BHA planning for return of owners and amateur riders on March 29

British racing has confirmed plans to welcome owners and amateur riders back on course from March 29 – with a mid-May return of spectators, in line with the Government’s road map for easing coronavirus restrictions.

The British Horseracing Authority announced its proposed schedule on Friday evening, following this week’s publication of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s four-step route towards the end of lockdown over the coming months.

The BHA outlined its phased intentions after meetings with Government officials – with a schedule which confirms both this year’s Cheltenham Festival and the start of the new Flat season on March 27 will take place entirely behind closed doors.

Next month's Cheltenham Festival will take place behind closed door
Next month’s Cheltenham Festival will take place behind closed doors (David Davies/PA)

Measures such as the return of amateur riders, suspended during the current lockdown, and owners are set to be introduced on a timeline which mirrors dates in the Government’s road map.

The first key date identified by the BHA is March 29, the second step in the national road map – when it is hoped owners can begin to attend meetings and amateurs ride again, both with the resumption of point-to-points and at fixtures under rules.

A BHA update read: “Following the publication on Monday, February 22 of the UK Government’s plan to ease lockdown restrictions in England, the industry Covid-19 group has carefully studied the implications for racing in England.

“Any changes to racing protocols will move in parallel with the steps set out in the road map and are therefore dependent on the Government’s timetable.

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“Since the plan was published on Monday February 22, the BHA and senior racing executives have engaged with Government to agree how racing can unwind its own restrictions.”

The BHA also announced details of arrangements available to owners as of March 29 – with enhancements to their raceday experience permitted only after the next step on the road map, from April 12 at the earliest.

The update added: “At this stage (March 29), racecourses will not be able to provide hospitality – and strict attendance rules will remain in place, including, including a health screening process.

“Further enhancements to the owner experience will be permitted from Step Two, which comes into force from Monday April 12 at the earliest.

“In line with the resumption of outdoor hospitality on that date, our goal is for racecourses to be able to re-introduce outdoor hospitality for
owners, in line with Government guidance.”

In line with the Prime Minister’s announcement at the beginning of this week, the return of racecourse crowds can be anticipated from May 17 – Step Three of the roadmap – with earlier pilot sports and leisure events already mooted in Government advice.

The BHA added: “British Racing is keen to play a role in pilots organised through the Government’s events research programme.

“British Racing will be making representations for racecourses to be allowed to host up to 10,000 spectators at Step Three, in line with the guidance on other spectator arenas, instead of the 4,000 for outdoor events.”

Crowds have been largely absent from British racecourses since the fixture list resumed last summer, following two months without any racing during the early stages of the pandemic.

Two pilot events did take place at Warwick and Doncaster, before a brief return of spectators in December until lockdown returned as coronavirus cases increased again.

The BHA’s chief operating officer Richard Wayman said: “We are all eager to open up our racecourses once again to owners, spectators and our amateur jockeys.

“Owners have continued to support racing through the difficult winter months, and we will work together as an industry to get them back as soon as possible, recognising that the Government timetable is still subject to conditions being met.”

Welcoming the news, Charlie Liverton, chief executive of the Racehorse Owners Association, said: “Owners have continued to support the industry unwaveringly through this period of lockdown.

“The financial contribution of some £30m a month that owners make to trainers, jockeys, racing staff and all those in the rural economy who are indirectly supported is critical to have enabled the industry to derive the majority of its income streams since June 1, 2020.

“We thank you for that support. Owners have not been able to watch their horses on the racecourse of late and we wholly recognise the desire to be able to return to the racecourse at the earliest opportunity.

“Working with industry stakeholders these discussions remain ongoing.”

Former Cheltenham chairman Lord Vestey dies aged 79

Former Cheltenham racecourse chairman Lord Vestey has died at the age of 79.

Vestey – whose wife Celia, the sister of Gold Cup-winning trainer Henrietta Knight, died last year, aged 71 – had a long and famous association with the sport.

His blue silks were well known, and he enjoyed success as an owner both over jumps and on the Flat.

Jamie Osborne, now a successful trainer, was on board when the Knight-trained Karshi delivered what was perhaps Vestey’s favourite day at his favourite track.

Owned and bred by Vestey himself, he won the 1997 Stayers’ Hurdle at 20-1.

“Both Lord and Lady Vestey were an absolute pleasure to have anything to do with,” said Osborne.

Lord Vestey played a pivotal role at Cheltenham in his time as racecourse chairman
Lord Vestey played a pivotal role at Cheltenham in his time as racecourse chairman (David Davies/PA)

“They were wonderful people to ride for and wonderful people to be around.

“It’s a very sad day, and my thoughts go out to his family. He was a wonderful man.”

Paying his tribute, Ian Renton, regional managing director for Cheltenham’s owners, Jockey Club Racecourses, said: “We are very saddened to hear of the passing of friend and former Cheltenham chairman, Lord Vestey.

“He was a true gentleman and genuinely lovely man who did so much for our sport, and played a huge role in creating the Cheltenham racecourse that we know today.

“He will be sorely missed by us all at The Jockey Club, and our thoughts go out to his family and friends.”

Waterlogging claims Cheltenham card

Cheltenham’s prestigious Trials Day meeting on Saturday has been abandoned due to waterlogging.

Officials had made people aware the meeting was in the balance due to midweek rainfall which exceeded expectations and an inspection had been called for 2pm on Friday.

An early update on Friday suggested it was touch-and-go following another wet night in the Cotswolds.

However, with standing water in places, some fences already set to be omitted and not enough space to redirect the runners around the waterlogged patches, the meeting has been called off.

Clerk of the course Simon Claisse said: “We were always saying that we had to hope we wouldn’t get what was forecast and we’ve had what was forecast, unfortunately.

“We’re waterlogged in too many places to find a way round and there is no prospect of any improvement in the next 24 hours.”

The British Horseracing Authority later confirmed the possibility of races such as the Cotswold Chase and Cleeve Hurdle being rescheduled is under consideration, but a final decision will not be made until after the weekend.

The ruling body posted on Twitter: “We are currently considering options for restaging some of the races from the abandoned Cheltenham Festival Trials Day card.

“However, as the current picture is so changeable as regards to the continued very weather weather and which courses are going to be raceable in the coming days, it is not possible to make any definitive announcements at this stage.

“We will provide a further update after the weekend when the situation with the weather and the conditions of racecourses will be more clear.”

If there is any improvement in conditions over the next 48 hours, it will come too late to save Uttoxeter’s fixture on Sunday.

A total of 30 millimetres of rain has fallen in the past 48 hours at the venue, leaving the course waterlogged and officials with no option but to cancel following an 8am inspection on Friday.

Fairyhouse’s Saturday card is subject to a 7.30am inspection after it passed a Friday afternoon check, while Sunday’s meeting at Catterick must pass a precautionary inspection at 8am on raceday morning due to the threat of frost.

Hereford will not be racing on Monday, after the waterlogged course failed a Friday afternoon inspection.

Cheltenham’s Trials Day card hangs in balance

Hopes for Cheltenham’s Trials Day meeting on Saturday are hanging in the balance.

There is still standing water on the track, and fences will have to be bypassed if the card goes ahead.

A 2pm inspection will take place following a further 10 millimetres of rain overnight. To compound matters, a similar amount of rain is forecast this evening – some of which could also fall as snow.

Clerk of the course Simon Claisse said just before 10am: “I’m heading out to walk the course again now.

“It has stopped raining now, but we’ve had another three millimetres since I was on it first thing.”

If there is any improvement in conditions over the next 48 hours it will come too late to save Uttoxeter’s fixture on Sunday.

A total of 30 millimetres of rain has fallen in the past 48 hours, leaving the course waterlogged and officials with no option but to cancel following an 8am inspection on Friday.

Santini and Bristol De Mai face Cotswold Chase rematch

Last year’s one-two Santini and Bristol De Mai are among eight horses declared for Saturday’s Paddy Power “45 Sleeps To Cheltenham” Cotswold Chase.

Nicky Henderson’s Santini saw off the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Bristol De Mai by three and a half lengths in last year’s renewal of the Grade Two contest, before going on to finish a close second to Al Boum Photo in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

He has failed to rediscover that level of form so far this season – most recently finishing fifth in the King George at Kempton – and Henderson has already voiced concerns about the prospect of ultra-testing conditions in the Cotswolds this weekend.

Henderson told Sky Sports Racing: “Our feeling, even at the beginning of the week, was if it was heavy ground we’d have to think again.

“It is a trial and it’s very important with him that he enjoys it.

“He loves work and loves jumping and loves racing, but I don’t want to take that away from him by giving him a very tough race in really heavy ground – I want to find a race that he’s actually going to enjoy.

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“I’m not saying I want an easy race for him as there’s no such thing. The only alternative would be to wait for the Denman Chase at Newbury and we have Champ going there, but you can’t not run a horse just because you have another one in the race.

“You’ve got to go where is right for the horses and we are short of options”

With stable jockey Nico de Boinville heading to Doncaster to partner star novice chaser Shishkin and Jerry McGrath sidelined by injury, Aidan Coleman has been booked to partner Santini for the first time.

Bristol De Mai is a couple of pounds better off for the rematch and loves nothing more than a slog in the mud, as he proved when winning his third Betfair Chase at Haydock in November.

Colin Tizzard’s 2018 Gold Cup hero Native River returns to the Cotswolds for the first time since finishing fourth in the 2019 renewal of the blue riband, having missed the race last season through injury.

The 11-year-old proved he retains plenty of ability when a close-up third behind Nick Alexander’s Lake View Lad and Santini in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree last month, although several fences were missed because of low sun.

Lake View Lad gets the opportunity to prove that triumph was no fluke under champion jockey Brian Hughes, while Harry Whittington saddles King George fourth Saint Calvados.

The Conditional (David Bridgwater), Yorkhill (Sandy Thomson) and Yala Enki (Paul Nicholls) are the other hopefuls.

Paisley Park is set to face five rivals when bidding for a third straight victory in the Paddy Power Cleeve Hurdle.

Emma Lavelle’s stable star suffered a well-documented heart problem when defending his crown in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last season, but has bounced back to finish second in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and win the Long Walk at Ascot this term.

His biggest threat could be Olly Murphy’s Itchy Feet, who reverts to the smaller obstacles after displaying high-class form over fences.

David Pipe runs the prolific Main Fact, although he has plenty of ground to make up on Paisley Park on their Ascot meeting last month.

Pipe has a second string to his bow in Ramses De Teillee, with the teenage Unowhatimeanharry and Irish challenger Decor Irlandais completing the field.

Nassalam looks to have a good opportunity to regain the winning thread in the opening JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial.

Gary Moore’s dual Fontwell scorer was no match for Pipe’s Adagio in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow three weeks ago, but will be widely expected to account for his three rivals this weekend.

Aso heads a field of 11 runners for the Paddy Power Millionaire Trophy Handicap Chase, while Nicky Martin’s stable star Bear Ghylls puts his unbeaten record on the line against four opponents in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

Rain leads to inspection for Trials Day card at Cheltenham

Saturday’s high-profile fixture at Cheltenham is in doubt after officials called a precautionary inspection for 2pm on Friday.

Prestbury Park is due its usually informative Festival Trials Day – the track’s final meeting before the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Clerk of the course Simon Claisse had to abandon racing on New Year’s Day because of waterlogging, and the same issue is causing concern this weekend for a card set to feature four Grade Two races – including the course’s Gold Cup trial, the Cotswold Chase.

Claisse said on Thursday morning: “The ground is currently heavy, having had 15 millimetres of rain overnight and 30 for the week so far, which exceeded what we thought we’d get before racing.

“We’re just about raceable at the moment, if we took a few fences out, but the forecast – upon which we made the judgment call this morning to hold a precautionary inspection tomorrow – has subsequently got worse.

“My levels of optimism are declining, but there’s always hope.

“We need less rain to fall than is forecast – what happens through the night will be key as to where we end up.”

Having endured freezing temperatures earlier in the week, Thursday’s Wetherby meeting was called off shortly before 8am due to waterlogging after heavy rain overnight.

As the jumps calendar suffers through the winter weather, Friday’s meeting at Huntingdon has already been abandoned, along with Sunday’s Fontwell fixture, Tuesday’s cards at Newcastle and Lingfield and Wednesday’s action at Leicester.

However, Lingfield and Newcastle will now stage jumpers’ bumpers cards in place of their planned fixtures on Monday and Tuesday respectively, while there will be an additional all-weather meeting at Wolverhampton on Sunday.

Doncaster’s two-day fixture is scheduled to begin on Friday, where clerk of the course Roderick Duncan said: “The ground is going to continue to ease. We’ve now had 11 millimetres of rain, but it’s not been raining as heavily as forecast.

“On one or two forecasts suggest there is a risk of wintry showers on Saturday morning. There’s not enough certainty for me to be over-concerned yet, and not all forecasts are saying that, but that is the only caveat at the moment.”

Native River ready for Cotswold challenge

Owner Garth Broom is optimistic the fire still burns brightly in Native River as the 2018 Gold Cup winner returns to the scene of his finest hour for the Cotswold Chase.

Now an 11-year-old, Broom’s pride and joy has won more than £1million in prize-money – with a Welsh National and a Hennessy Gold Cup also on his record.

He has won Newbury’s Denman Chase three times, too. But he picked up an injury in that race last year – a setback which ruled him out of the Gold Cup – and along with trainer Colin Tizzard, his owner has agreed a change in tack this time as he heads to Cheltenham on Saturday instead.

It will be Native River’s second run of the season, after he finished a close third to Lake View Lad in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree last month.

“We know he’ll go in the heavy ground at least, so that will be in his favour,” said Broom.

“I thought he ran really well at Aintree first time out. If they hadn’t taken all the fences out (for low sun) I think he’d probably have won, but that’s just my opinion.

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“He had Frodon well behind him, and he came out and won the King George. Considering it was almost a Flat race, I thought he acquitted himself really well.

“He might be 11, but he’s never been over-raced. If they are running in the top class and in testing conditions you can’t run them too often. There aren’t that many races for him these days, given his rating and the distance he needs.

Native River came out on top in a great battle with Might Bite for the 2018 Gold Cup
Native River came out on top in a great battle with Might Bite for the 2018 Gold Cup (Nigel French/PA)

“We did actually put him in the Welsh National to have a look. But he’d have been giving lots of weight to young improvers, like the winner – and that’s not fair on him.

“As we weren’t ready for the Betfair, we went for the Many Clouds. He doesn’t like Kempton, so the King George wasn’t on the radar. Last year we waited for the Denman – but it jarred him up, and we missed the Gold Cup.”

This weekend’s race has attracted another multiple Grade One winner in Bristol De Mai and last year’s Gold Cup second Santini – although his participation is not assured – as well as Aintree winner Lake View Lad.

“Even if Santini doesn’t run there’s still Bristol De Mai, who will like the ground, but he seems to be very well – from what we can see anyway!” said Broom.

“We keep having videos sent to us, because we can’t go to see him at the moment of course. He seems full of himself on the gallops. He’s 11 now, so we can’t expect miracles – but I hope he runs well, and then it’s on to the Gold Cup.”

Every year a debate about the Grand National is brought up between connections, but this year more than ever Broom and his wife Anne seem against it.

“We’re not really National people – I wouldn’t advise people putting any money ante-post on him,” he said.

“I don’t even know if we’ll enter him. We find there’s too many horses, it’s a lottery – and usually it’s not his ground in April.

“If our aim was to win the Grand National then fair enough, but ours isn’t. If you were to think with your head then he’s made for it – but we tend to think with our hearts!

“He doesn’t owe us anything, he’s been absolutely brilliant. If the ground was right the (Aintree) Bowl might be more on the agenda, but it depends how he runs on Saturday and in the Gold Cup. If he has a hard race there then we wouldn’t ask him to go to Aintree.”

Arguably his biggest barrier to success could be the form of the Tizzard yard, who are without a winner this month – but Broom is partly to blame for that.

“There have been signs of improvement from the yard – he’s had a few seconds and third,” said Broom.

“He (Tizzard) was actually second to one of our horses at Wincanton, Brinkley – which didn’t go down well!”

Santini not certain to line up in Cotswold chase

Last season’s Gold Cup runner-up Santini is only “50-50” to run in the Paddy Power-sponsored Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday.

Nicky Henderson is not keen to run the nine-year-old, who was second to Al Boum Photo in March, on very testing ground so close to his main assignment.

He will hold discussions with owner Richard Kelvin-Hughes and a decision will be taken over whether he heads straight to the Festival or not.

“I need to talk to Richard Kelvin-Hughes to be fair,” Henderson told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast.

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“I would be nervous about him in heavy ground because he doesn’t like it. These races are more about – it is called Trials Day – it is a trial. If he’s going to hate it it will do more harm than good.

“We’re just juggling balls and I’ve got to say it’s 50-50. If it was heavy ground, I’ve got to discuss with Richard, but I would say to him it’s not going to be ideal and he’s a horse you have to keep shovelling on the coal, so if he’s not having a happy time it’s not what he wants at this stage.

“You could bash on (to the spring). There are ways of doing it these days, there are various racecourses and all-weather tracks. The only problem with him is he loves work.

“We might have to think of something else, but the ground is heavy everywhere and it’s not going to be any better next week or the week after, I suspect. It is a nightmare at the moment.”

Henderson could have waited for Newbury’s Denman Chase, but he already has a runner pencilled in for that who has not been seen this season.

“Champ is definitely going for the Denman at Newbury, that is a definite plan,” said Henderson.

“He’s had a big away day where he jumped very well. He needed it, and it was our attempt to have a sort of race before the Denman so it won’t take so much out of him come the day. He’s in good form.

Shishkin is heading to Doncaster
Shishkin is heading to Doncaster (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“We haven’t got as far as who will ride him.”

Adding another complication to the Santini situation is the fact red-hot Arkle favourite Shishkin is due to run at Doncaster on Saturday, leaving Nico de Boinville with a potential dilemma.

“Nico and I think the one thing we must do is run Shishkin at Doncaster. Whether Nico will be at Doncaster, I suppose we have to decide what Santini does,” added Henderson.

Cross-country plan for Potters Corner before National

Potters Corner is to have the Glenfarclas Chase over the cross-country fences at the Cheltenham Festival as his prep race for the Randox Health Grand National.

Trainer Christian Williams reports the 11-year-old, winner of the Midlands and Welsh Grand Nationals, to be in good form following his run over hurdles in a Pertemps qualifier at Warwick this month.

“Warwick would be a sharp-enough track for him, and he’s got a career-high mark over hurdles and is an 11-year-old, so he probably had it all to do,” said the Bridgend trainer.

“We were very pleased. He ran well until turning in. It was a nice positive run.

“He’ll go straight to the cross-country race at Cheltenham, I’d have thought.

“That will be his prep for the National.”

Potters Corner tackled the cross-country course at Cheltenham for the first time in November, finishing third to Kingswell Theatre.

Paisley Park all set for Cheltenham return

Star staying hurdler Paisley Park is among nine entries for Saturday’s Paddy Power Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Emma Lavelle’s stalwart got back to winning ways last time out in a thrilling finish with Thyme Hill in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.

Philip Hobbs has not entered his charge this time around, but the Ascot form was boosted at the weekend when Roksana, who was third, was an easy winner.

“On paper it might not look as tough as the Long Walk, that’s true, and he’s in great order,” said Lavelle.

“What will be nice will be to go back to Cheltenham and have a nice experience after what happened at the Festival last year.

“While I’m glad there’s not going to be a massive field, I want him to have a nice experience. I certainly wouldn’t say it looks easy, though – all races at this level are difficult.

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“We’ll be giving weight away, but he seems in great order and the timing of this race is absolutely perfect as we can let him down a bit after it.

“Obviously the ground looks like being testing, but we can’t do much about that. We’d love it if the forecast was a bit better and it wasn’t a real slog, but it is what it is. He loves racing, this horse.”

Main Fact has been a revelation this season
Main Fact has been a revelation this season (Tim Goode/PA)

Harry Fry’s veteran Unowhatimeanharry is among potential opponents, along with the David Pipe duo of Ramses De Teillee and Main Fact, who had his long winning run ended in the Long Walk.

Itchy Feet could return to hurdles for Olly Murphy, with Third Wind (Hughie Morrison) another possible.

Nicky Henderson’s Gold Cup runner-up Santini is among 10 contenders in the Paddy Power ’45 Sleeps To Cheltenham’ Cotswold Chase.

He has yet to win in two outings this season, at Aintree and when fifth in the King George VI Chase.

Santini (in grey) was just touched off in the Gold Cup
Santini (in grey) was just touched off in the Gold Cup (Jacob King/PA)

Harry Whittington’s Saint Calvados, fourth in the King George, rates as a serious danger as does Bristol De Mai, fresh from this third win in the Betfair Chase.

One who could be out again quickly is Paul Nicholls’ Yala Enki, who only won at Taunton on Saturday.

“If it poured with rain on Thursday and Friday I would be kicking myself if I hadn’t put him in the race, though it is a tentative entry,” said Nicholls.

“He is hard to place off his mark of 161 and has not got any kind of penalty in this race.

“Some of the others that are going to run in the Gold Cup might not want a slog at this stage round Cheltenham, so it could cut up.”

Rehearsal Chase winner Yorkhill, David Bridgwater’s The Conditional and a previous Gold Cup winner in Native River (Colin Tizzard) are among the entries.

Nicky Martin’s Bear Ghylls is among 14 in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, with Lecale’s Article and Wilde About Oscar in the mix.

The Pipe-trained Adagio, already a Grade One winner this season, is one of 15 in the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle along with Gary Moore’s Nassalam, who was second to him at Chepstow.

Heross Du Seuil, Honneur D’Ajonc and Sage Advice ensure plenty of strength in depth.

‘Next stop Cheltenham’ as Envoi Allen marches on

All roads lead back to the Cheltenham Festival for Envoi Allen following his latest demolition job at Punchestown.

Already a dual winner at the showpiece meeting, having won the Champion Bumper and the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in the past two seasons, the Cheveley Park Stud-owned gelding is this year bound for the Marsh Novices’ Chase – for which he is odds-on with most bookmakers.

Gordon Elliott’s charge appeared to face his toughest test over fences to date in conceding 11lb to Grade One-winning hurdler Asterion Forlonge earlier this month.

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However, the latter crashed out at the very first fence, leaving Envoi Allen clear to extend his unbeaten record under rules to 11 with the minimum of fuss.

Chris Richardson, Cheveley Park’s managing director, said: “It was a shame that the horse was never able to have a proper race, which is what we really wanted to do, rather than what ended up being a piece of work really.

“It was a bit of anti-climax in the end. We were hoping we’d have a bit of a race on our hands, but sadly it didn’t happen.

“He came out of the race fine and bouncing – he was having a ball in his field the next day, having a roll in the mud.

“He’s a very intelligent horse – he knows exactly what he’s up to – and we’re lucky to have him.

“Cheltenham is the next stop.”

Envoi Allen and Davy Russell return after winning the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last year
Envoi Allen and Davy Russell return after winning the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last year (Andrew Matthews/PA)

More renowned for success on the Flat, Cheveley Park Stud has become a formidable force in the National Hunt sphere in the last couple of years.

Envoi Allen is one of several leading hopes for the team at this year’s Festival, along with the likes of Cheltenham Gold Cup hope A Plus Tard and Champion Bumper favourite Sir Gerhard.

However, Richardson admits he will have mixed emotions watching the horses in action following the recent death of David Thompson, joint-owner of Cheveley Park along with his wife Patricia.

“The Flat is very much more my scene, but it’s been fantastic to be involved with the National Hunt horses,” he added.

“It’s obviously sad the boss isn’t here to watch the horses that he loved so much, and enjoy the new adventure he embarked upon.

“Let’s hope that they continue to do him proud.”

Dreal Deal fuels McNally’s Festival dream

Ronan McNally is dreaming of Cheltenham Festival glory with Dreal Deal following his latest triumph at Punchestown.

The six-year-old was rated just 84 when his winning sequence began at Navan in September, since when his progress has been nothing short of remarkable.

After successfully reverting to the Flat with back-to-back wins in October, Dreal Deal has won three more races over hurdles – completing his six-timer with a Grade Two success in the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle.

“Sunday was an amazing day – we really enjoyed it. Hopefully there are even better things to come,” McNally said.

“We did think he was a good horse when we bought him. The fellow that advised me to buy him thought he was the best horse he’d ever had through his hands.

“It’s well documented we’ve had aspergillus, and he never really had a chance to show his best because of that.

“Now he’s got his health, he’s definitely some machine.”

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McNally confirmed his stable star will head straight to Cheltenham in March, for either the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle or the Ballymore.

While the County Armagh-based trainer considers the Willie Mullins-trained Appreciate It and Henry de Bromhead’s Bob Olinger as formidable rivals, he is confident his stable star has not yet reached the ceiling of his ability.

He added: “He’s in the Supreme and the Ballymore. I need to sit down with Denis (O’Regan) and work out which race would be best for him.

“He’s won over two-mile-six (furlongs), so we know he stays. He’s won over a mile and a furlong on the Flat and has won a Grade Two over hurdles over two miles, so it’s just trying to work out what the best option for him is.

“The stand-out horse for me this year has been Appreciate It. To me, he has been head and shoulders above anything I’ve seen this season in the novice department.

“The handicapper has us around 7lb behind him, so we have a bit of catching up to do, but there’s nothing to say we can’t make up 7lb.

“Bob Olinger is another stand-out, and I think he’s going for the Ballymore. They look the two stand-out novices, but I’d say we’re not a million miles behind them.”

Ronan McNally (left) with Dreal Deal
Ronan McNally (left) with Dreal Deal (PA)

McNally reiterated his belief that Dreal Deal was not at his best despite winning on Sunday, adding: “The day I was meant to go to Ascot with The Jam Man just before Christmas, I had ridden Dreal Deal in the morning and he didn’t sound great on the gallop. I ended up scoping all the horses, and the only one that scoped well was The Jam Man.

“I gave them all an easy week, and then over Christmas we had a bit of frost. Dreal Deal wasn’t eating great at the time, and his coat was a bit dry looking, so nothing really was going to plan.

“With the preparation that he had, it was hard to believe that he’d go and beat all the big guns in a Grade Two. I think it’s testament to how good the horse could possibly be that he did win.

“I actually think he’s come out of the race better than he went into it, which might sound a bit bizarre. He only lost six kilograms, which is less than a horse might lose after a day’s galloping.

“He could be anything, which is an exciting prospect.”

Dreal Deal (centre) powered home in the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle
Dreal Deal (centre) powered home in the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle (PA)

McNally has previously stated his desire to have a leading owner like JP McManus in his yard, but as yet he has received no concrete offers for Dreal Deal.

He said: “There was an enquiry after the race, with someone asking if he might be for sale. I said I was open to listen to offers, but there hasn’t been anything firm.

“There’s no panic either way. He does look a good enough horse now for some of those bigger owners, but we’ll just see how things unfold.

“He’s an exciting horse for us to go to war with ourselves if nobody is interested.”

Wetherby plans for The Big Breakaway

The Big Breakaway will continue his preparations for a return to the Cheltenham Festival in the William Hill Towton Novices’ Chase at Wetherby.

Connections of the Colin Tizzard-trained six-year-old, who finished fourth in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival, have earmarked the three-mile Grade Two contest on February 6 as his next target.

After making a winning debut over fences at Cheltenham, The Big Breakaway suffered an odds-on defeat at Exeter, before filling the runner-up spot in the Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Assistant trainer Joe Tizzard said: “The plan at the moment is to take The Big Breakaway to Wetherby next month for the Towton.

“He has only had three runs over fences and this is a Grade Two which is quite good timing-wise before the Festival.

“We can’t drop him back and do what we did at Exeter as we have got to take him to a decent enough race where he will get a tow along.”

Reserve Tank could make his return to action back over hurdles (Nigel French/PA)
Reserve Tank could make his return to action back over hurdles (Nigel French/PA)

Dual Grade One winner Reserve Tank, who has not been sighted since pulling up in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Festival in March, could revert back to hurdles on his return from injury.

Tizzard said: “He got a leg injury after Cheltenham and we are hoping to get a prep run in before going back to the Festival.

“He has been in the whole way through, but he is now in full training. With an injury like he had it just needed time.

“He might run in a Pertemps qualifier at Huntingdon in the middle of February, but we will just see where we are with him.”

While a second outing at the Festival remains on the agenda for Reserve Tank, he could sidestep the meeting if he is not ready in time.

Tizzard added: “We are hopeful of having a nice spring campaign. We have just got to do what is right for the horse as he has had this injury.

“If he doesn’t make Cheltenham we could wait to Aintree, as we know he has good form there.”

Buveur D’Air poised for Haydock return

Buveur D’Air is set to make his long-awaited return to action at Haydock on Saturday after thrilling trainer Nicky Henderson in an away-day gallop.

The dual Champion Hurdle winner has not been since since suffering a serious injury when runner-up in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in November 2019, with a piece of wood from a hurdle becoming lodged in his foot and requiring surgery.

Nico de Boinville rode the JP McManus-owned 10-year-old in the gallop and is set to be in the saddle for both The New One Unibet Champion Hurdle Trial on Merseyside and the Champion Hurdle itself, with Aidan Coleman maintaining his partnership with Epatante.

Henderson said in his Unibet blog: “I’m pleased to report that Buveur D’Air is coming along extremely well and had an ‘away day’ on Wednesday and I have got to say he was absolutely amazing.

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“To start with he jumped five hurdles at home which was the first time he’d left the ground since the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in 2019 and he certainly hasn’t forgotten anything – he was brilliant!

“His recovery has been nothing short of remarkable and great credit should be given to all the team at Martinstown including John O’Brien and Ger Kelly who did such a good job putting his foot back together, literally.

“I’ve always sort of thought we were ahead of schedule so the time came to give him a serious gallop and after schooling over our hurdles at home we went off elsewhere and jumped seven hurdles over a mile with two lead horses.

Nicky Henderson with dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D'Air
Nicky Henderson with dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D’Air (Steven Paston/PA)

“Then one dropped out and another one joined in and they worked together on the flat for another mile where they quickened and quickened and I have to say it was unreal, he didn’t half quicken up to the end!

“It was wonderful to watch because it’s been some journey to get him back bearing in mind we were even questioning if he’d ever be able to race again, but he has made fantastic progress.

“So much so, that I have decided he’s ready to go and I’m very much thinking about running him in The New One Unibet Hurdle at Haydock next Saturday.”

Of Epatante, who remains on course to head straight to Cheltenham to defend her two-mile crown following a surprise defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, the Seven Barrows handler said: “We checked her out fully after the Christmas Hurdle and nothing came to light.

Barry Geraghty celebrates victory in last year's Champion Hurdle with Epatante
Barry Geraghty celebrates victory in last year’s Champion Hurdle with Epatante (Tim Gode/PA)

“But there was just something not quite right about her coming out of the paddock and JP said to me straight after the race that he didn’t think she was herself along the walkway going out to the track.

“So I’ve watched the replay and he was quite right – she wasn’t her usual self and was shaking about and throwing her head around doing all sorts of things she doesn’t normally do, so that may explain a few things.

“She is perfectly fine and training well and I’m looking forward to Cheltenham in March.”

Paisley Park and Thyme Hill poised for decider in Stayers’ Hurdle

Paisley Park and Thyme Hill are set to do battle once more in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park emerged as the dominant force in the division when claiming the Grade One prize in 2019, but was found to be suffering from a fibrillating heart when failing to fire in last season’s renewal.

The nine-year-old has bounced back to something like his best this term – filling the runner-up spot behind the Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, before reversing that form in an epic climax to the Long Walk at Ascot.

The pair remain on course for a mouthwatering third clash at the Festival on March 18, for which there are 51 entries.

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Gordon Elliott has a strong hand, with his four-strong team headed by dual Festival winner Sire Du Berlais.

The JP McManus-owned gelding has won the Pertemps Final in each of the past two seasons and made a successful start to the current campaign in the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan in November.

Sire Du Berlais had to settle for minor honours on his latest appearance at Leopardstown over the Christmas period behind Gavin Cromwell’s surprise winner Flooring Porter, who is also in Stayers’ Hurdle contention.

Elliott also has The Storyteller, Commander Of Fleet and Fury Road in the mix, while Willie Mullins has entered six horses for a race he has won twice in recent years with Nichols Canyon (2017) and Penhill (2018).

The Closutton maestro’s sextet includes last year’s third Bacardys, top-class mare Benie Des Dieux and triple Grade One-winning chaser Kemboy, who has not run over hurdles in nearly four years.

Star mare Benie Des Dieux has been entered by Willie Mullins
Star mare Benie Des Dieux has been entered by Willie Mullins (PA)

Nicky Henderson has entered Gold Cup contender Champ, while shock 2020 winner Lisnagar Oscar (Rebecca Curtis), runner-up Ronald Pump (Matthew Smith), McFabulous (Paul Nicholls) and Sam Spinner (Jedd O’Keeffe) – who chased home Paisley Park two years ago – also feature.

The latter has not looked at his best in two outings so far this season, but O’Keeffe believes there were valid excuses.

He said: “Sam Spinner is fine at home and the Stayers’ Hurdle is a definite target for him.

“He has had a little bit of time off after his run at Newbury as an old foot injury has flared up again. Due to that injury, the plan is to stay over hurdles this season and so the Stayers’ Hurdle will be his main spring target.

“I think we are going to struggle to get a run into him before the race, so he will be going to Cheltenham fresh.

“He has solid form at Cheltenham, so hopefully he can get there in one piece.”

There is one entry from France in Paul’s Saga (David Cottin). The seven-year-old mare landed the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil (French Champion Hurdle) in October.