear of punishing those who do more to promote racing than many others. How difficult can it be?
I’m a bit gloomy this week because I’m confined to barracks as the final throes of the National Hunt season play out in Punchestown. It will always hold a special place in my life – it’s where I met my now wife a few years ago – and it’s good racing all week.
It lacks the intensity of Cheltenham and the one-eyed focus of Aintree but it has top horses and a rattling good atmosphere from beginning to end.
After racing, a night out in nearby Naas is a vital part of the Punchestown package. Lawlor’s and Haydens were my drinking dens of choice before I had my passport confiscated by senior management, but I’ll be there in spirit this evening and if any reader is lucky enough to be going to the Festival for the first time, pack some aspirin, some throat lozenges and hold on tight.
It’s the perfect way to say thank you and goodbye to the familiar racing faces until they return in October.
Last night at Windsor I put the first horse of the season into my notebook. Choreographer lined up in the 10 furlong maiden for trainer Roger Varian and readily disposed of some fancied horses including Brian Meehan’s Magnum.
Choreographer drifted to an SP of 9/2 but the manner of his victory was very taking. He’s unlikely to go to the Dante at York next month as one of the more fancied runners but he is definitely one to follow as much was certainly learnt on debut.
Jockey Andrea Atzeni was fulsome in his praise and middle distances on soft ground or better should be within his compass. If we don’t see him in something like the King Edward VII or the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot I’ll be very surprised. Let’s hope I haven’t given him the kiss of death.
Now, of course, we return to Newmarket for Guineas weekend. The colt’s Classic favourite, Air Force Blue, is an unbackable 4/7 for the half million pound pot but Stormy Atlantic is the one for me with all the rain forecast.
The Craven winner might not need a downpour but having been at HQ for the mother and father of all storms before this colt waded home, it’s hard to see any horse in the field who will be better suited to testing conditions.
It would also be a fairytale for Ed Walker who has never had a horse with this degree of talent on his hands. Few would begrudge him a Classic winner and Stormy Atlantic is this week’s tip.
For what it’s worth, if Minding fails to take the 1000 Guineas I’ll be staggered.