Ribble Valley out to lay down top-level credentials in Fighting Fifth

Trainer Nicky Richards took the Fighting Fifth in 2003 with The French Furze and is represented by talented youngster Ribble Valley in Saturday's Grade 1. Interview: Graham Dench.

  • Wednesday 25 November
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By Graham Dench

Nicky Richards might have hoped not to meet the reigning Champion Hurdler Epatante quite so soon when he nominated the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle as the first big target for his rising star RIBBLE VALLEY, but if the seven-year-old proves as good as he hopes he is he’d be meeting her before long anyway, so it might as well be now.

Richards has been associated with some of the most popular jumpers in the north since he inherited the licence at Greystoke on the death of his father Gordon in 1998, but the vast majority of them have been chasers like Monet’s Garden, Duke Of Navan and Simply Ned.

Watch the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 28th November.

There’s every likelihood that Ribble Valley will also make a fine chaser in due course, but Richards has high hopes that he is cut from a somewhat different cloth to his distinguished predecessors. For a tilt at the Champion Hurdle is the dream, and the Fighting Fifth should reveal whether or not it’s a realistic one.

“Ribble Valley has mostly done what we’ve asked him to do, and the Fighting Fifth is the plan now,” Richards confirmed. “I’d have liked to have got a bit more experience into him last season, but then we had lockdown.

“If he’d had those extra runs he might have gone chasing by now, and it’s still a possibility this season, but if we’d gone chasing straight away, I’d have been left wondering if he might have been a top-class hurdler, which is why we are doing what we are doing.”

Ribble Valley ended last season early with an odds-on defeat at Ascot, but he’s a winner already this season, having beaten another well-regarded hurdler with ease in an intermediate hurdle at Carlisle in October.

Richards said: “He just did what we thought he’d do at Carlisle. It went brilliantly, as he settled well - which was the main thing - and came through to win nicely. He didn’t settle when we took him down to Ascot last season. Everything went wrong there, and the trip just didn’t work out at all, but we seem to be back on track for a nice season.”

He added: “We just thought we’d get a little bit more experience over hurdles with him and then try him against the big boys at Newcastle - just to roll the dice and see if he’s what we hope he might be.

“We’ll see what happens on Saturday, and if he’s not as good as we think he is we’ll have to talk after the race, as he’ll make a super chaser if he’s not a top-class hurdler. But we aren’t thinking of chasing at the moment - we are thinking about winning the Champion Hurdle!”

Fighting Fifth week inevitably brings back memories of the stable’s 2003 winner The French Furze, Richards’ last top-flight hurdler and a horse whose extraordinary record in the race is still recognised by a novices’ hurdle on Saturday’s card.

The French Furze was already Ribble Valley’s age when he arrived at Greystoke, but his career was not yet halfway over as he raced another 40 times and didn’t retire until he was 13. It’s no wonder then that Richards enjoys talking about him.

He recalled: “The French Furze was a great old servant and a real character. He came along at just the right moment, when I needed a good horse to take to the races on a Saturday, and he never let us down. He was brilliant for us, and he ran in the Fighting Fifth seven years in a row, usually placed and winning it in 2003.

“We didn’t get him until he was seven, and he came from Martin Pipe’s with a fairly big rating, but when he retired six years later, he was rated even higher, and there’s not many you can say that about.

“He was a grand horse who finished third in an Irish Champion Hurdle (behind Ned Kelly in 2002) and beat Mighty Man at Cheltenham one New Year’s Day. The day he won the Fighting Fifth I think I was at Haydock, shouting my head off, but it was a great day.”

The French Furze ran at five Cheltenham Festivals and five Grand National meetings, yet Richards insists he was seldom seen to advantage in the second half of the season as he struggled to hold his form.

If Ribble Valley delivers on Saturday, he must hope history doesn’t repeat itself.

Watch the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 28th November.

Ribble Valley out to lay down top-level credentials in Fighting Fifth

Newcastle 14:05, 28 November 2020

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