Aintree on the agenda again for Strong Leader

By Sports Desk February 12, 2024

Strong Leader is set to continue plying his trade in the staying hurdle division, having been handed a Liverpool Hurdle objective by trainer Olly Murphy.

The seven-year-old has shown smart form at Aintree in the past, winning a novice hurdle by eight lengths last term before ending the campaign by finishing a close-up second to Inthepocket over an extended two miles in the Grade One Top Novices’ Hurdle.

Since being well beaten over the minimum trip on his return to action, Strong Leader has gone up in distance, first running well in the Ascot Hurdle before excelling in his first try at three miles on Cheltenham Trials day in the Cleeve Hurdle.

On that occasion, only Stayers’ Hurdle-bound Noble Yeats and Paisley Park finished ahead of Strong Leader.

And with Murphy’s charge holding no graded entries for the Cheltenham Festival, he is set to bypass Prestbury Park in favour of another trip to Merseyside for their Grand National day Grade One.

“He’s going straight to Aintree for the three-mile race,” said Murphy.

“I know everyone talked about Paisley Park and Noble Yeats and rightly so, but he was the unlucky loser. He never jumped a hurdle, didn’t come down the hill and yet was only beaten a length and a quarter.

“He relished the step up to three miles. His sectionals were very good over two miles but he’s always worked like a horse who would want a trip.

“He will go straight to Aintree and whether he will be good enough, I’m not sure, but he’s a very good horse on his day – and the one day it all clicks for him, then he could win a big one.”

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    The grey flew home in the Grand National last year – and passed all bar the winner Corach Rambler.

    He has been allotted 4lb more in his quest for National glory this term but first he must take on last season’s Irish National winner I Am Maximus and the Gordon Elliott pair of Fury Road and Minella Crooner.

    In three runs to date this season, Vanillier has failed to get anywhere near troubling the judge.

    However, Cromwell said in his William Hill blog: “Vanillier is certainly moving in the right direction and I’m happy with him ahead of the Bobbyjo Chase.

    “We’re hoping to see a good run here which should set him up well for the Grand National. He’s taken a bit of time to get to where I’d like him to be, but we weighed him on Friday morning and he’s a similar weight to where he was this time last year, which was encouraging to see.

    “We were happy with the weight the handicapper gave him for the race at Aintree. It’s a lovely racing weight considering how well he ran in it last year and you can’t really make any excuses on that front.

    “It would be amazing to win a Grand National and I do think he’s capable of doing it, as we know he likes the fences and has the stamina. He’s coming along nicely and Saturday will hopefully bring him forward again.”

  • Golf stars eyeing major Kempton prize with Givemefive Golf stars eyeing major Kempton prize with Givemefive

    Harry Derham cannot believe his luck that the first horse his two superstar new owners Graeme McDowell and Brooks Koepka became involved with is heading to Kempton with a live chance in the Coral Adonis Juvenile Hurdle.

    Derham played in a Pro-Am golf tournament with McDowell and ended up with a horse after the fledgling trainer won a nearest to the pin wager with the 2010 US Open hero on the way round.

    The unlikely outcome was McDowell’s involvement with Givemefive, and he got Koepka involved as well, adding a bit of stardust to his new yard. The fact their horse is more than useful is a big bonus.

    “As with any ownership, if you’re new to the sport, then you’re hoping to get a horse like him. He has had two runs, two wins and he looks really exciting,” Derham told OLBG.

    “Obviously, being in Florida makes it difficult for them to come and see him but in the WhatsApp group they are really excited about this weekend.

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    A winner at Market Rasen in December, the former Johnny Murtagh inmate really impressed at Warwick last time out, showing soft ground will be no issue this weekend.

    “It makes a lot of sense for us to go for the Adonis,” said Derham. “There are a few four-year-olds who have won the Dovecote but we will stick to our own age group, we are second-favourite.

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    In a time of dwindling ownership, it is not lost on Derham how big a boost for the sport as a whole it is to have two such high-profile patrons in his yard.

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    “He was bought to be a chaser and could hardly have been more impressive on his first start in this country over hurdles last month at Kempton,” said Nicholls.

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    Nicholls also runs Swift Hawk, another who made a winning start for the stable – but the ground may have turned against him.

    “Rated 72 on the Flat, he made a pleasing winning debut for us over hurdles at Taunton at the end of December. But this is a big step up in class for Swift Hawk, who would not want too much more rain at Kempton and I wouldn’t be keen on running him if it gets testing,” Nicholls told Betfair.

    In the Coral Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle, Ben Pauling’s Fiercely Proud will attempt to return to winning ways, having finished third to the highly touted Jeriko Du Reponet at Doncaster.

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    “He was in the Supreme at Cheltenham early doors, but we just feel he’ll be better going here and then Aintree, so we’ve taken him out of the Supreme.”

    Panjari runs for Nicholls but he is giving weight to all his rivals.

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    Forward Plan heads the group, an eight-year-old last seen finishing just a nose behind Annual Invictus in the Great Yorkshire Chase at Doncaster.

    Prior to that, he was a winner on Town Moor when taking the bet365 Handicap Chase over the same three-mile distance, his third victory in eight runs over fences, having only been out of the placings once.

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    At the head of the market is Dan Skelton’s Flegmatik, a winner over course and distance last time out, with Nicky Henderson’s Tweed Skirt and Chris Gordon’s Lord Baddesley also well fancied in a field of 12.

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