Johnson White has been Philip Hobbs’ right-hand man for nearly three decades and he will join the Somerset handler on the training licence for the first time when Thyme Hill lines up in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham on Wednesday.
White, who first met Hobbs as 15-year-old schoolboy with dreams of becoming a jockey, is now a still youthful 49 and the former assistant hopes Thyme Hill can follow up his impressive victory in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day with another top-flight success.
Third in the Champion Bumper in 2019, Thyme Hill quickly established himself as a top-class hurdler, landing the Challow at Newbury.
Having gone close in the 2020 Albert Bartlett and been runner-up to Flooring Porter in last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle, his liking for Cheltenham is obvious.
He opened his account over fences at Exeter in November and while beaten by McFabulous at Newbury, he gained revenge on that rival, romping to a 15-length success when equipped with first-time cheekpieces at Kempton.
White feels the nine-year-old has every chance of beating another elite field this time round.
“We particularly kept him back for this race after Kempton and we could not be more delighted with how he is fitness and ground-wise,” said White.
“The ground won’t be a problem and he goes there with a very live chance. He won easily at Kempton and is actually very versatile ground-wise, but the softer ground just brings his stamina into play, which he has got bundles of. We could not be happier with where he is going into the race.”
Grade One success would be a remarkable start to White’s training career, and he added: “Even if you win at Cheltenham and people say it is a weak year or whatever, try going there and winning one.
“It is very difficult with the cavalcades who are coming from Ireland and this country alike. No one goes there confident, but you go there as hopeful as you possibly can be.”
Micheal Nolan replaces the injured Tom O’Brien, who has ridden Thyme Hill in all his previous eight starts since Richard Johnson hung up his boots.
White added: “Micheal has been second jockey to us since Dicky retired. We have every confidence in him. He’s schooled Thyme Hill a couple of times and that has gone really nicely.
“Obviously it is very sad for Tom, but a big opportunity for Micheal on the big stage, which he has long deserved.”
Despite quickly establishing himself with 34 Cheltenham winners heading into the Festival, this is a race that Gordon Elliott has yet to win.
He would appear to have his best chance of breaking that duck in Gerri Colombe, who goes into the race unbeaten in seven starts, with three chase wins, including two at the top-level.
His latest, in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown, came over two and a half miles and Elliott feels the longer trip should suit.
He said: “I’m not worried about the ground. He’s a good horse.
“He won his beginners’ chase in Fairyhouse, Limerick was the obvious place to go after that and then I was trying to split him and Mighty Potter up, so I went to England with Gerri Colombe.
“In Sandown, when the other horse passed him (Balco Coastal), I loved the way he dropped his head and wanted to win.
“Sandown is a big jumping test and I think, over a longer trip, he can get into a beautiful rhythm.
“I don’t know how good he is. If you work him with an ordinary horse, he’ll work with them, and if you work him with a good horse, he’ll work with them. I honestly don’t know what is underneath the bonnet.”
The Willie Mullins-trained Sir Gerhard bids to win the race on only his second start over fences and is one of five representing the Closutton handler.
The Irish pair dominate the market, yet the British challenge is a strong one, with Patrick Neville’s Dipper winner The Real Whacker sticking to novice company rather than the Gold Cup and Dan Skelton’s mare Galia Des Liteaux bidding to back up her Grade Two Warwick success under ideal conditions, with ease in the ground and the benefit of a weight allowance.
“She will very much appreciate the ground and has been in very good form at home,” said Skelton. “Without the rain we wouldn’t have been able to run her.
“She gets 7lb for being a mare and I think it puts her right in the mix.”
Thunder Rock finished in the frame in both the Dipper and Scilly Isles, and trainer Olly Murphy feels he again holds place claims.
“He’s a horse who’s puzzled me a little bit, as I never thought he’d be going three miles, though it’s definitely the right thing to do,” said Murphy. “I think his jumping needs a staying trip but his body probably doesn’t.
“He works like he’s got plenty of gears, so we’ll drop him in and ride him to run well. Hopefully he’ll come home strong and we’ll ride him to be placed. He’s in very good form and hasn’t done a lot wrong this year.
“The Real Whacker is about 9-2 for that race and we’re 14-1, but I think we’d have beaten him if we’d have got into a better rhythm at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Maybe we’re a little bit overpriced as such.”