With the Cheltenham Festival now less than three weeks away, news on intended targets for the leading contenders will likely be released daily.
Yesterday, it was several of Colin Tizzard’s team that came under the microscope. A decision on Cue Card is yet to be made, with the trainer saying: “Whether he goes for the Ryanair or Gold Cup, if you read Monday's paper it was all decided but it is not. We will let that run for a while. Jean (Bishop, owner) is coming down for three days to have a little holiday with the family and we will make a decision then for sure. There is no reason why we shouldn't go for the biggest one. Is that harder to win than the Ryanair? Possibly, yes.”
Of another Gold Cup contender, Native River, the Dorset handler said: “We are a lot stronger this time round. He has just had the one run, but we had him ready at Christmas to run. He was equally as good (at Newbury) as he had ever been. He has got a wonderful chance. I think at the moment we have got it dead right with him. We've had a little skirmish round Newbury and sprinted for half a mile up the run-in over the last three fences, and that should put him spot on. He was ready to run first time, but he is bound to improve, as every horse does. How much he has got to improve, we will find out.”
Though not quite certain, Tizzard appears to be favouring the Ryanair Chase for Fox Norton. Last year’s Champion Chase runner-up has been absent since a disappointing performance in the King George. The trainer explained: “After he ran in the Game Spirit last year he was lame in his back and we had to give him a few injections for a kissing spine. He had that after this year's King George. That is why he didn't jump at all. He is absolutely fine now. We missed the Game Spirit with pus in his foot.
“I expect we will go for the two-and-a-half-miler, unless Altior frightens everyone off, then we might take him on. He does look the business, but we must not run away from one horse.”
The trainer looks likely to send Elegant Escape to the RSA Chase, though the four-miler is still under consideration. Tizzard said: “This is a beautiful young horse. Black Corton is a very good horse, but he beat him at Newbury and we were closing on him fast at Kempton as well. I think Cheltenham will be right for him. At the moment we are definitely leaning towards the RSA, but if a top Irish jockey (amateur) became available, that might change it.”
Nicky Henderson has also been mulling over the fact that he has favourites for three of the championship races. The Seven Barrows handler said: “I think of the three, Might Bite probably has the most to prove, whereas the other boys are proven. He has got to stay and make sure no funny quirks develop.”
He added: “It’s a nice position to be in, of course it is, and I’m a lucky boy. I’m fortunate these horses have come around at the same time.” Nevertheless, having such a powerful team heading to the Festival puts a huge amount of pressure on him and the team. He went on: “I’d rather have the pressure, or the responsibility of minding these guys, to get them there and get it right, than having nice peaceful nights and not worrying about it all.”
Alan King will be hoping for a better Festival than 12 months ago. Messire Des Obeaux, Who Dares Wins and Dusky Legend all managed third place finishes, but this year’s team looks stronger. The Barbury Castle handler has confirmed that Yanworth will line up in the Stayers’ Hurdle. He’d won a couple of races over fences during the winter and the RSA had looked likely. But having defeated Supasundae (currently favourite for Stayers’) at Aintree in April the team can’t resist another crack at the Irish raider in March.
The team have also announced that Who Dares Wins is being aimed at the Pertemps Final. Third at 33/1 in last year’s Coral Cup behind Supasundae, the six-year-old filled the same spot in a qualifier at Kempton in November. He ran a cracker in the Ascot Stakes during the summer and is sure to be suited by decent ground at Cheltenham. Expect him to be available at a tasty each-way price.
King is also set to parachute Elgin into the Champion Hurdle. This vastly improved six-year-old took the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last week and has won three of his five starts this term. He’s no Buveur D’Air, but in a very open looking Champion, he’s possibly an each-way player.
One of the team’s most exciting Cheltenham prospects is the unbeaten juvenile hurdler Redicean. An easy winner of his two starts to date, he’ll be running this Saturday in the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton. It’s a recognised Triumph Hurdle trial, and this fella has huge potential.
All doubt over Samcro’s Festival target was removed on Monday when Gigginstown racing manager Eddie O’Leary confirmed the horse would head for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. “He runs in the Ballymore and that’s final,” said O’Leary. “We think he will be a nice chaser over three miles for next season so, even though he won the Deloitte over two miles, he won’t be running in the Supreme.” Now odds-on across the board, the undefeated six-year-old is seen by many as the banker of the meeting.
Another well-fancied festival contender is the Jed O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner. As short as 4s for the Stayers’, he was taken to Newcastle on Tuesday for a spin. The trainer remains pleased with his preparation, saying: “It was a strong canter really, just to get him away for the day and do something different. We were really happy with him. It wasn't a serious workout. He's very fit already. It was just to stretch his legs and go somewhere a bit different.”
The trainer added: “It's fairly straightforward what we'll do between now and Cheltenham. He'll have a few easy days after being away and then just one or two easy pieces of work at home. He'll have a school, maybe two, as we get closer to the Festival. He's basically ready now. I'm counting down the days - nervously and anxiously.”
The main event is coming around fast. Plans for many will no doubt change and then change again. We’ll do our best to keep Geegeez readers updated as the opening day draws near.