In the absence of his stable jockey, Paul Nicholls has had his horses in such outrageous form that he could probably find a race for the two elderly shires harnessed to a brewery dray alongside the parade ring here yesterday. After all, he does love the big, brawny sort. As it was, he made do with success for two rather more conventional types in Pasco and Trust Fund, both ridden by Sam Thomas with the sort of brio that has become so familiar during the past month.
In the first eight days of December alone, Ruby Walsh's understudy rode 12 winners for the champion trainer. In seizing his opportunities after Walsh dislocated a shoulder at Cheltenham on 17 November, Thomas has unmistakably come of age. He knows that he will be back on the bench after Sunday, when Walsh makes his comeback at Thurles. But the lasting dividends for his reputation can be measured from the fact that Nicholls wants him to share Walsh's workload at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Walsh insists that he will be able to give his all to Kauto Star in the Stan James King George VI Chase, even though Thurles represents his only chance to clear the cobwebs beforehand. Even so, Nicholls has decided that it would not be prudent for Walsh to chance his arm – or shoulder – on an inexperienced jumper earlier that afternoon. Thomas will therefore keep the mount on Silverburn in the Stan James Feltham Novices' Chase, having ridden him on his debut over fences here last month.
"I spoke to Ruby last night," Nicholls said. "He's been riding out and is sounding very positive. He's confident he'll be absolutely fine for Kauto Star. But I did tell him that if he had any doubt whatsoever, he would have to tell me by Sunday morning, when declarations are made. We don't have to make a final decision until later in the week, but I don't see it being a problem."
Nicholls, delighted with Kauto Star's work during the morning, will also have a mount for Thomas in the big race: Taranis, beaten over hurdles since his first success over three miles at Down Royal. The sponsors, who quote Kauto Star 4-5, have cut Taranis to 7-1 from 11-1. "I think he wants the trip now," Nicholls said. "I think the flat track will suit him, and the better ground too."
With Denman on course for the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown tomorrow week, there has been loose talk of Nicholls emulating Michael Dickinson by saddling the first five in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. But he admits that Taranis remains more likely to defend the Ryanair Chase at the Festival, while Star De Mohaison will be ending 13 months on the sidelines when he resurfaces in the New Year.
Still, the fact that the scenario is even discussed underlines the trainer's penchant for staying chasers. He has found another one going places in Trust Fund, who was following up an impressive debut for the stable at Wincanton and is now likely to head for the Totesport Classic at Warwick next month.
Even Pasco, who won a maiden hurdle, is already perceived in the same mould. "He's going to make an awesome chaser some day," Nicholls vowed. "See the size of him. But he's still quite weak. He'll warrant a Cheltenham entry over hurdles, but we'll leave him now until he can run on spring ground, and see where that leaves us."
With Thomas now doing his bit for the vintage standards among contemporary jump jockeys, it is depressing to report an apparent breakdown in those usually set on the Flat by Eddie Ahern. As a rule, Ahern is a stylish rider, but this morning he faces an extraordinary charge from the disciplinary panel of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA).
Ahern was referred to London by the stewards at Southwell last week for his use of the whip on a horse called Marsam. They found him guilty of such a ghastly litany of offences – using the whip with excessive force and frequency, in the wrong pace and marking his mount – that the RSPCA has since made representations to the BHA.
Sure enough, the BHA will consider not only whether Ahern has breached the rules, but also whether he has brought the sport into disrepute. It is understood that he will be asked whether his riding reflected an awareness that his next breach would trigger a lengthy suspension. He has already served 33 days for misuse of the whip over the past year, and in midwinter would not miss any significant Flat racing.
The suggestion that any rider would mistreat a horse in such cynical fashion is, of course, a chilling one. No less obviously, it would be hard to prove any intent, but Ahern would face a minimum ban of three months if found guilty of conduct "prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing."