Champion jockey Richard Johnson reunited with Coneygree in Betfair Chase
Richard Johnson will partner comeback kid Coneygree in what promises to be a fascinating Betfair Chase at Haydock on Saturday.
The champion jockey was lined up as the preferred pilot for the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero after regular rider Nico de Boinville broke his arm in a fall at Cheltenham last week.
However, he was committed to riding Menorah for boss Philip Hobbs in the Merseyside feature and, as a result, Aidan Coleman was booked for the Coneygree ride in the knowledge that Johnson would take over in the saddle if proven good ground performer Menorah was taken out on account of the deteriorating conditions.
While trainer Hobbs appeared keen to saddle Menorah early on Friday afternoon, it later emerged his charge would not run, leaving Johnson free to partner Coneygree for the second time.
Johnson said: "I've spoken to Philip and Menorah isn't going to run. It's sad for Menorah as he's in really good form. Hopefully we'll find something that's up his street in the next couple of weeks.
"On the other hand it means I get to ride Coneygree again and one thing we do know about him is he handles softer ground. It will be great to get him back and I'm really looking forward to it."
Coneygree has packed an awful lot into his career to date, winning nine of his 12 starts, but he has only been seen once since claiming the Cheltenham Gold Cup as a novice in 2015.
To say it has not been easy for Mark and Sara Bradstock would be an understatement, but despite all his setbacks the one glimpse racegoers did get of him last season suggested his huge engine remained intact.
The prevailing fast ground during the early part of the winter hindered his preparation once more, but at least the rain has arrived in time for him to run.
Sara Bradstock, Coneygree's regular rider at home, said: "Everything is good and Richard will ride him.
"I haven't spoken to Aidan myself, but Dave Roberts (agent) told me he was perfectly happy being the super-sub and we'll definitely put him up if we don't have another jockey again in the future.
"The fact is Richard has ridden Coneygree before and he's the champion jockey, so he was the first jockey we were going to turn to."
Of Coneygree, she added: " We have been walking him three and a half hours a day as part of his recuperation. Here we are, miraculously he is back and he feels really good.
"I know that physically he feels back to his best, but there is always the worry with horses about whether their self confidence has been knocked.
"I don't think there is any sign that it has, but the frightening thing is that he has to come back into racing at such a high level.
" The instructions to the jockey will be to ride him to win but, if he does get tired, to look after him."
Mark Bradstock said: "It is going to be quite an ask for him after having a year off, but we are looking forward to it. It has been frustrating and depressing, not just for us but for his owners, Nico and everybody.
"He is a pretty cool horse. Luckily, his owners are very patient. I have a wife who spends more time looking after Coneygree than she does me!
"He has done plenty of work and had a very good preparation because he did not have a complete holiday out in the field. Sure, one would have liked to gallop him more often on grass but apart from that he is in great nick. Hopefully, he will do himself justice."
Standing firmly in Coneygree's way is Colin Tizzard's Cue Card, twice a winner of the race already but surprisingly beaten on his return in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby.
Despite that reverse, Tizzard is in confident mood.
He said: "The ground looks perfect - it should be ideal for him. It's a proper Grade One race, as you would expect, but we're looking forward to it.
"He had a good blow after the Charlie Hall and I think he ran equally as well at Wetherby as he did last year. He then went to Haydock and he was very good, so let's hope we have him in the same form again."
With that Wetherby run under his belt, jockey Paddy Brennan expects to see a different horse on softer ground.
Brennan told his 32Red.com blog: " He loves Haydock and if there was one track made for him it is that course. When he is on song, he gives me so much control and he even blows me away at how good he is.
"One thing is for sure, and that is if Cue Card turns up on his A-game then Coneygree is going to have to be at his Gold Cup-winning best, if not better, if he is going to beat us. And that is some ask first time up in what will clearly be very testing ground."
Another dual winner is Paul Nicholls' Silviniaco Conti, but he has seemed a light of his former self of late, including when brushed aside by Valseur Lido at Down Royal on his return.
"He only ran in Down Royal the other day. He had to travel over, he had a race and came back," Nicholls told At The Races.
"He's well but you don't actually know until they run. He's just been ticking over, he had a little pop over a couple of fences and cantered over five furlongs on Wednesday."
Irish Cavalier beat Cue Card and Menorah at Wetherby but reopposes on 4lb worse terms and Rebecca Curtis is wary of conditions.
"Now he's a bit older he does handle the softer ground better, but there's no doubt he's at his best on nice ground, all his best form is normally in the spring," she said.
"We'll give it a go and see, I just think the ground might have gone against him. Last year I'm not sure he was ever fully right, he looked like winning the Paddy Power and then fell in a bit of a heap.
"Then in the King George and Gold Cup he was ridden to try and get the trip but that meant we were giving top-class horses loads of ground and you can't do that."
Seeyouatmidnight came up short in the RSA Chase in March but bounced back to be third in the Scottish National a month later and looked very impressive in beating Bristol De Mai at Carlisle on his comeback.
"On the figures we've got plenty to do but the novices tend to be underrated, the Scottish National was dominated by them," said trainer Sandy Thomson.
"We'll find out where we are after this, whether we go for handicaps or Grade Ones. His jumping has always been good but it was very sharp at Carlisle. The ground is in his favour, so we'll see."
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Source: At The Races