In March we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Four Day Cheltenham Festival. It seems to have been around forever, yet it’s just a decade since the Festival was extended. The introduction ensured a showpiece championship race could be run on each day, culminating with the Gold Cup on the Friday.
The rather dramatic change in structure also coincided with a purple patch for trainer Alan King starting with a victory in the 2005 Triumph Hurdle for Penzance. To be fair it was a year later when his stable truly became a festival force with the arrival of Voy Por Ustedes and My Way De Solzen. The former won the Arkle Chase while the latter held off Golden Cross in a thrilling World Hurdle.
Twelve months later those two returned to rule again, when it was My Way’s turn to win the Arkle with Voy Por Ustedes victorious in the Champion Chase. However, in King’s most successful of festivals two became three, when the diminuitive, and much missed Katchit won the Triumph Hurdle, making 2007 a year to remember.
The juvenile crown has become a festival favourite for Barbury Castle with the likes of Franchoek and Walkon going close in subsequent renewals. A year rarely passes without the yard having a realistic contender for the Triumph. But it was Katchit who went on to achieve his trainer’s greatest success when returning as a mere five-year-old to win the Champion Hurdle.
In recent years Nenuphar Collonges, Oh Crick, Bensalem, Medinas and last year Midnight Prayer have all kept the King festival waggon rolling. But there’s every chance that the coming gathering at Prestbury Park could be one of the best since that sensational raid in 2007.
As always the stable have live contenders for the Triumph Hurdle. Pain Au Chocolat was purchased from France by the Highflyer Bloodstock team, and he is by the same sire as Binocular and Blood Cotil. Slightly disappointing when beaten first time at Market Rasen, he’s made up for it since with convincing wins at Plumpton and Sandown. The latter of those was a stylish victory against several decent types including the valuable JP McManus purchase The Saint James.
King also has the talented yet slightly quirky Karezak. Already tried at the highest level in juvenile contests, he has more than held his own. Second in his last four runs including two trials at Cheltenham and a Grade 1 at Chepstow, he has showed a terrific level of consistency that makes him a great each-way proposition. He chased home the Triumph favourite Peace And Co last time in a dawdling race that would not have suited. A big scopey galloping type, he would appreciate a decent pace that seems more likely in March, and we already know that he handles the track.
Ned Stark is four from six under rules and although a lack of race experience may be a slight concern he will arrive at the Festival as one of the trainers most fancied runners. He holds an entry in the RSA Chase but King has said he is more likely to contest the handicap chase on the opening day, a race he won with Bensalem in 2011. A winner of the Towton Novices’ Chase last time at Wetherby, he has been given a fair handicap mark of 143. His only previous run at Cheltenham was over an inadequate trip behind the talented Ptit Zig.
The yard will look to repeat last year’s victory in the four miler with the aptly named Sego Success. Midnight Prayer struck gold 12 months ago, and this fella looks another talented stayer. His last run at Warwick was impressive, as after looking outpaced at one point he stayed on powerfully to win going away. The marathon trip at Cheltenham looks tailor-made.
The Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle is always one of the classiest races at the Cheltenham Festival and King will be hopeful of a big run from Ordo Ab Chao, who won on ‘Trials Day’ in January. This year’s renewal looks as competitive as ever with a major challenge expected from Ireland. But his win at the course last month was encouraging, and although the form may look just short of what may be required, he will arrive with a live each-way chance. There’s still a possibility he may step-up to contest the Albert Bartlett, and much is likely to depend on the ground conditions nearer race-day.
Smad Place has become a standard dish at Prestbury Park in March and has rarely disappointed. Twice placed in the World Hurdle, he came mighty close to winning the RSA 12 months ago. In a very open looking Gold Cup it would be a surprise if he wasn’t in the mix turning for home. He was beaten by Many Clouds last time when in receipt of weight, but he’ll run better on decent ground and cannot be discounted. Currently available at 25/1, those odds look more than fair to me.
The Ryanair now looks the likely target for Uxizandre after his latest disappointing run. It seems certain that the horse needs good ground to be seen anywhere near his best. He ran a blinder in last year’s JLT and the yard will hope that he can return to his best at the track. They also have Balder Succes as a possible for the race. He could head straight to Aintree, but connections will surely to be tempted if he runs a big race this weekend in the Betfair Ascot Chase.
Of course getting any winner at the Festival is a huge ask, but the Barbury Castle outfit appear to have plenty of bullets to fire this time round. King will arrive in the Cotswolds optimistic that 2015 may see a return to those glorious days of 2007.