Cheltenham clerk Simon Claisse is to step down from his role at the end of 2021.
Claisse first began working at the track in 1999 and has since overseen 20 Cheltenham Festivals, a tenure that has coincided with the eras of great horses such as Best Mate, Kauto Star, Denman, Istabraq, and Sprinter Sacre.
Away from the track, Claisse was instrumental in establishing the Tattersalls Cheltenham Bloodstock sales and the Jockey Club South West syndicate, as well as acting as a member of the judging panel for the annual McCoys awards.
Claisse will remain in his role for Cheltenham’s October meeting, and will then step aside before the end of the calendar year.
He said: “By the time our new season begins in October, I will have worked for the Jockey Club for 32 very fulfilling and rewarding years, with over two decades at Cheltenham, where it has been an honour and a privilege to have played a part in the development and on-going success of the racecourse and in particular the Festival.
“Throughout my career in racing I have been blessed to have had the support of wonderful colleagues and teams, who together with the horsemen have been instrumental in our and jump racing’s success over the past two decades.”
Six-time champion trainer Nicky Henderson paid tribute to Claisse’s achievements at the track.
He said: “In all my training career, I have only known two clerks of the course at Cheltenham, Philip Arkwright and Simon Claisse.
“Life is never easy as a clerk of the course – and since Simon took over from Philip, he has done a wonderful job.
“There have been hundreds of meetings and countless Festivals where Simon has had to make very difficult decisions, and he has done a brilliant job – you can never please all the people all the time, because everyone will have a different opinion.
“Simon has exemplified the two most important things in his role – he has always been incredibly helpful and always truthful.
“I have much enjoyed working with him, and wish him all the best for the future.”
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Cheltenham will honour Lorna Brooke at Friday’s hunter chase meeting, with the penultimate race on the card to be run as the Lorna Brooke Open Hunters’ Chase.
Brooke died on April 19 as a result of injuries sustained in a fall at Taunton earlier in the month.
Philip Rowley will saddle Optimised in the Lorna Brooke Open Hunters’ Chase. The nine-year-old was runner-up to Southfield Theatre when the race was last run in 2019.
Rowley said: “Lorna was a dear friend and rode for me on many occasions.
“I will always be thankful to her for providing me with my first winner under Rules, which was The General Lee in the Chase Meredith Memorial Trophy at Ludlow (in March 2011).
“Lorna rode The General Lee again at Cheltenham at this fixture, and they were unlucky not to win as our horse led over the last before trying to go out for another circuit. Lorna managed to get the horse going again, and in the end we only went down by three-quarters of a length.
“It is just all so, so sad. I would like to thank Cheltenham Racecourse for naming tomorrow’s race in Lorna’s honour – it’s a very touching tribute.”
Ian Renton, regional managing director of The Jockey Club, added: “Tomorrow’s Race Night is the one fixture of the year at Cheltenham purely for amateur riders, and it only seemed right to honour Lorna in this way.
“It is sure to be a very emotional occasion as Lorna was such a popular figure, and everyone at the racecourse will be united in her memory.”
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Donald McCain has described this season’s neck-and-neck jockeys’ title race as a battle which has taken on “David and Goliath” proportions – with reigning champion Brian Hughes currently cast in the giant-killing role.
Hughes closed the gap behind Skelton to just two again when he and McCain’s Bannixtown Glory fought off his rival on Eglantine Du Seuil by three-quarters of a length in the Citipost Mares’ Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Cheshire trainer McCain said: “It’s good to be involved and part of it, and it’s all very civilised.”
He nonetheless senses the extra firepower available to Skelton could be key – especially with multiple champion trainer Paul Nicholls supplying an increasing number of winning opportunities in the final weeks of the season, with his stable jockey Harry Cobden out injured.
He said: “We are lucky to have some lovely horses that do the job right – but when they wheel Paul Nicholls in it is like David and Goliath.
“We remember watching (Richard) Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire in their battle that went all the way (in the 1990s) – but with this it does look as if things are falling in favour of Harry.
“Brian will probably come off the wrong end of it, but we will keep kicking.”
Of his 9-1 winner, McCain added: “This is a lovely tough little filly, but I was a bit surprised turning in that there was nothing going behind her.
Hughes said: “She was a Listed winner over three miles at Kempton Park. She stays well, but was getting a bit lonely up the straight.
“It’s good to have another winner here. I won’t give up, and will keep chipping away.”
Coral trimmed Hughes to 5-2 (from 3-1) for championship, and eased Skelton to 1-4 (from 1-5).
“Although Harry Skelton remains a hot favourite to win a first NH jockeys’ title, Brian Hughes has closed the gap with a winner at Cheltenham, and the battle now heads to Ayr, familiar turf for the reigning champion,” said Coral’s David Stevens.
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Form from the Festival played its part as Her Indoors came out on top in the NAF Fillies’ Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham.
According to trainer Alan King, the 6-1 shot found the hustle and bustle of the Fred Winter (Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle) a shade intimidating, and was happier in this smaller field.
Under Adrian Heskin she seized command from Scholastic on the approach to the final flight, staying on the better to score by three and a half lengths.
“It was a good race to target,” said King of the Grade Three contest.
“I thought the smaller field would certainly help her, and with her stamina she would power up the hill.
“It might be a while before she runs back over hurdles as I plan to give her a few runs on the Flat.”
Heskin said: “She was a bit star-struck in the Fred Winter, but is a good tough filly who has the scope to jump a fence one day.
“She wants a stiff two miles and will stay two and a half. She has a good heart and a lovely attitude, and I knew half a furlong before the last she was going to win.”
Martello Sky also took part at the Festival and she readily outclassed her foes under a confident Aidan Coleman in the Irish Thoroughbred Marketing Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.
In spite of three withdrawals on account of the changing ground, the Lucy Wadham-trained grey went off at 10-11 before pulling two and three-quarter lengths clear of market rival Sandymount Rose up the final hill.
Eight in the mares’ novices’ hurdle at the Festival, Coleman confessed his mount was confidently expected to prevail, saying: “She’s a very very nice mare, and I fancied her before the non-runners were announced.
“She now has black type with loads of options in the new mares’ programme for next season. She flicked he ears turning for home, but jumped super, and I was delighted with her.
“She stayed the trip well, and while they went slow early on I’m sure she will have no problem with the distance in a more strongly-run race.”
Venetia Williams praised the Cheltenham ground staff with their watering after the triumph of Pink Legend in the British EBF Mares’ Novices’ Handicap Chase Final.
Under Charlie Deutsch, the 11-2 winner kept on to score by two and a half lengths from Danes Idol.
Williams said: “I think the old cheekpieces have helped her focus, and I’m delighted for her owner Frank Mahon who bred her. She’s now got black type from a Listed race at Cheltenham.
“I would also say they have done a lovely job with the watering.”
Williams added that Royale Pagaille is “on the mend and being led out each day” following his run in the Gold Cup.
“It’s all going the right way and he’ll be back for the new season in the autumn,” she said.
Michael Scudamore was the proudest man at the course after rags-to-riches mare Northern Beau made it a third course and distance triumph at Cheltenham in the Visit racing tv.com Mares’ Handicap Chase.
After Brendan Powell brought the 11-4 joint-favourite home 14 lengths clear of Miss Amelia, the trainer said: “She was rated 35 on the Flat and was sold to be a riding pony. Then they decided to run in point-to-points and she’s ended up winning three at the home of steeplechasing.”
The Christian Williams-trained Win My Wings reacted favourably to a return to a race contested by her own sex when defying top-weight under Nick Schofield in the Catesby Estates PLC Mares’ Handicap Chase.
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Harry Skelton drew stumps with a three-winner advantage over Brian Hughes in their electric title-race battle after both enjoyed victories at Cheltenham on Wednesday.
Skelton teamed up with brother Dan for the victories of Faivoir and Proschema, while reigning champion Hughes posted a single success on Domaine De L’Isle.
While Skelton can rely on the full support of his sibling to provide his mounts in the remaining nine days, Hughes will cast his net far and wide, as he did for his latest scorer, who is trained near Swindon by Sean Curran.
Skelton said: “Harry is three clear, but the worst hope is false hope, and there’s no point thinking you have won.
“Yesterday was a big day for Harry (rode three winners at Southwell), especially after we drew a blank on Monday, when I thought we had some serious chances.
“But Harry will have a ride in every race from now until the end of the season. While it’s no big deal for Harry to have a double at Stratford or Warwick, Brian is used to riding six or seven every day, and he and his team will get winners.”
The Skelton team first struck gold with Faivoir (4-6 favourite), who registered his fifth victory of the campaign in the Join Racing TV Now Novices’ Hurdle.
“This horse has been on the go since the first Cheltenham meeting in October and was left in front a long way out, which made it more difficult,” said his trainer.
“I had it in mind to go chasing with him straight away, but now we just might have a rethink.
“We would have gone straight in over two and a half miles, but the way he races he is going to be versatile distance-wise.”
Little over an hour late the Skeltons doubled up with Proschema in the Kingston Stud Handicap Hurdle.
The 7-2 joint-favourite powered to the front approaching the final flight and pulled six and a half lengths clear of Winds Of Fire.
Skelton added: “The ground was way too soft for him when he ran in the Greatwood Hurdle here in November.
“Today was the first time we’d stretched him out in trip, and it’s all come together, although it’s taken a while for it to happen.
“The ground is vitally important and we will now go for a race over two miles and six furlongs at Haydock on Swinton Hurdle day.”
Hughes might have had luck on his side on Domaine De L’Isle in the Weatherite Handicap Chase, as The Mighty Don was showing no signs of stopping when hitting the second-last fence.
That error caused jockey James Davies to defy gravity by toppling onto Sam Twiston-Davies on Coo Star Sivola, who courteously helped him remain the plate.
As the Sean Curran-trained Domaine De L’Isle went on to score by a length and a half, Davies managed to complete the course on The Mighty Don, but in fifth place.
Hughes, conceding the emphasis was with Skelton, said: “James’ horse drifted onto my path and then back into Sam, who saved the day.
“I rode this horse two years ago at Newcastle and won on him at Ascot. He then lost his form, but Sean’s got him back with a wind job.”
On the title race, he added: “Winners round here are hard to find for northern jockeys.
“The advantage is with Harry, but it’s not over yet.”
Manofthemountain is a name to conjure with through the summer and next autumn following his smooth-as-silk delivery in the Ballymore Silver Trophy Limited Handicap Chase.
The Emma Lavelle-trained gelding travelled like a dream for Tom Bellamy and readily put the race to bed between the final two fences, scoring by four and a half lengths and a length and a half from Magic Saint and Romain De Senam.
Sporting the Limato colours of Paul Jacobs, the 8-1 winner could have the Paddy Power Gold Cup back here in November as a major objective.
Lavelle explained: “He’d had a break going into his previous race at Kempton and just took a blow at the second-last. The ground is probably the key to him, and I’m happy that we’ve found a distance (two and a half miles) where he should be.
“Paul is one of racing’s greatest enthusiasts and likes to plot a route. The Summer Plate at Market Rasen is an option, but the big target is to come back here in the autumn (for the Paddy Power).”
Oliver Sherwood attributed the addition of blinkers to Jersey Bean’s game front-running success under Brendan Powell in the Arkells Brewery Nicholson Holman Novices’ Handicap Chase.
After the 4-1 chance scored by six and a half lengths from Accordingtogino, Sherwood said: “He loved that ground but will now have a holiday.
“I’ve got to thank Henrietta Knight because his jumping was average and after a week’s school with her she suggested blinkers.
“He will get further, and we should have some fun with him next year.”
Local trainer Fergal O’Brien got to within two of the century mark for the season, while conditional Liam Harrison had his claim cut to 5lb courtesy of Ask Dillon’s triumph in the Jockey Club Cheltenham And SW Syndicate Handicap Hurdle.
Harrison said: “A few of them going a good gallop suited us, and my horse travelled on that decent ground. He’s done plenty of schooling over fences, which is the direction he’ll be heading next season.”
The Nicky Henderson-trained Hooper successfully stepped into handicap company to take the Cheltenham Pony Racing Authority Graduates Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle under Ben Ffrench Davis.
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Coole Cody bids to bag his second major prize at Cheltenham this season in Wednesday’s Ballymore Silver Trophy Handicap Chase.
The Evan Williams-trained 10-year-old landed the prestigious Paddy Power Gold Cup in November and has subsequently run three sound races in defeat – most recently finishing a close-up fourth in the Paddy Power Plate at last month’s Festival.
Williams, who won the Silver Trophy with Buywise in 2014, said: “He’s run well all year and I thought it was a very solid effort last time.
“The form of that race looks good – I thought the winner (The Shunter) ran a very good race in the Grade One novice chase at Aintree the other day to finish second, so we’ll give it a shot.
“Buywise was a great old horse for us, but to be fair to Coole Cody, he’s won a Paddy Power Gold Cup, which is one of the the major handicap chases of the year. I think Coole Cody has a little more strength in depth to him, to be fair.
“He goes back to Cheltenham with a good chance. He’ll handle any ground and is a good, tough, genuine horse on his day.”
Coole Cody’s eight rivals include Henry Oliver’s stable star The Big Bite.
Formerly trained by Tom George, the eight-year-old made a winning debut for his new trainer at Aintree in November and has since finished second at Doncaster and third in the Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury.
“He’s in good order and the ground will be fine for him and the trip is fine for him,” said Oliver.
“Most of his form has been on flat, galloping tracks. He has won around Chepstow, which is an undulating track.
“He’s run three solid races for us and likes a bit of time between his races. We’ve minded him a little bit and he’s in good nick.
“I’m very happy with the horse and he’s going there with every chance.”
Dan and Harry Skelton team up with Romain De Senam, while Gary Moore’s Benatar appears feasibly weighted on the pick of his form.
Magic Saint (Paul Nicholls), Pym (Nicky Henderson), Up The Straight (Richard Rowe), Two Taffs (Nigel Twiston-Davies) and Manofthemountain (Emma Lavelle) complete the Grade Two field.
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Friday is the fourth and final day of the Cheltenham Festival – and the day when the sport’s best steeplechasers line-up for the most revered race of the jumps calendar, the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Al Boum Photo is the star attraction as he bids to win the race for the third successive season for his trainer Willie Mullins, potentially emulating greats such as Best Mate and Arkle in the process.
The most precocious four-year-olds in the hurdling sphere will battle it out in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, with the Denise Foster-trained Zanahiyr undoubtedly the one to beat on what he has done so far.
Mullins is again responsible for a leading fancy in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle as Stattler represents the yard in the race won by Monkfish last season.
The final afternoon also means the leading trainer and jockey titles can be awarded as the sun sets on what is hopefully the first and last Cheltenham Festival held behind closed doors.
Three in a row for Al Boum Photo?
Al Boum Photo has a chance to become one of only five horses to win three Gold Cups as he lines up in the race that is the pinnacle of the jumps season. His preparation has run along similar lines to previous years with an easy win at Tramore on New Year’s Day, giving little away with regards to his chance against the likes of Champ, last season’s Ryanair winner, and Grade One Savills Chase champion A Plus Tard. The latter is the mount of Champion Hurdle heroine Rachael Blackmore – and do not discount Bryony Frost on Frodon, either.
Will Zanahiyr be triumphant?
The young stars of the hurdling division assemble for the Triumph Hurdle, with Zanahiyr the leading light. The gelding is now campaigned by Denise Foster and will face stiff competition from Alan King’s Tritonic, who was impressive when taking the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton. Henry de Bromhead also has a live chance with the undefeated Quilixios, who won the Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle before leaving Gordon Elliott’s Cullentra yard.
Stattler set for Albert Bartlett stardom
The line-up for the three-mile Albert Bartlett Hurdle is led by Stattler, but Foster’s Fakiera is also a well-fancied runner despite finishing two lengths behind the former when both horses were beaten at Leopardstown by Gaillard Du Mesnil. Bringing less prestigious but more consistent form to the table Paul Nicholls’ Barbados Buck’s, who has triumphed in three successive novice hurdles in the run-up to the Festival.
Saturday’s easy Paddy Power Imperial Cup winner Langer Dan will bid for the £50,000 bonus which has only ever been won three times after making the cut for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle with two to spare. The participation of Dan Skelton’s five-year-old was in the balance until the 48-hour declaration stage, as despite picking up a 5lb penalty he still needed around 20 of those above him to come out. However, he gets into the race close to the foot of the handicap and will be 5lb ‘well in’, having been raised 10lb since his Sandown win.
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Flooring Porter provided Danny Mullins with an unexpected Cheltenham Festival victory on the third day of the showpiece meeting.
Contesting the feature race, the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, Flooring Porter was the intended mount of Jonathan Moore but it was Mullins who got the leg-up when Moore felt an injury sustained in a previous fall would leave him unable to ride the horse to the best of his abilities.
Such a turn of events proved to be a stroke of luck for Mullins, who expertly steered the six-year-old to a three-and-a-quarter-length success at 12-1 for trainer Gavin Cromwell.
The Marsh Novices’ Chase provided another unexpected result as the odds-on favourite Envoi Allen fell at the fourth fence, sacrificing his flawless record and leaving an opportunity for Nicky Henderson’s Chantry House he was not to forego.
Elsewhere Rachael Blackmore’s dominance continued as she was victorious for Henry de Bromhead in both the Ryanair Chase and the Parnell Properties Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, aboard Allaho and Telmesomethinggirl respectively.
Mrs Milner was another popular winner as she took the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle for trainer Paul Nolan and resurgent jockey Bryan Cooper, while Mount Ida had to be seen to be believed in the Kim Muir.
Picture of the day
Quote of the day
“Everybody knows how hard it is to get a good horse. We came across this lad by accident, he was a very cheap store so it’s a bit of a fairytale really – it just goes to show dreams can still happen” – Gavin Cromwell after Flooring Porter’s success in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle.
Performance of the day
Allaho was an emphatic winner of the Ryanair Chase for Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore, soaring to a 12-length victory after leading from the third fence to the line. Though his jump at the final fence was not completely fluent, the seven-year-old had been so bold and dominant from the tapes that only a tumble would have thrown a rope to the distant chasing pack.
Ride of the day
Backers of Mount Ida – and there were plenty as she was sent off the 3-1 favourite in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup – would have been forgiven for throwing away their tickets after four fences. She was jumping markedly out to her right and was almost tailed off before Jack Kennedy produced one of the most memorable rides in Festival history. Having hit the maximum 999-1 in-running, Mount Ida sliced through the field before hitting the front on the bridle. Quite how much she will go up in the handicap is for another day.
Tweet of the day
Liverpool’s James Milner was following the action closely – he was always going to be backing Mrs Milner!
Al Boum Photo will bid to emulate greats such as Best Mate and Arkle when he attempts to win a third successive Gold Cup on the final day of the Festival. His chief rivals are Henry de Bromhead’s A Plus Tard, piloted by the in-form Rachael Blackmore, and Nicky Henderson’s Champ. Elsewhere on the card the leading four-year-old hurdlers battle it out in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, with Zanahiyr and Tritonic heading the field, and Elimay is well-fancied for the Grade Two Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase.
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The Thursday of Cheltenham offers three Grade One contests, with the card headlined by Paisley Park’s Festival comeback in the Stayers’ Hurdle.
The Paddy Power-sponsored event may be the joint-feature, but the opening race of the third day is equally fascinating as the unbeaten Envoi Allen bids for the Marsh Novices’ Chase.
The Ryanair Chase shares top billing, with Willie Mullins seemingly holding all of the aces with his highly-fancied trio of runners.
There are then large-field handicaps for punters to solve, with the running of the Pertemps Network Final and the Paddy Power Plate Handicap Chase, after which the Grade Two Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle looks set to be dominated by Irish runners and riders.
Envoi Allen heads to the Marsh Novices’ Chase with a flawless record of 11 runs and 11 victories, the most recent of which was a comfortable success in the Killiney Novice Chase at Punchestown. He has since switched to the yard of Henry de Bromhead after departing Gordon Elliott’s stable and the eyes of the racing world will be on the seven-year-old as he bids to confirm his superstar status.
Mullins the man to beat, again
The market can barely split the three Mullins runners that head the field for the Ryanair, with Allaho, Melon and Min all expected to shine. Out of the trio only Allaho was a winner last time out, but Min has the superior Cheltenham form, having been successful 12 months ago, and Melon was only a nose off taking the Marsh Novices’ Chase last year.
People’s horse Paisley on the comeback trail
Paisley Park would be hugely popular winner if he were to triumph for Emma Lavelle in the Stayers’ Hurdle. He won the race in 2019 but was well beaten last season when suffering with an irregular heartbeat. After treatment he has bounced back to his best this term and is highly-fancied after the main threat to his success, Philip Hobbs’ Thyme Hill, was ruled out with a minor injury. Rebecca Curtis’ Lisnagar Oscar was a shock 50-1 winner last season and is back for more.
Novice mares meet again
Royal Kahala and Roseys Hollow will meet again in the the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, with the latter having prevailed by two lengths when the two crossed paths in the Solerina Mares Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last time out. Willie Mullins also has a live chance in the race as Hook Up reverts to her own sex after finishing fourth behind Appreciate It in the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival.
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Day two of the Cheltenham Festival is headlined by the Queen Mother Champion Chase – the pinnacle of the season for the sport’s most highly-regarded two-mile chasers.
Sadly, Altior is absent for the second year running, meaning this year’s renewal of the Betway-sponsored feature really does centre around the seemingly unstoppable Chacun Pour Soi. It is not a one-horse race, though, and last year’s winner Politologue will have his say – as will Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra, one of the few horses to have beaten Altior when impressing at Kempton over Christmas.
Willie Mullins and Chacun Pour Soi’s owner Rich Ricci team up again with the mighty Monkfish, who has defeated all-comers since winning the Albert Bartlett last season and is all the rage for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.
Wednesday is also the home of the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, where Tiger Roll will line up for what could be his final race and the French raider Easysland will bid for a second successive triumph over the unique course.
The afternoon’s action is rounded off by the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, a race that provides a glimpse into the future as the next generation of National Hunt performers compete on the level for Grade One honours.
Bob Olinger another for dream team?
Bob Olinger tops the line-up for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, with the six-year-old bringing Grade One form to the table after winning the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle on his last appearance. Trained by Henry de Bromhead and ridden by Rachael Blackmore, he will have an army of supporters. His chief rival is the Mullins-trained Gaillard Du Mesnil, who was also a Grade One winner last time out when triumphing at Leopardstown. Bravemansgame flies the flag for Paul Nicholls and heads to Prestbury Park off the back of an impressive 10-length Challow Novices’ Hurdle victory.
Monkfish riding the crest of a wave
Monkish takes centre stage in the the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase after a hugely impressive performance when winning the Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown. The victory was the chestnut’s sixth consecutive win and his suitability for the Cheltenham track was proven when he triumphed in the Albert Bartlett last year. He has scared off most of the opposition and the race looks his to lose.
Champion Pour Soi?
The Ricci silks will be worn by the favourite again when the runners face the starter in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. This time it will be Chacun Pour Soi who carries his owner’s hopes as he bids to follow up his success in the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown – his fourth Grade One win over fences. Politilogue is defending his crown, while First Flow – who beat him at Ascot – would be a hugely popular winner for trainer Kim Bailey and jockey David Bass.
Will the Tiger stop rolling?
Easysland travels from David Cottin’s French stable to attempt to retain his cross-country crown, a trophy he took from two-time winner Tiger Roll when prevailing by 17 lengths last year. Tiger Roll is also back, and his performance is likely to determine whether this is his last race. Hopefully that will not be the case, as this titan of the jumping scene deserves to bow in front of packed grandstands, not empty ones.
Mullins’ mighty bumper duo
Mullins is synonymous with the Champion Bumper and has two major chances in Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard, the latter being a new addition to the yard after leaving the stable of Gordon Elliott. He is unbeaten and represents Cheveley Park Stud, who have won the last two runnings, most recently with the Mullins-trained Ferny Hollow. For his part, Kilcruit was completely dominant when winning the Grade Two bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival by 12 lengths.
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With the 2020 Cheltenham Festival beginning just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to take hold, the four-day meeting was the last major sporting event to survive before the country was forced into lockdown and all public gatherings were cancelled.
Twelve months later the world is still not fully recovered and all sporting fixtures must take place behind closed doors, with the Festival no exception.
With no crowds to witness the lifting of the tapes in the very first race of the meeting, there will be no Cheltenham roar, nor will there be the famed reception that awaits winning horses when they return to the parade ring.
The Cheltenham Festival is as much about the top-flight racing as it is about the off-course atmosphere, however, and still promises to be of its usual calibre, despite the empty grandstands.
The first day is headlined by the Unibet Champion Hurdle, where last season’s heroine Epatante is poised to face the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle – on whom Rachael Blackmore could make history – and a resurgent Goshen.
The Sporting Life Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase looks at the mercy of Shishkin, although Allmankind will not go down without a fight.
Let battle commence…
Appreciate It – right from the start
It is a rare thing these days for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle not to kick-off proceedings with a Willie Mullins hotpot and this year is no exception, with Appreciate It having been a warm order since a terrific performance in Grade One company over Christmas. Ballyadam got closer to him at the Dublin Racing Festival, but while Appreciate It promises to be better over further – and fences – in time, all the evidence suggests there is little point in ignoring the obvious.
All eyes on Shishkin
Top of the bill is Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, who has built a flawless record over fences since triumphing in the Supreme at the Festival last season. The Mullins-trained Energumene was his chief rival following a highly-impressive display when taking the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown by 10 lengths, but was withdrawn on Friday after a suffering an injury. Dan Skelton’s Allmankind wears his heart on his sleeve in front, so the Henderson hotpot will still have to be as advertised to get the job done.
Honeysuckle in full bloom ahead of Champion showdown
Epatante bids to defend her crown in the feature race on the opening afternoon, after a three-length success 12 months ago. There is a question or two, however, after the Henderson runner disappointed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She also faces strong opposition from Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle, who has yet to suffer a single defeat in 10 starts under rules and was a 10-length winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle. If she can get her head in front it will see Blackmore become the first woman to ride a Champion Hurdle winner. Gary Moore’s Goshen, who was agonisingly denied victory in the Triumph Hurdle last year when unshipping Jamie Moore at the final hurdle, looked to have bounced back to his brilliant best when easily winning the Kingwell Hurdle and has very much rejoined the reckoning off the back of that performance.
Concertista centre stage in Mares’ Hurdle
The Henderson, Mullins and Skelton yards will face off once again in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Mullins’ Concertista was a 12-length winner at the Festival last season and has since enjoyed two further big-race successes, stepping up in trip on both occasions to prove her ability over two and a half miles. Henderson’s Coral Cup winner Dame De Compagnie reverts to hurdles after unseating Nico de Boinville in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, while Skelton’s Roksana is back down in distance – having dipped her toe in the staying division waters before defeating Jessica Harrington’s Magic Of Light in the Warfield Hurdle at Ascot.
Paul Nicholls made a surprise late decision to reroute his unbeaten novice Next Destination from a prospective clash with Monkfish on Wednesday to the Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase, which closes the card on day one. In the absence here of Royale Pagaille – who will sport the famous colours of Monkfish’s owners in Friday’s Gold Cup – it may prove a wise move. But Galvin will have his supporters too, following a run of four successive victories over fences. Now with Ian Ferguson after moving from Gordon Elliott, he also has strong Festival form in the book.
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Owner Tim Gredley is savouring the prospect of Allmankind’s bid for Cheltenham glory in the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy.
The five-year-old is unbeaten over fences from three runs, including a triumph in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown and a wide-margin win in the Kingmaker at Warwick.
His next assignment will be on the opening day of the Festival, and will see him clash with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, also a Grade One winner and unbeaten over hurdles. The Willie Mullins-trained Energumene was also set to be in opposition, but has sadly been ruled out.
Gredley, who is himself an amateur jockey and former international showjumper, is not intimidated by the prospect and is instead relishing the chance to be involved in what could still be the race of the Festival.
“The whole reason we like to own racehorses is to be in these kind of races,” he said.
“It’s always great when there’s a big build-up to the race and there’s a good story for each horse.
“If we come out second or third best or if we win, it’s just great to be part of the build-up and the story – that’s what it’s all about.
“If he was to go in an odds-on shot against some moderate horses it certainly wouldn’t give you the same kind of buzz.”
Though this year’s Arkle does look to be a notably strong renewal, Gredley – who owns the Sea The Moon gelding together with his father, Bill, is bolstered by the occasionally fortuitous nature of jumps racing and concludes that there are few forgone conclusions in the sport.
“The great thing about jumps racing is that you can throw the same bunch of horses in the same race on a different day and you get a different result every time,” he said.
“It’s not always the case that the same horse wins, we’ve only had a small amount of jumps horses but that’s one thing I’ve really enjoyed about it.
“If you get beaten one day, don’t be too disappointed because there’s every chance you can go again and beat them.”
Third in the Triumph Hurdle 12 months ago, Allmankind was a 14-length winner when last seen under Harry Skelton in the Kingmaker, but arguably did not jump with his usual fluency and made a significant error two fences from home.
Trainer Dan Skelton attributed the blunder to the testing going and did not seem to harbour any concerns about the horse’s jumping technique, a conclusion echoed by Gredley.
“I do genuinely think that the ground was really desperate that day,” he said.
“Harry said it was something he’s never really encountered and he could tell even cantering down to the start that all the horses in the race weren’t quite comfortable with where their feet were.
“When you’re being asked to jump a big obstacle, you want to know where you’re landing and I don’t blame him for second guessing a few times to be honest.
“Horses have to hit those fences like that to learn from their mistakes, it’s testament to their character how they take it.
“He won his first few races from just taking off outside the wings and he’s not going to be able to do that his whole career.
“He survived it, that’s always the most important thing, and Cheltenham’s another day.”
That positive, forward-facing outlook is something that Gredley shares with the Skelton team, an operation he credits as being masterful in preparing a horse for a specific, long-held goal.
“I’ve got a few horses with them and their positivity and optimism is quite infectious, they’ve got that sort of attitude,” he said.
“The guys are good at making a target and then pulling it off, obviously the Arkle has been Allmankind’s main aim and that’s not to say that he wasn’t fit for his other races, but Harry said he’s never felt better than he does now.”
The Gredley family silks are more likely to be associated with the Flat racing sphere, with the much-loved long-distance specialist Big Orange their most recent flagbearer on the level.
Indeed, Allmankind began his career at the Flat stable of Michael Bell, the same trainer responsible for the success of Big Orange, and Gredley notes the two horses have more in common than may be expected.
“One thing we’re not worried about with Allmankind is his stamina, it’s a bit like when Big Orange was in the Ascot Gold Cup – if he’s in the lead and he’s not off the bridle swinging round that last corner then he’s got every chance,” he said.
Gredley’s venture into the world of National Hunt is not only proving to be highly successful, but is also providing him with an insight into the camaraderie among jump racing fans and the great sense of anticipation that builds before the Festival.
“I only had my first runner at Cheltenham last year, but I’m learning with the Festival that when a horse starts to build up a reputation, everybody has an opinion and everybody thinks their opinion is right, like we all do – that’s what the game’s all about,” he said.
“We need these big festivals, both Flat and jumping, to get everybody interested, I’ve been amazed at how many people I know socially that I didn’t think were racing people but are following Allmankind because of the Cheltenham Festival.”
Like all owners, Gredley will not be able to watch his horse perform in person, but counters that the longer career-span of jumpers will provide plenty of opportunities to watch Allmankind run once restrictions are eased.
“It’s a real shame, but one of the enjoyments of jumps racing is that these horses come back year after year,” he said.
“It’s not like with Ascot, if you’ve got a two-year-old or a three-year-old that’s their year and it’s the be-all and end-all.”
For Gredley the sole benefit of viewing from home could be an easing in the pre-race nerves he suffers when watching his horses run.
“I get very nervous, I’m dreadful,” he said.
“I try to pretend I’m all right, but just as they’re cantering to the start I normally walk off on my own and try to find a screen somewhere and watch it alone.
“But whether we win, lose or draw, honestly, the most important thing for me is that he comes back safe and sound – I really mean that.”
The Cheltenham Festival will be broadcast on ITV Racing March 16-19. For more info visit greatbritishracing.com
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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.
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.
“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.”
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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.
“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.”
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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.
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