Sunday 21 February 2021

Grand National Festival Possible Next Destination for Nicholls Novice Chaser

No racehorse trainer boasts a better recent record in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase than Ditcheat maestro Paul Nicholls. Over the last 15 years, he has saddled four winners and six placed horses in the Aintree Grade 1 for stayers.

Equine legends Bick Buck’s, admittedly best known for his exploits over hurdles, and Silviniaco Conti are among those to triumph for Nicholls in the Mildmay. This year’s Ditcheat contender Next Destination has quite a legacy to live up to, then.

His is an interesting story. During his younger days and earlier career, Next Destination was trained by Willie Mullins over in Ireland. Progressing from the point-to-point field into bumpers, he made-up into a top-class novice hurdler during the 2017-18 National Hunt season.

 Next Destination landed Grade 1 races at Naas and the Punchestown Festival, either side of a fine third behind Samcro at Cheltenham. Injuries then contrived to keep him off the track for 920 days.

Owner Malcolm Denmark concluded a change was a good as a rest and, during his two-and-a-half years on the sidelines, Next Destination moved across the Irish Sea from the Mullins yard to Nicholls’s care.

Now it was about making up for lost time. Before being belatedly sent chasing, Next Destination blew away the cobwebs with a run in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby on his return to action and chased home the well-weighted mare Roksana, herself a previous Cheltenham Festival heroine.

Rising nine years old, fences finally beckoned for Next Destination. He made a winning debut over the larger obstacles in the John Francome Novices’ Chase during the Winter Carnival at Newbury and then followed-up under a penalty in the Hampton around Warwick.

 After passing those staying tests, Next Destination holds entries at the Cheltenham Festival but Nicholls stable jockey Harry Cobden raised running in the Mildmay as an alternative target. “The three-mile race at Aintree might suit him,” he said.

“One thing I do know is this – the be all and end all is not Cheltenham in Paul’s mind. Aintree is on the cards.”

With feedback like that from the man riding him, it’s no wonder that Next Destination features among Grand National day 2 tips & predictions for the Mildmay. Running him at both of the UK’s end-of-season jumps festivals is not out of the question either.

Nicholls has plenty of options for Next Destination this spring. While his entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham looks precautionary, given how well he has taken to fences, choosing between the Festival Novices’ Chase (best known as the RSA) and the National Hunt Chase or skipping both and going straight to Aintree seems to be the choice.

Topofthegame represented the stable in both the RSA and Mildmay Novices’ Chase in 2019, winning the former and just being bested by Lostintranslation in the latter. Next Destination remains a horse of obvious interest after overcoming his problems and lengthy absence, and looks like he has a big shout in staying novice events over fences this spring.

Sunday 14 February 2021

Rebecca Curtis: Starting Again

Rebecca Curtis first took out a public training licence at Fforest Farm, near Newport, Pembrokeshire in West Wales in 2008. A former national level showjumper, Curtis served her apprenticeship with local trainer Peter Bowen, based in nearby Little Newcastle, and U.S. trainers Richard Mandella and Dan Hendricks, based in California, before setting up on her own.

Starting with just a handful of horses, Curtis saddled her first winner, Mango Catcher, in a handicap chase at Chepstow on April 5, 2008. The eight-year-old was, in fact, her one and only winner of the 2007/08, but she increased her winning tally to eight in 2009/10 and 25 in 2010/11. In 2012/13, Curtis enjoyed her most successful season, numerically and financially, so far, with 49 winners from 210 runners, at a strike rate of 23%, and £562,663 in total prize money.

Curtis saddled her first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, Teaforthree – who would subsequently finish third in the Grand National the following year – in the National Hunt Chase in 2012. Further success at the Cheltenham Festival followed, courtesy of At Fishers Cross – owned by J.P. McManus who, at one point, had half a dozen horses in the yard – in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle in 2013, O’Faolain’s Boy in the RSA Chase 2014 and Irish Cavalier in the Centenary Novices' Handicap Chase in 2015.

In the summer of 2017, Curtis split from her long-term partner, bloodstock agent Gearoid Costelloe, who had been instrumental in sourcing young, untried horses which, in turn, had helped to establish the reputation of the yard. By her own admission, Curtis endured ‘an awful season’, in which she lost half of the horses in the yard and made only limited impact, saddling just nine winners in total in 2017/18. The one highlight in that ‘transitional’ season was the victory of Joe Farrell, ridden by Adam Wedge, in the Scottish Grand National at Ayr in 2018; Joe Farrell remains Curtis’ one and only runner ever at the Scottish venue but, nonetheless, collected £122,442, or the biggest single prize of her training career.

Having vowed to ‘start again’, Curtis is still in the process of restoring the yard to its former glory but, at the time of writing, her horses are generally in decent form. In 2019/20 so far, Curtis has saddled 12 winners from 25 runners, at a strike rate of 48%, and won £62,364 in win and place prize money.