AINTREE FIRST DAY 2024

THE TIMES SPORT

Brough Scott

11th April 2024

The photo finish is a harsh way to end a horse race. At the end of two and a half miles, 11 hurdles and five and a quarter minutes of soft ground galloping for the William Hill Aintree Hurdle, Impaire Et Passe had less than a centimetre to spare over Bob Ollinger with Langer Dan just a few centimetres in third. How much closer can you get?

What was worse in this case is that all three horses had lugged one way and another in their desperate efforts to reach the line and the stewards took a full half hour before deciding to allow the result to stand. It was always going to be a complicated piece of judgement but as the Stewards went through the elaborate process of interviewing “Mr” Townsend, “Miss” Blackmore and “Mr” Skelton one longed for the American system where jockeys’ statements are taken immediately and then the stewards decide on the replays just as we now do in football. Fans may complain about VAR, imagine it taking half an hour.

As it was justice was eventually done and Willie Mullins chalked up a second Grade I winner on a day he had begun with It Etail Temps taking the Close Brothers Chase from Ginny’s Destiny and Grey Dawning. The second and third were trained respectively by Paul Nicholls and his protegee Dan Skelton who currently leads him in the trainers championship but Mullins  double takes his UK winnings to over £2million and put him in Grand National scoring reach of overtaking both of them.

Out of the running this year but no longer out of form is multiple champion Nicky Henderson whose stable malaise made a washout of Cheltenham. He was back where he belonged as the wonderfully talented Sir Gino outgunned the Mullins mare Kargese in the Boodles Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle.  Kargese raced a bit too freely for comfort but there was as much admiration as relief as Sir Gino stretched out past her on the run-in.

The trainer puffed his cheeks out in delight and jockey Nico De Boinville stressed what a team player he is saying, “that makes up for a lot of it. It’s been a really tough couple of months, fair play to the staff at home because they’ve kept their smiles on their faces and the boss has as well. You take the rough with the smooth in this game, and the rough makes the smooth so much better.”

There had been hopes that the same black and yellow check Donnelly silks would give Henderson a second success when last year’s winner Shishkin reappeared in the William Hill Bowl but it was not to be. There was no refusal to start or total cut out of power but Shishkin was never truly convincing before finishing an eight length fourth to Gerri Colombe who took the bold jumping Ahoy Senor on the run-in.

After all the rain the times were slow but not impossibly so. The Grand National course was officially listed as “heavy” and there were fears that the 2 mile 5 furlong Foxhunters Chase would take all of 6 minutes to run. As it was Its On The Line’s 4 length defeat of the evergreen 13 year old Benny’s King was 8 seconds shorter than that. But with more rain falling horses, riders and spectators must brace ourselves for a pretty gruelling spectacle as the National runners battle up that 494 yard run after a mile and a half further to run.

Whoever wins it is unlikely to better the ride Derek O’Connor gave the winner yesterday. For Its On The Line was never going with much fluency but the ultra-experienced O’Connor added persistence to his patience. As with all champions, which is what O’Connor has long been in the Irish point to point scene, there can seem an inevitability about the outcome. Its On The Line owes him big time.

One closing credit must go to to Mary Nugent, the groom responsible for Gerri Colombe. No horse’s coat ever gleamed more bright and just to rub home Irish dominance she had stencilled in a glowing Irish shamrock across the top of his backside.

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