David Christie classes Ferns Lock as the best horse he will send to the Cheltenham Festival as he eyes up the St. James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase.
Christie saw Winged Leader edged out by Billaway in 2022, while last year he saddled 9-4 favourite Vaucelet to finish seventh in the amateurs’ contest.
However, the exciting Ferns Lock has always looked a class above his contemporaries and having claimed Thurles’ Carey Glass Hunters Chase at a canter for the second year running, he is now poised to be unleashed at Prestbury Park on the final day of the Festival.
“It looks like Cheltenham is the way to go,” said Christie.
“I would probably be in agreement with Ruby Walsh and a few other people in that Aintree would maybe be more his cup of tea because he has so much class and speed, but saying that, you can’t really not go to Cheltenham.
“We’ve been patient and we may as well give it a go and see what it brings us.
“He’s a really exciting horse and has lots of pace. If you were to run him in handicaps or even Graded races then you would be wanting to run him over two and a half miles or even shorter. He’s exciting and his half-brother won a bumper for Ben Pauling at Newbury, so the family have that speed and class about them.”
Ferns Lock was high-up in the ante-post betting 12 months ago when Christie decided to take a patient approach with his young and inexperienced charge.
He swerved the Festival in favour of assignments closer to home then and although set to get his passport stamped this time around and as short as 5-2 with Sky Bet, his handler still has slight concerns about his maturity for a task as mammoth as National Hunt’s showpiece meeting.
“He’s a big horse, but he’s a very immature horse in his head and we probably in an ideal world would like to get another race into him before Cheltenham,” added Christie.
“We are wary with younger and immature horses that no matter how easy he won (at Thurles), he still has to run three miles and carry 12st on his back over fences on soft enough ground. So I’ll have to just leave it and train him for Cheltenham now but the worry is his immaturity a little bit.”
There is little doubt where Ferns Lock stands in Christie’s pecking order though, with the County Fermanagh trainer describing the seven-year-old as “just a better horse” than those he has travelled to Cheltenham in the past.
He said: “Winged Leader was just beaten there and Vaucelet loves really good ground and has won plenty of hunter chases. He was actually sick at Cheltenham and we didn’t realise until we got back home. He was beaten 10 lengths but he was sick and we didn’t know and then the travelling and that brought these things out.
“But even when you take that into account, this is still a better horse than Winged Leader and Vaucelet. He’s just a better horse. If you asked me to put them 1-2-3, then he would be the best.”
Preparing his string this winter in the west of Ireland has proved tricky for Christie, but if an upturn in the weather can revitalise Vaucelet, he could be handed a second bite of the Festival cherry, with former Willie Mullins inmate Ramillies another on track for the Cotswolds.
“It’s been such a horrendous year in terms of ground and weather and for someone like me who trains in one of the most westerly spots in Ireland, you can’t underestimate how difficult a year that makes it,” explained Christie.
“Vaucelet is a spring horse and as the days get longer and everything else, if there is a bit of a spark between now and Cheltenham, then I would definitely consider him.
“The other horse who will run, all being well, is the ex-Willie Mullins horse, Ramillies. He’s just turned nine and I’m basically keeping him fit point-to-pointing and doing very little with him at home – that is his work.
“He’s getting his confidence in the point-to-points and we will aim for Naas on February 10 and if all goes well there, then we will go to Cheltenham.”
He went on: “You can go with a couple of nice horses, but it is difficult to win at Cheltenham and you need so many things to go your way.
“There’s plenty of us in Ireland who have good horses, but you have to have plenty of respect for the likes of Will Biddick and Bradley Gibbs, who won it last year, because they are just good at what they do and they deserve what they get. It’s OK me saying I have a nice horse, but they do too and they know how to train as well.”