Can the Northern trainers turn the tide and finally make an impact at the Cheltenham Festival in March?
The deep pockets of owners in the south, along with the dominant recent performance of Irish raiders has resulted in a barren period for our friends in the north. You need to go back to 2014 for their last Cheltenham Festival winner, when Hawk High landed the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle for trainer Tim Easterby.
A year later the journey to the Cotswolds proved fruitless – not even a placed finish to their name. In 2016 Lucinda Russell’s Sky Khan finished third in the Fred Winter, whilst last year’s festival proved slightly more promising thanks to a runner-up spot in the Arkle Chase for the Malcolm Jefferson-trained Cloudy Dream and a third and fourth place finish, again in the Fred Winter, for Nietzsche and Project Bluebook for Messrs. Ellison and Quinn.
All this is a far cry from a glorious March of 2012, when a northern raid produced six winners for four different trainers.
Malcolm Jefferson and Donald McCain were flying the flag, landing a pair apiece. Cinders And Ashes won the Supreme Novices’ for McCain during a wonderful period when the yard was home to the likes of Ballabriggs, Peddlers Cross and Overturn. The latter was runner-up in the Champion Hurdle that year and McCain also trained Son Of Flicka to land the Coral Cup.
Jefferson’s stable stalwarts, Cape Tribulation and Attaglance, were successful at Prestbury Park prior to completing a sensational double at the Aintree Festival. The 2012 Festival half-dozen was completed when John Quinn’s Countrywide Flame caused an upset to win the Triumph. And then Lucinda Russell’s hugely talented yet sadly ill-fated Brindisi Breeze captured the Albert Bartlett.
The north’s main hope for this year’s festival appears to be the Jed O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner. Favourite for the Stayers’ Hurdle, this six-year-old has looked magnificent this winter, especially in winning the Long Walk at Ascot last time. A relentless galloper, this son of Black Sam Bellamy keeps finding for pressure and ought to be well suited by the famous hill at Prestbury Park. He looks sure to be given a positive ride in the hope of ‘burning off’ speedier rivals.
Definitly Red’s win in the Cotswold Chase has also sparked excitement from the northern racing fraternity. Brian Ellison will now prepare the nine-year-old for a shot at the Gold Cup and he certainly looks an each-way proposition. Should the ground turn testing, there’ll be few finishing to greater effect.
Once again Malcolm Jefferson will head to Cheltenham with several talented contenders. Waiting Patiently has become the stable star and his performance at Kempton last time gives hope that he could be competitive in the Ryanair Chase. That victory also proved that he is not dependant on testing ground to excel. Nevertheless, his trainer will undoubtedly be on weather watch as the festival approaches, before deciding on a suitable target. He’s as low as 14s for the Champion Chase, though ground would need to be soft or heavy to take in the shorter trip.
Mount Mews had looked a promising type for the Norton handler, but his transition to fences has not proved seamless. His size and breeding suggest that this is his game, but he’s occasionally looked cumbersome over the larger obstacles. The JLT and the RSA may prove too loftier targets at this stage of his development, though it would come as no surprise to see him take-in the opening day novice handicap chase. The son of Presenting may also improve for the likely better ground at the festival.
Cloudy Dream was runner-up to Altior at last year’s event and has the talent to run well again in elite company. Not sighted since chasing Definitly Red in the mud at Aintree in December, his Cheltenham target is far from certain. Incredibly consistent under rules (runner-up or winner in last 13 starts), Jefferson will be keen to have him fit and well for March in the hope of another huge performance.
In recent times the only bright spot on an otherwise dismal meeting has proved to be the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle. It would come as no surprise should this again yield some form of reward for the northern contingent. Indeed, last Saturday at the Trials Day meeting, Look My Way ran a cracker for John Quinn when chasing home Apple’s Shakira. The gelding by Pour Moi is now on a mark of 135, which would certainly give hope of a realistic challenge in this year’s renewal.
Though Messrs. Mullins, Henderson and Elliott look sure to hog the limelight during the Cheltenham Festival, it is hoped that trainers from the north grab a piece of the glory. A festival winner may just spark that long-awaited Jump racing revival.