Imperial Aura will lead what Kim Bailey believes is “undoubtedly” his strongest ever team into battle at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Twenty-six years on from completing the Champion Hurdle-Cheltenham Gold Cup double with Alderbrook and Master Oats, the Cotswolds trainer is excited about his chances of adding to his tally at the showpiece event of the season.
“In that big year I had, I had a horse called Simple Arithmetic, who we thought would win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and finished third, and a couple of horses run in handicaps,” said Bailey.
“I’ve never been one for running horses at Cheltenham unless they had a reason for going there.
“This year is undoubtedly my strongest team, (and) Imperial Aura was always going to be at the front of the house.
“We’ve been steadily building up towards this. It’s great that it’s coming to fruition – and now they’ve got to try to prove a point.”
Bailey’s Festival team were put through their paces on Wednesday morning, and the trainer was relieved to report all came through with flying colours.
He said: “We’ve had a very successful morning. We worked all the horses this morning and schooled them all in thick fog. The great thing about working horses in the fog is they always work five times better than they do normally, because none of us can see them!
“I’m very excited about Cheltenham – having fancied runners at the Cheltenham Festival is why we do it.
“It’s going to be very different this year – it’s going to be very sad (with owners and spectators absent because of coronavirus restrictions).
“I feel very sorry for the racecourse and incredibly sorry for the owners, because Cheltenham is Cheltenham and why so many people get involved in ownership.”
Ryanair Chase contender Imperial Aura won the now defunct novices’ handicap chase at last year’s meeting and was impressive in winning his first two starts of the current campaign at Carlisle and Ascot.
The eight-year-old then unseated David Bass on his latest outing at Kempton, but Bailey is not too worried about that.
He added: “We’ve done extensive schooling with him. He’s a good jumper, and I’m convinced something took his eye off the fence. I’m very thankful it happened there – and hopefully it won’t happen at Cheltenham.
“He worked very well this morning, and schooled very well.
“I’m delighted with the way the horse is progressing. We didn’t go for the Ascot Chase the other day, and we’re hopefully going to Cheltenham as a fresh horse.”
While Imperial Aura was always expected to return to Cheltenham with leading claims, Bailey admits the progression of First Flow into a genuine contender for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase has taken him by surprise.
Unbeaten in his last six races, the son of Primary earned his shot at the two-mile chasing championship with a thoroughly impressive Grade One success in the Clarence House at Ascot on his latest appearance.
“When I made the entry (for the Champion Chase) it was a little bit of a fairytale entry really, but what he achieved at Ascot was phenomenal – it was as good a race as I’ve ever watched in my life, I think,” said Bailey.
“I really enjoyed the fact that he did what he did, and it was the way he did it on ground that we weren’t necessarily expecting him to be that good on.
“It launched us very quickly to a place where we have to go for the Champion Chase – whether we like it or not. He became a horse that’s certainly good enough (to run).
“We’re going forward in a new dimension and in a place where none of us knew we’d be. We’re going to take it on with both hands and with both feet firmly on the ground.”
Bailey would dearly love to add a Champion Chase victory to his CV, adding: “I’ve never had a fancied runner in it – I’ve only had one runner in the race before, and that was a situation where the owners insisted on running him.
“I’ve always loved the race and loved watching it. I go back to the days of Viking Flagship when there was three horses jumping the last upsides in front.
“What a moment it would be to have the horse that passes the post in front in a race like that.”
Bailey plans to make a late call on whether to allow Vinndication to join stablemate Younevercall in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, or shoot for glory in the Gold Cup.
Vinndication has not been seen in competitive action since unseating his rider in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November.
“If we were to run Vinndication in the Stayers’, David Bass would ride – so therefore when we were working the horses this morning, it was important Ciaran Gethings had the chance to sit on Younevercall (with a view to riding at Cheltenham),” said Bailey
“I’m sitting on the fence at this moment in time with Vinndication. It will probably be the end of next week before we make a decision – as close as possible (to the meeting).
“He’s been schooling over fences and hurdles, and I really want to see where I am.
“My biggest problem with him is the last time he ran was at Newbury, and he unseated. Until he parted company with his jockey, he was jumping brilliantly and I need to have it in my own mind that he can do that again (to run in the Gold Cup).
“It’s a difficult one for everybody. I don’t want to say one way or t’other, and then change my mind.”