It's back! Rejoicing among trainers and jockeys as jump racing returns
The big names are back and raring to go as jump racing returns in Britain after a 106-day absence at Southwell on Wednesday.
The 2019-20 jumps season was curtailed on March 17, with the Randox Health Grand National meeting one of the biggest British sporting casualties of the coronavirus pandemic.
But a month after racing resumed on the Flat, the new jumps season finally kicks off with a competitive nine-race card at Southwell.
The meeting, however, will begin on a sombre note with a minute's silence before racing – scheduled for approximately 11.45am – in memory of jockey Liam Treadwell, who died last week.
Brian Hughes begins the defence of his champion jockey title with three rides on the card. Richard Johnson, however, has made his eagerness to win back the title no secret. His title challenge was hampered by injury last season but he is hoping for more luck this time.
Johnson said: "We've all been counting down to it. It's been great to see Flat racing back but I think it made us want to get back racing a bit more. It's great to have it back and we're looking forward to it, even if it'll feel slightly strange.
"Over the last two weeks I've been riding out at different yards and there's plenty of excitement within all of them, we all want to be running again."
He added: "It's been the longest break I've had off since I started riding so we'll all be having a bit of a blow after the first race. But I've been keeping as fit as possible.
"The BHA and all the different departments have worked hard to get things back and we're lucky that our sport has been one of the first to get back going again."
Coral installed Johnson as an 8-11 chance to reclaim the title with Hughes available at 6-4.
"The aim will be the title as it is every year," said Johnson. "The most important thing is to just get that first winner as soon as we can. We'll have to wait and see but I've got a nice book of rides and there's plenty to look forward to in the next few weeks."
Last season's champion conditional Jonjo O'Neill jnr enjoyed 61 winners last season in a breakthrough season and, despite losing his claim, is aiming to beat that tally.
O'Neill said: "It's been a long time, everyone is in the same boat but it's nice to get back into the routine. I've been kept busy at home and I've been getting into cycling and figuring out a few new hobbies – it's about making the most of the situation.
"You always want to better your last year but it's going to be harder. I can't ride in boys' [conditional] races and I don't have the claim. I'm excited, it's that next step into that progression so I can't wait to get back going."
The shutdown of racing came at a time where the Paul Nicholls team were in great shape – having won the Champion Chase and Midlands' Grand National in the previous week.
Nicholls settled for second in the trainers' championship and is excited to get going with six runners making the trip to Southwell.
"It's good to have racing back," said Nicholls. "We've been off since we had the good Saturday at Kempton and Uttoxeter.
"It's good, competitive racing and there's a few that have been balloted out. The BHA deserves a lot of credit for putting it back on and in such a professional manner. We've set an example to the world that we can race safely.
"I know it's been frustrating for owners who haven't been but I'm sure a lot of them have been happy watching it from home with a glass of champagne."
Olly Murphy is looking to start with a bang with a number of strong chances on the opening day. He runs Hunters Call in the 2m4½f handicap hurdle (3.10), making his first start since handing his trainer a first Graded winner at Ascot in December 2017. He beat Silver Streak and Verdana Blue that day.
The Warwickshire trainer said: "We're looking forward to it. The card looks competitive and it's great that so many people have supported it.
"It's amazing to think Hunters Call hasn't run since Ascot but he's a fragile horse. He's a ten-year-old now and he's not getting any younger but hopefully he can be competitive off his mark."
Evan Williams has a leading chance of landing the first race of the season with the consistent Oxwich Bay, favourite for the opening 2m4½f handicap chase (12.00).
"It's great to get the old job going," said Williams. "The BHA has had a brutal job but it's excelled. For us, it's a case of getting there and it's nice to be busy again."
Southwell's clerk of the course Paul Barker expects the ground to stay described as good ahead of the day's action.
He said: "We're delighted to have racing and have a full house too. We're looking forward to it and hope the trainers enjoy being back. Preparation has gone well and the weather has been kind to us. It's good ground for the start of racing."
"We'll have a minute's silence before racing and the jockeys will be in the parade ring, and others on the side, but maintaining social distancing."
Owners will be allowed back on course at Southwell and Kempton on Wednesday for the first time since British racing resumed in a one-day test.
Two owners per runner are allowed, with restrictions on their movements. If the trial is considered a success then owners will be allowed to attend all British meetings that can accommodate them, under the same restrictions, from Saturday.
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