The big week has arrived and for my team here at The Bell House it means a pretty hectic timetable, one almost certainly involving trips to Stratford, Cheltenham, Huntingdon and Cheltenham on consecutive days.
It’s the kind of schedule we live for and a winner or two along the way would be just the ticket!
The Cheltenham Festival is set to kick off with two days on the Old course, where the heavy recent rain means they’ll almost certainly open up on Soft ground.
Those conditions certainly won’t inconvenience my day one runner, Ice Cool Champs, who lines up under Adam Wedge in the Ultima Handicap Chase (14.50, Tues).
A lovely big scopey horse, he won well for us first time out at Wetherby back in January, before going up in trip when tackling the Devon National at Exeter last time out.
His mid-division finish might not sound very spectacular, but he got a bang on the knee and did well under the circumstances to even complete the three and a half miles.
He had a few days off afterwards but has come back well and worked nicely towards the end of last week.
I know he’ll be massive odds, but he’s a talented animal and at nine years of age is in his prime, running in the colours of sporting and ambitious owners.
In off exactly ten stone he has a small each way chance in what is always a red-hot handicap, though as I always say, you’ve got to be in it to win it and there’s excellent prize money on offer for the places.
Elsewhere on day one, I’ll obviously be present at Cheltenham for the feature Champion Hurdle (15.30), a contest in which it caught my eye to see last year’s winning stable, that of qualified farrier Gavin Cromwell, back on the premises with the improver Darver Star.
Second in the Irish Champion Hurdle last time out behind Honeysuckle, I wonder if he might threaten another upset on this occasion. That’s where my fiver would be going at 12/1, though I have to confess to a degree of sentiment there as my father Richard was also a farrier before taking out a trainer’s license, one he held for 29 years, a spell which included two wins at the Cheltenham Festival.
Also on Tuesday, if Darver Star was to run well then surely Honeysuckle would be in with a major shout of chinning Benie Des Dieux in the Grade 1 Mares’ Hurdle (16.10).
I was a little surprised to see connections not go for the big one and try Honeysuckle in the Champion itself, but instead she features in a fascinating clash of two star females.
By three years Honeysuckle is the younger of the two, and I just love the way she goes about her job. Her rider, the irrepressible Rachael Blackmore, described her as “special” after her most recent win, high praise indeed.
On Wednesday I’ll be at Huntingdon, but from a distance I’m hoping to see Philip Hobbs land the Queen Mother Champion Chase (15.30) courtesy of his Cheltenham specialist, the JP McManus owned Defi Du Seuil.
The vibes around Altior’s hat-trick bid and his race to be fit after being reported lame aren’t promising, and at any rate perhaps this is the year the crown would have changed hands.
Defi Du Seuil has proven via his victories in the Shloer, Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chases that he’s an elite performer, one who already has a brace of Festival successes on his CV.
Chacun Pour Soi will make this interesting given he beat Defi Du Seuil at Punchestown in May, but Defi Du Seuil has improved since then and this is his stage. As a racing fan that’s who I’ll be cheering for anyway.
It’s back to Cheltenham for yours truly on Thursday, looking forward to running Happy Diva in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate (16.10). Solid, tough and consistent, she never lets us down and won’t mind what the ground is.
She’s been a fantastic flagbearer for the yard this season, not least her success in November’s BetVictor Gold Cup.
That afternoon it’ll be a shock if anything is good enough to deny Paisley Park a second victory in the Stayers’ Hurdle (15.30), though looking at the race I thought last year’s Ballymore winner City Island might be one to bag a bit of place money.
Much will have happened by the time Cheltenham Gold Cup day sweeps us all up on Friday, with the big race due off at 15.30.
How you go about trying to separate Al Boum Photo, Santini, Delta Work, Lostintranslation, Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy is anyone’s guess, though I for one will be rooting for the runner from the small West of Ireland stable, Presenting Percy.
Pat Kelly’s star lit up Cheltenham two years running when taking the Pertemps of 2017 plus the RSA of 2018. To my eyes they were two of the great stories of recent seasons and though he probably has it all to do now, ‘Percy’ loves Cheltenham and might have another big one in him. I’d love to see it.
Above all though, fingers crossed all horses and riders come home safe and sound. It’s a magic week but nothing is more important than those out on the track returning unscathed.
Seven days to go until the greatest show on turf and fingers crossed we are set fair for a Cheltenham Festival which suffers zero interruptions from the current outbreak of coronavirus.
With any luck the relevant health authorities can get a strangle hold on the issue and ensure as few people as possible are affected, but in the meantime we continue as usual at the yard, doing our best to control the factors within our grasp and run as well as possible for the good of both horses and owners.
It’s obviously concerning from a sporting angle to see the likes of Serie A football in Italy as well Six Nations rugby having to make changes, while the looming threat to the Olympics in Japan would be a real blow.
As I updated in last week’s bulletin, in our corner of North Herefordshire our stable star Happy Diva continues to thrive as we get her ready for her assignment in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate a week on Thursday (4.10pm).
She could be joined by Storm Control, an improving seven year old who is currently number 34 on the list of entries for the penultimate race on Tuesday’s opening card, the listed Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase (4.50pm).
‘Storm’ won handsomely at Doncaster just before Christmas and has had valid excuses for running below that level the last twice.
It’ll be touch and go to see whether he squeezes into the final field at Cheltenham, plus he has options at other tracks including an entry at Hereford this coming Saturday (4.05pm), but his owners are fun loving and ambitious and would leap at the chance to have a crack at a big prize at the Cheltenham Festival if it looks as though we’re going to creep into the final field for the Festival option. Watch this space!
In other news, a belated welcome back to the consummate professional which is champion jockey Richard Johnson.
Four winners from his first seven rides since being off just 37 days with a broken arm suffered in a fall at Exeter made us all feel like he’d never been away, and though he’s got a gap of 19 winners to try and make up on Brian Hughes in the next few weeks, if anyone can, it’s him.
Based just down the road from me in our part of the world, Richard is a giant of the sport and won’t be giving up his jockeys’ title lightly, of that you can be certain. He’s as hungry and driven now as he was 20 years ago.
He’s ridden multiple winners for both myself and my Dad down the years, including a hat-trick of Grade 2 chases on our stable favourite, the evergreen and much loved Top Gamble.
Remarkably those successes came in three different countries, via victories at Ayr, Newbury and Fairyhouse. Great days all of them and we are always happy to have him on our side.
Let’s hope both men stay fit and injury free and we get to see a great tussle for the title right up until the final day of the horse racing jumps season.
Cheltenham is just a couple of weeks away now and even for a compact team like mine there’s unquestionably a degree of pressure and excitement building.
Our stable star, the amazingly gutsy and consistent mare Happy Diva, holds an entry in the valuable Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase at 4.10pm on the Thursday.
Worth a chunky £61,897 to the winner, it’s a prize we’d love to have a crack at if all goes smoothly between now and then.
The welfare of the horses in my care comes before anything, but a close second to that is making sure the owners are happy and in on the plan. The Roseff family whose colours ‘Diva’ runs in are not only massive supporters of my yard, but also of the sport in general and love a good day out.
It’s a double whammy if I can get her there in peak condition on a day when they can attend and cheer her on.
The whole family were there in November when she famously won the prestigious BetVictor Gold Cup, a satisfying win which was due reward for horse who is very rarely not involved at the business end of some red-hot contests.
That victory also meant further confirmation of her affinity and suitability for the demanding nature of Cheltenham races, a track which not only takes some jumping in what are usually big fields, but also features a gruelling uphill finish.
In her last three runs at Prestbury Park she’s been second, second and first, plus she’s pretty versatile in terms of underfoot conditions.
Any race at the Festival is a massive ask, but it’s exciting for stable of our size to be making plans to try and strike gold on the biggest stage of all.
My Dad, former trainer Richard, was no stranger to Festival success, saddling both Space Fair and Super Coin to win races there in the 90’s, as well as seeing Miss Nero finish a gallant second in the Stayers’.
It was him who unearthed the diamond which became Happy Diva from Ireland, so it’s also pleasing to see a vein of continuity running through our operation.
Elsewhere, the spell between 10th-13th March isn’t just about the Cheltenham Festival and we daren’t take our eye off the ball!
There are opportunities to win races at other tracks throughout that week, and I have plenty of names pencilled in to try and exploit openings at other venues.
More of that to come in next week’s update, though for now it’s back to the hard work and build up in weather which hasn’t been kind of late.
Fingers crossed for continued success and happy, healthy horses.