With the Cheltenham Festival now within touching distance, the weekend was most notable for racecourse gallops and the performance of a juvenile hurdler.
Prior to Saturday’s racing at Kempton a number of trainers took the opportunity of gaining a further racetrack outing for several high profile Festival contenders. One of the stars on show was Colin Tizzard’s King George winner Cue Card. “It was lovely to see the horse so happy afterwards,” said a contented looking trainer. “The whole idea was to come and give him a gallop round here and get him on the lorry. We probably didn't go as fast as everyone else, but it was a day out for him and he's had a good blow out.”
Paddy Brennan was on-board and he added: “Unbelievable. He felt so fresh and well. He is ready to rock and roll. He is exactly where we want him to be. He felt like a two-year-old. We are just counting down the days.”
Many may question the need for such a workout, but getting some of that freshness out of the horse will prove crucial if Cue Card is to see out the Gold Cup trip and mount a serious challenge in one of the toughest looking renewals for years.
Nicky Henderson also made the most of Kempton’s hospitality by getting another gallop into My Tent Or Yours. A Champion Hurdle runner-up in 2014, he will head to the Festival having spent almost two years out of action.
Henderson, no doubt fuelled with enthusiasm since the withdrawal of Faugheen and Arctic Fire, appeared satisfied with the progress being made, when saying: “My Tent Or Yours has come on again and both Barry Geraghty and AP thought he had. Barry said he was still tanking at the end. We've got him as ready as we can without having a run and that's as good as we can possibly do.”
The preparation is far from ideal, but this year’s Champion Hurdle looks wide open, and if the Seven Barrows team can get the horse to Cheltenham close to his peak fitness he has to be a major contender. This is very much reflected in his price for the race; currently around 6/1.
Paul Nicholls remains bullish over the chances of Saphir Du Rheu for the World Hurdle, and he was joined on the gallop by Aux Ptits Soins, who also looks likely to take his chance in the feature staying hurdle. Nicholls said: “Both horses went well and I'm more than pleased with both of them. I said to Sam to sit on Aux Ptits Soins as he's not sat on him since last year. There's no point Sam making a decision now on what he rides, but I've a fair idea what he might go for.”
Despite the champion trainer’s enthusiasm, I find it hard to believe that either of his World Hurdle contenders can land a blow on race favourite Thistlecrack, especially on the back of such difficult preparations.
Nicholls would have every right to be more confident of winning the Triumph Hurdle, after a dazzling debut from the expensive purchase Zubayr in the Adonis. The youngster won with plenty in hand, and in doing so leapt to second spot in the market for the juvenile showpiece at the Festival. He travelled powerfully through the race, and when asked to pick up the long-time leader, breezed to the front at the last flight and stretched to a comfortable victory despite showing signs of immaturity.
The Ditcheat trainer said after the win: “He's just a mirror of Zarkandar that horse, and at least we know where we're going now and that's straight to Cheltenham. To be honest three weeks ago I would not have run him, as he was that backwards in his coat. The first time we schooled him on the grass was yesterday and he has just come alive over the last three weeks. We will go to the Triumph Hurdle now and are thrilled with him. He's a real true stayer and Nick said the faster they go, the better it will suit him.”
Just 24 hours later it was the turn of Leopardstown to showcase the likely stars of the fast approaching Cheltenham Festival. Gold Cup hopefuls Vautour, Don Poli and Don Cossack were put through their paces. The outing was probably most notable for the men on top, with Davy Russell on-board Cossack with Cooper taking the reins on Poli.
After the workout Gordon Elliott spoke of Bryan Cooper’s daunting decision as the big day approaches: “Davy sat on him there, and Bryan has to make a decision on which one he is going to ride. I would have no problem with Davy riding him.” Russell appeared less than choosy when saying: “I'd be delighted to ride any Gold Cup horse.”
Copper has ridden both at previous Cheltenham Festivals, with Don Poli a perfect two from two, whilst Don Cossack is zero from his two appearances. One would imagine that such a record would prove decisive in the jockey’s ultimate decision.