In a weekend of top-class action, I eventually opted to preview the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle from Cheltenham.
It’s a race I love, and one that has produced many memorable performances over the years. The roll of honour is a corker, with many of the best staying hurdlers having captured the prestigious prize. The event was originally run at 2m5f, though still played to those with an abundance of stamina. Despite this, a Champion Hurdle winner took the race in 1994.
Flakey Dove was a talented mare, and had an exceptional period of form during the spring of that year. She’d had a busy winter, running several times on the flat, along with numerous outings over hurdles. Her performance level rocketed when she ran-out a stunning winner of the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial. She then headed for Cheltenham to contest the Cleeve, and was again far too good for the opposition, winning easily by six lengths. Though beaten in the Tote Gold Trophy, she bounced back to form in the Grade 2 Berkshire Hurdle at the beginning of March, destroying the field by 20 lengths.
A couple of weeks later she arrived at Prestbury Park to contest the Champion Hurdle. The field included previous winners Granville Again and Morley Street, and though the mare was sent off a 9/1 shot, she proved too good, beating favourite Oh So Risky into second place. Her victory came a decade after the wonderful Irish mare Dawn Run’s success.
One of my favourite racehorses of all-time, Inglis Drever, captured the Cleeve in 2008. He’d already proved himself the dominant force in staying hurdles over numerous years, and was to return to Cheltenham in March and win his third World Hurdle. Owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie, the diminutive warrior became something of a cult hero.
One heroic staying hurdler was quickly replaced by another when Big Buck’s burst onto the scene. And it was his victory in the Cleeve Hurdle of 2009, that hinted at the potential of this hugely talented beast. He defeated race favourite Punchestowns on that occasion, and was to return weeks later to capture the first of four World Hurdles. He took the Cleeve for a second time in 2012. He clocked up a staggering 18 wins on the bounce, during a period of complete domination. He was a class apart.
And last year’s winner wasn’t half bad. Thistlecrack romped to a 12-length success, and was no less impressive when taking the World Hurdle in March. The latest National Hunt sensation is likely to have won the Cotswold Chase a few hours before the contenders line up for the Cleeve on Saturday.
And what of those contenders, hoping to carve their name alongside the likes of Inglis Drever, Big Buck’s and Thistlecrack?
The favourite is sure to be the Harry Fry trained Unowhatimeanharry. Currently on a seven-run winning streak, including two at Grade 2 level, and a pair of Grade 1s, he has looked imperious this winter. He’s unbeaten in three starts at Cheltenham, including the Albert Bartlett at last year’s Festival. He’s not a flashy sort, but he’s a powerful stayer that relishes a battle. Three nine-year-olds have won in the last decade, and he’ll be looking to put his name alongside, Inglis Drever, Tidal Bay and Big Buck’s. He’ll be hard to beat.
Nigel Twiston-Davies saddles one of the main challengers in Ballyoptic. He was running a mighty race in Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle, when falling at the last. Unowhatimeanharry went on to win, but the result was in doubt until that blunder. He’d marked himself down as one of the best novice hurdlers, when winning the Sefton at Aintree in April, defeating Bellshill. Still only a seven-year-old, there’s likely to be further improvement to come, and he’s a real danger to the favourite.
Paul Nicholls has won the race three times in the past decade, and on two occasions with a six-year-old. Old Guard fits the profile and has three course victories to his name. Better ground looks sure to suit, and he’s a player if coping with the step-up in trip. His last run was a belter off top weight in the Lanzarote, but he’ll need to improve again to be competitive in this. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he put up a bold show.
Sentiment plays a huge part in National Hunt racing. Horses longevity in the sport, gives the fans time to take them to their hearts. This is certainly the case with George Charlton’s Knockara Beau. His incredible victory in this race a couple of years ago, at odds of 66/1, was the stuff of legend. It was his one and only victory at a course he has visited for the past eight years. I was lucky enough to be there on the day, and the crowd’s reaction brought a tear to the eye. He won’t win tomorrow, but it will be wonderful to see him up close in the parade ring. He’s a gorgeous looking racehorse.
Warren Greatrex is likely to be double-handed, though one runner needs rain, whilst the other needs the dry spell to continue. Shantou Bob is the mud-lover, and should rain hit the Cotswolds before the off, he would have a serious chance. Classy at his best, he’ll get weight from the leading contenders, and has to be respected.
But it’s Cole Harden that interests me. The World Hurdle winner of 2015 needs decent ground to have any chance. He gets more than half a stone from Unowhatimeanharry, and at odds of 14/1 is surely worth a shot. His last outing on unsuitable ground at Cheltenham looked a fair performance. He’s a completely different animal on a sounder surface, and though he hasn’t looked the horse of old, he’s still only an eight-year-old.
I fancy the favourite will take all the beating, but I’m hopeful that an old Champion can rise again with conditions set to be in his favour. It’s Cole Harden each-way for me. Best of luck to all those having a punt, and enjoy the weekend’s exhilarating action.