Racing Post: live blog

Sandown season finale

Keep up with all the action from Sandown as the 2015-16 season draws to a close

  • Hello, and welcome to what promises to be a memorable day - both on and off the course - here at Sandown. Not only will Richard Johnson be crowned champion jockey after finishing runner-up 16 times, the outcome of the trainers’ championship depends entirely on what happens during the next six hours - it’s right down to the wire folks. Paul Nicholls vs Willie Mullins. Britain vs Ireland. Southfield Theatre vs Sir Des Champs. Me vs the free press room food. It’s all to play for.

    I’ll be blogging throughout the meeting, so if you’re not lucky enough to be Esher-bound never fear, you can keep up to date with all the action right here.

    Racegoers are starting to trickle in now the gates are open

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  • It’s a fairly sunny day here, and the track is currently good, good to soft in places after 4mm of rain fell overnight.
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  • No non-runners reported so far . . .
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  • So, what exactly is going on today, the final day of the season? Well, unless you’ve been living on Mars for the past few months (unlikely, although China are working on it) there’s one hell of a battle for the trainers championship this year. Paul Nicholls, champion British jumps trainer for nine of the last ten years, is currently £53,593 ahead of Ireland’s own perennial champion Willie Mullins - Whispering Storm added £763.20 to Nicholls’ pot last night when second in the 8.05 at Chepstow.

    With seven races ahead of us and almost half a million pounds in prize-money on offer today, we’re in for an absolute cracker - a showdown at Sandown, if you will.

    In addition to that epic battle, we also have a tantalising clash between the Champion Chase 1-2 Sprinter Sacre and Un De Sceaux (for Mullins) in the bet365 Celebration Chase, with former winner of both races Sire De Grugy also lining up. Is that not enough for you? Well, that’s pretty greedy but okay, we’ll throw in 2015 Champion Chase winner Dodging Bullets too.
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  • But let’s be honest, today is not just about the trainers’ title, it’s not about one race, it’s about Richard Johnson.

    Johnson, who has been runner-up in the champion jockeys’ title a remarkable 16 times to Sir Anthony McCoy - and always with a smile on his face - will today claim the crown as his own. He starts the day on 234 wins - three more than McCoy racked up last year in his final season.

    Since recording his first winner on Rusty Bridge at Hereford in April 1994, Johnson has landed a champion conditional’s title, won all four championship races at Cheltenham Festival and ridden more than 3,000 winners.

    Here’s a young Richard Johnson en route to that very first victory 

    And here he is in the winner’s enclosure with his father Keith (left), mother Susan and grandfather Ivor (right), who owned, trainer and bred Rusty Bridge 

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  • And going back a wee bit further, here’s a young Johnson on board his pony Tasty 

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  • Now this blog thing is a two-way street, and I’m sure you don’t want to listen me thinking I’m utterly hilarious all day (although I am a certified hoot) so do get involved through the comment facility on the top left-hand corner of the screen, or send me a tweet @katellenfidler
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  • Back to the Showdown at Sandown, and what do Nicholls and Mullins have up their sleeves for today?

    Nicholls, currently on £2,329,252 in prize-money, has entered 19 runners: Tommy Silver (2.20), Saphir Du Rheu, Rocky Creek, Wonderful Charm (2.55), Dodging Bullets, Solar Impulse, Ulck Du Lin (3.35), Southfield Theatre, Just A Par (4.10), Ptit Zig, San Benedeto, Silsol (4.45), As De Mee, Some Buckle, Calipto (5.20).

    Mullins, with £2,275,659 in the coffers, has ten ready to roll: Voix De Reve (2.20), Valseur Lido, Ballycasey (2.55), Un De Sceaux (3.35), Sir Des Champs, Measureofmydreams (4.10), Vroum Vroum Mag (4.45), McKinley, Burgas, Bellow Mome (5.55).

    That formidable list highlights three key points of the afternoon.

    1) Neither trainer is going down without a fight
    2) We’re in for an afternoon of spectacular racing
    3) I need a calculator

    Paul Nicholls: currently in the number one spot 

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  • Let’s take a look at the seven-race card in more detail, starting with the bet365 Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (2.20). Eleven go to post, with Tommy Silver in the Nicholls corner, Voix De Reve in the Mullins corner, and £31,280 to the winner. If the betting is to be believed, Mullins’ contender is the one to follow, but if there’s one thing I learned in the autumn after missing out on two Gary Moore three-timers here at Sandown, it’s never rule out a Cisswood Stables runner at this Surrey track. It’s okay though, I’m totally over it, despite the fact missing out on the second hat-trick was just sheer stupidity. It’s not like 14-1 winner Ar Mad would have helped buy a few Christmas presents . . .

    Ar Mad: one of a host of Sandown winners for Gary Moore this season 

    Recent Plumpton runner-up Darebin represents Moore in this race, ridden by his son Jamie and sporting a first-time visor.
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  • The Showdown at Sandown isn't just a tight battle in prize-money terms, the public's choice is a tight one too.

    Of 50 racegoers polled/accosted at the gates, 28 voted for Mullins and 22 for Nicholls.

    These lovely ladies were firmly in Camp Mullins 

    YouGov, I'm available for consultancy work.
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  • Next up it’s the bet365 Oaksey Chase, named in honour of the late, great Lord Oaksey, a much-missed member of the racing fraternity who thrilled generations of racing fans with his exquisite commentary and impeccable way with the written word.

    This is another important race in the Nicholls v Mullins battle, with the master of Ditcheat fielding Saphir Du Rheu, Rocky Creek and Wonderful Charm, and the Closutton contingent comprising of Valseur Lido and Ballycasey.

    Man of the moment Richard Johnson will partner the wonderful veteran Menorah, who is bidding for a hat-trick in the race.

    Richard Johnson and Menorah on the way to the first of two wins in the Oaksey Chase 

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  • 62 - that's the number of years since the British jumps trainers' title went to Ireland when Vincent O'Brien ruled in 1954.
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  • Unsurprisingly, our trainers’ title contenders have been busy all week, with Mullins executing a surprise raid on Perth while Nicholls asserted his authority left, right and centre, including with a treble on Thursday. He is currently 8-13 to regain the title, but before landing the Scottish Grand National was out to 5-1.

    Both have contenders in the bet365 Celebration Chase - Dodging Bullets, Solar Impulse and Ulck Du Lin for Nicholls and Un De Sceaux for Mullins, but I think there are a fair few people who will be rooting for neither, instead hoping for another fairytale chapter in the story of Sprinter Sacre.

    Once with the world at his feet after an almost unbelievable 19-length victory in the 2013 Champion Chase, racing fans drew a collective breath after Barry Geraghty pulled up Sprinter Sacre on his seasonal reappearance when 2-9 favourite in Kempton’s Desert Orchid Chase. Henderson’s stable star was diagnosed with a fibrillating heart but, after three years of hard work by the Seven Barrows team and vet Dr Celia Marr, he provided one of the highlights of this year’s Cheltenham Festival when regaining the Champion Chase crown under Nico de Boinville.

    A wonderful day. I wasn’t there. It’s okay, I’m totally over it 

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  • On such a momentous occasion as today, I'm turning to ace wordsmith Lee Mottershead to give us a bit more of an idea of what it all means for Richard Johnson and racing . . .

    A year ago we witnessed the man who became Sir Anthony McCoy anointed champion jockey for one last time. Today, we see Richard Johnson anointed champion for the first time. Whereas McCoy’s final coronation inevitably triggered mixed emotions, there is nothing but happiness to be had from seeing the sport’s perennial number two finally, deservedly, joyfully, become number one.

    By winning the final jumps race McCoy ever rode in, Johnson immediately picked up the baton from his great rival and friend on this very card. From that moment he was the one to beat and he has proceeded to beat them hollow. 

    Quite astonishingly, the 38-year-old – Dickie to his friends, Richard to his family – has ridden more than 100 winners more than any other rider in a season in which some expected a fierce fight between those aspiring to take over from McCoy. That fight did not materialise. Instead, we have known for months that this would be the day Johnson’s lifelong dream comes true, 22 years after he rode his first winner.

    This is the day when we can at long last describe Richard Johnson as champion jockey. Aside from McCoy, no jumps rider has ridden more winners than the man who finished second to him in the title table 16 times.

    Through all those years Johnson never once begrudged being in the shadow of another and never once said anything other than flattering words about the man who possessed the thing he most desired. 

    That is because Johnson has always been a champion in everything but name. He is as brave and resilient a jockey as we have ever known, an absolute gentleman, unfailingly polite, ever helpful and always a friend to the punter. 

    He is the epitome of what a champion should be. On this very special day, a champion is what he becomes.

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  • Let's keep looking through the card, and on to the bet365 Gold Cup Chase (I think I’ll get in trouble for calling it the Whitbread, but you all know what I mean). This promises to be a fantastic renewal - and a key one, with £84,405 to the winner. Twenty runners go to post, including last year’s winner Just A Par for Nicholls, but it’s another Ditcheat charge, Southfield Theatre under Sam Twiston-Davies, who is currently favourite.

    Brought down in the Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham he has been aimed at the race for some time - Paul Nicholls is quoted in today’s Racing Post as saying he’s his main chance of the day, while Sam Twiston-Davies wrote in his column:

    Southfield Theatre has schooled well since [Cheltenham] and takes the eye from a handicapping point of view. After all, this is a horse who finished runner-up to the now 163-rated Don Poli in the RSA Chase last year, yet can race off 150 in a race that should play to his strengths.

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  • Since Desert Orchid won the race in 1988, 22 of the 27 winners carried less than 11st - Southfield Theatre is on 11st 3lb.
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  • Speaking of the great grey, anyone fancy a little bit of Sandown nostalgia? It’s 28 years since the magnificent Desert Orchid won the Whitbread Gold Cup (it’s okay this time, it was really called that then), making all in a quite spectacular display of jumping that is simply a joy to watch. So go on, have a gander.

    1988 Whitbread Gold Cup Handicap Chase
    by espmadrid via YouTube

    Aah, those heady days before the arrival of health and safety - oh to have been in the crowd just chilling on the grass between a fence and a bunker as hooves thundered past just metres away. . .
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  • The main man @dickyjohnson77 is the centre of attention as a big crowd gathers at Sandown

  • Now when my esteemed colleague Steve Dennis was steering the blog bus at Aintree, he liked to mix in a bit of footie banter. Well, as a Geordie I should have Magpie blood running through my veins (that sounds horrifying, what a terrible analogy), but I’m afraid if you’re looking for soccerball insight, you’ve come to the wrong place . . .

    . . . WAIT! No you haven’t, as I just happen to have up my sleeve a tip from Racing Post Sport’s football editor Mark Langdon for today’s action.

    Luton were backed off the boards in pre-season to win Sky Bet League Two but the Hatters left their supporters mad after a woeful start to the campaign. However, Luton have improved massively since Graham Jones became their manager in January and can make it four straight wins with a victory over lowly Newport today

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  • Okay, enough of that, back to the racing. The fifth race on the card is the bet365 Select Hurdle, a Listed contest over 2m5½f,  with Ptit Zig, San Benedeto and Silsol for Nicholls, with exciting young mare Vroum Vroum Mag fighting the Mullins corner and carrying the familiar silks of Rich and Susannah Ricci. 

    There’s £28,475 to the winner, with £18,768 on offer to the winner in the next, the bet365 Josh Gifford Novices’ Handicap Chase. Nicholls fields two in the race, with Calipto currently favourite, while Mullins is without a runner.
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  • The afternoon comes to a close with the bet365 Handicap Hurdle, and it could still be all to play for. Paul Nicholls has four lining up, and Mullins three. Any theatre fans (specifically those who have seen the Book of Mormon) might enjoy Mullins’ runner McKinley, who carries the second string colours of Gigginstown House Stud, with Burgas the first string ridden by Bryan Cooper.
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  • Sure, it’s all about Johnson and the Showdown at Sandown over here, but there are some interesting maidens running at Limerick today, including Monarch, an unraced three-year-old brother to Roderic O’Connor, who provided fledgling jumps trainer Joseph O’Brien with his first Classic winner when landing the 2011 Irish 2,000 Guineas. O’Brien was just 17 at the time, incredible - what had the rest of us done by that age? Actually, I’d won three Donkey Derbys so I was pretty precocious - you guys are on your own.

    Also at Limerick we have Demi Plie, out of Ballet Move. I have to say, demi plie isn’t the move I’d have gone for, it’s not terribly attractive. What’s wrong with Soutenu En Tournant, Temps Levé Sauté or Grand Battement En Rond? Super catchy.

    Limerick’s feature race is the Listed 188Bet Martin Molony Stakes, with St Leger runner-up (after a fashion) Bondi Beach currently the evens favourite.
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  • Mission accomplished! Race card signed by champion jockey Richard Johnson @scottharris1988 #sorrynotsorry

  • It's starting to rain here at Sandown . . .
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  • Trainer Colin Tizzard has announced World Hurdle winner Thistlecrack will NOT be running at Punchestown next week.
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  • Thistlecrack has been crowned Horse of the Year here at Sandown, a result voted for by the public.

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  • While the trainers’ title goes to the wire, the champion conditionals’ title has been all sown up by Craig Nichol, winner of 36 races this season including the Grade 2 Prestige Novices’ Hurdle.

    Nichol, 22 from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, rode his first race at Perth in 2012 on board the Lucinda Russell-trained Vallani - who quickly became his first winner too after the pair were victorious in that 3m handicap hurdle.

    2015-16 champion conditional Craig Nichol 

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  • Regardless of the outcome of the trainers’ title, one championship trophy is making its way to Ireland this evening - Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud has landed the title and - remarkably - this has been done with just six winners. Of course, when those winners include Gold Cup hero Don Cossack and Grand National scorer Rule The World, that helps explain it!

    Michael O’Leary (second right) with trainer Mouse Morris (left) and jockey David Mullins after Rule The World’s Aintree victory 

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  • Also among the winners already today is trainer Nick Henderson, who received a special recognition award.
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  • If you’re worried all this Nicholls v Mullins talk is going to overshadow Richard Johnson’s big day, never fear. First of all, I won’t let that happen, and secondly, Nicholls has had his thunder stolen before, so he should know better than to go nicking someone else’s. 

    The year was 2006, I was enjoying my student days, and Nicholls was on the verge of claiming his first trainers’ championship - having been second seven times before. With a healthy margin of almost £800,000 over Philip Hobbs and £900,000 ahead of the legendary Martin Pipe, no defeats on the track that day could affect results off it. Of course, no accounted for the aforementioned Pipe, a revolutionary of the sport and the most successful jumps trainer in history, announcing his retirement. Queue journos in every corner of the country scrambling to cover what immediately became the year’s biggest story.

    Pipe was quick to reveal he had only made the decision the night before Sandown and certainly hadn’t intended to steal the limelight, but a look at the next day’s front page showed who was still boss . . .

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  • That turned out to be just the briefest of showers, the sun is back out at Sandown.
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  • Racing is just 40 minutes away, so let's recap how things stand ahead of the Showdown at Sandown . . .

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  • Back to Richard Johnson, and if you want to get an inkling as to how much being champion means to him, here’s an excerpt from an interview with the fabulous Lee Mottershead from back in 2011.

    As a boy, I was never infatuated by the Gold Cup or Grand National. I thought then that being champion jockey was the best thing you could achieve and I still do. It's what I've always wanted. It has always been my biggest goal but I haven't managed to do it

    And if there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on, it’s what an incredible sport (as well as sportsman) Johnson is, never complaining when finishing runner-up to McCoy again, always chasing just as hard the next year, and doing so with a smile on his face the entire time.

    As someone who has been known to storm out after losing a pub quiz and now refuses to take part in such an idiotic pastime, it’s a quality I greatly admire, and will never have.
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  • It won’t be long now until Richard Johnson receives the brand new champion jockeys’ trophy. Not only will it be presented by his friend and former rival Sir Anthony McCoy, but the champ is engraved on it too - poor Dickie, he just can’t escape the fella . . .

    The engraving, McCoy on his way to winning the Grand National in 2010, was chosen by Racing Post readers - well done ladies and gentleman, fantastic taste! 

    Trophy fun facts

    The new trophy stands 50cm tall and weighs 4.4kg

    It is made of sterling silver and silver gilt, with a lacquered wooden base

    Four craftsmen from Asprey’s workshops in its flagship store on New Bond Street, London, were involved in the design and creation of the new trophy

    It took a total of 11 weeks and 300 hours to create

    Every champion jump jockey since 1900 is listed on its base

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  • Champion conditional Craig Nichol receives his trophy from champion jockey Richard Johnson 

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  • Richard Johnson is currently on a tally of 234, from more than 1,000 rides this season - his highest ever tally in both spheres.

    A victory at Chepstow last night bumped Johnson's tally three above McCoy's last year 

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  • If you are still making your way here, watch out for this guy at the entrance . . . 

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  • Sir Anthony McCoy has been speaking here at Sandown about his close friend and former rival Richard Johnson:

    Richard made me achieve what I achieved, he drove me on and it's great he's getting rewarded today.

    We sat next to each other for the best part of 20 years with never a cross word between us

    On the Stobart Jockeys' Championship now offering prize-money, McCoy lamented it couldn't be backdated for his 20 year stint at the top.
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  • The runners are leaving the paddock for the first of today's seven races.

    Calculator at the ready . . . 
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  • Before the first we were also treated to a parade of champions - here's Johnson reunited with his Gold Cup winner Looks Like Trouble and trainer Noel Chance.

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  • . . . and the're off in the first, the bet365 Juvenile Handicap Hurdle- Tommy Silver for Nicholls and Voix Du Reve for Mullins
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  • Big McIntosh and Mattie Batchelor are leading at the fourth . . .
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  • Turning for home and Tommy Silver is a close second . . .
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  • Well, if that wasn't poetic I don't know what is! Wolf Of Windlesham lands the opener, but it's for a photo for second between Tommy Silver and Voix Du Reve . . .
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  • Mullins gets it! Voix Du Reve snatches second in a photo adding £9,240 to Mullins' haul. Tommy Silver earns £4,620 for Nicholls.
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