Sunday Times, ASCOT 20th February 2016

It will never happen but it should. With the splendid and newly blinkered Silviniaco Conti establishing himself a live Grand National candidate with a routing victory in the feature race, Ascot staged one of its biggest jumping days yesterday. But it should stage something altogether bigger. On Boxing Day it should take over the King George VI chase from Kempton.

Suggest this and traditionalists will react in horror and pragmatists will say it is impossible because Kempton is owned by the Jockey Club and Ascot by the Queen herself. But the King George on Boxing Day is jumping’s biggest event outside the Grand National and the Cheltenham Festival and yet it is crammed into a hopelessly crowded 20,000 capacity stadium when 20 miles up the road Ascot could take double the number with infinitely more style and comfort. If they care about racing’s future, all three parties should unite to deliver the sport the perfect Christmas present. 

For yesterday showed what a great jumping track Ascot has become and that is written by someone who rode in the very first chase here in April 1965. (If you must know I finished second on a 20-1 shot and still got blamed for being out ridden in the finish.). It is fair but demanding, its once much criticized grandstand offers well appointed shelter in winter weather and, most important of all, a top winner needs talent, character and jumping ability. Three attributes long associated with Silviniaco Conti.

Watching Noel Fehily drive him long, hard and in and over the last fence before distancing themselves away from the struggling Royal Regatta was to be grateful for the enduring wonders of both horse and rider. Silviniaco Conti has now won 16 of the 28 races he has run here since coming over from France as an unbeaten twice successful four year old in the autumn of 2010. 41-year-old Irish born Fehily has been going a bit longer than that, his first British winner was at Plumpton back in 1998. But with his compact physique and quiet, deep balanced technique it is nothing but the truth to say he has never ridden better then he did yesterday. 

He and Siviniaco Conti first came to Ascot in November 2010 when victory put them in the betting for the Champion Hurdle. It speaks volumes for his consistency and for skill of the Paul Nicholls’ stable that yesterday’s success in this Betfair Ascot Chase saw him quoted as second favorite for the Grand National. His winnings now top the £1million mark and yesterday was his 7th victory at Grade 1 level (six of them under Fehily) in a career that has seen two wins in the Betfair Chase, the King George (yes, at Kempton) and the Aintree Bowl. But the statistics are just the record, what matters is the performance and this was one to savor. 

The ground was riding softer than Noel Fehily ever remember it at Ascot and although the two mile five furlong trip is shorter than Silviniaco’s current optimum, his jockey wisely sat second to the pacesetting Royal Regatta and wisely didn’t turn the screw until the start of the long climb home from Swinley Bottom. When he did you could soon see the attrition telling on the failing pack to the extent that Royal Regatta and Silviniaco swung in to face the final two fences and the still pitiless uphill collar of the track.

Now Fehily demanded extra and the hooves of his chestnut partner dug deep in answer. They were in front at the second last with Royal Regatta’s gallop becoming so ragged that Dynaste finally ground past him for second on the line. But this was all about the winning pair and there was a special lean about the way Noel Fehily sent Silviniaco Conti at this final fence. Not for him a cautious pop over the obstacle with victory ensured. On towards the fence he drove, his heart long entrusted to the wings beneath him. To stand close and watch them was to feel a leap in the heart. 

To be close to someone brimming with pride can be a pleasantly warming experience on a winter’s afternoon and yesterday Paul Nicholls was positively brimming with the stuff. He was right to be. For as he confirmed the horse a Grand National possible he also related how he and his staff had struggled to get Siviniaco Conti back to his best after the debilitating effects of under belly warts and a breathing problem which needed the plate partly cauterized after his last run. “You never know,” Paul said afterwards, “the signs were good but I thought he might need another week or two. We put the blinkers on to liven him up and it is lovely to get these old horses back.” 

It was a day of other excitements, two winners apiece for both Philip Hobbs and Nicky Henderson; the latter starting it’s the highly promising Vyta Du Roc who may well be a force at Cheltenham. But it was hard to leave this magnificent stadium without the thought of how it should also host jumping’s greatest mid-winter day. If racing is serious about its future, the two courses should make happen.


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