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Adagio facing acid test of Champion credentials in Greatwood

Adagio will seek to transfer his high-class juvenile form into top handicap company when he tackles the Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham on Sunday.

The David Pipe-trained four-year-old could have started in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, but will instead begin his campaign at Prestbury Park.

Last term the bay never came home outside of the top two, winning the Grade One Coral Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow before going on to finish second in Cheltenham’s Triumph Hurdle and Aintree’s Anniversary 4-Y-O Novices’ Hurdle, both Grade One races also.

The Cheltenham assignment is the gelding’s handicap debut, and one for which he has been handed a sizeable burden of 11st 12lb.

Adagio at Cheltenham last December
Adagio at Cheltenham last December (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“We entered him in the Fighting Fifth, but we decided to go to the Greatwood,” said Pipe.

“He’s got top-weight, which is not ideal, but we’ve got to start somewhere. He’s done well during the summer. He’s in good form.

“We dream that he might develop into a Champion Hurdle horse, but he’s got to improve again. He’s working well at home, but he always does work well.

“He doesn’t mind a big field, he won’t mind that, and he likes it round Cheltenham. There’s lots of positives, but the bottom line is he’s got to improve again.”

Dan Skelton’s West Cork will partake in what will be his first run since February 2020, with the gelding sidelined due to injury after his novice hurdling campaign.

The yard had considered a novice chasing bow for the seven-year-old, but Skelton’s brother and stable jockey Harry suggested the Greatwood as the team were not intending to field another runner.

“To be fair Harry came up with this plan three weeks ago and I was waiting to go chasing,” Dan Skelton said. “With a lack of a runner in the race we thought ‘let’s have a go’.

“He will be fit and fitness will not get him beat, but he will improve sharpness-wise. He has got a good attitude and a fast run race will suit him.

“It was a strange injury he had as it was not an athletic injury. He got a cut at the back of his fetlock and did a little bit of tendon damage when he did but he is fine now. His form as a novice hurdler two seasons ago was very good.

“If he carries forward from a novice hurdler you have to give him a chance and on what I’ve seen I think that is possible.”

Brian Ellison knows what it takes to win the Greatwood Hurdle
Brian Ellison knows what it takes to win the Greatwood Hurdle (Mike Egerton/PA)

Brian Ellison saddles dual-purpose performer Cormier, with the five-year-old busy on the Flat over the summer before switching codes to finish fourth behind Glory And Fortune in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las in October.

Prior to that he was twice been a winner over hurdles, coming home second behind Copperless in the Swinton Handicap Hurdle in May and finishing seventh in the Greatwood last year.

“We know he goes well in these types of races and he likes Cheltenham,” said Ellison, who the Greatwood in 2018 with Nietzsche.

“He well ran in this last year and he ran well in the Swinton when he was second.

“Two miles on decent ground, with a strong pace, is ideally what he wants and he should get that.

“He ran well last time at Ffos Las and he should run well again.”

Cormier will cross paths with Glory And Fortune once again, as the Tom Lacey-trained gelding is also engaged as he bids for a hat-trick, while the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Ballyandy will try to go one better than his second-placed Greatwood run last season.

Nicky Henderson’s No Ordinary Joe has been prominent on ante-post lists, with the five-year-old beaten only once in four starts when coming fourth in the Grade Two Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot in December – 11 lengths behind subsequent Grade One winner My Drogo.

The horse is owned by JP McManus, who has another chance in the race in the shape of Philip Hobbs’ Persian War victor Camprond, who followed that Chepstow triumph up with a four-and-a-half-length win in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in October.

Tritonic winning the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle
Tritonic winning the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Another horse last seen at Cheltenham is Alan King’s Tritonic, who finished second in the Masterson Holdings Hurdle in October and was a graded winner last term when taking the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton in February.

Henderson has a second runner in Marie’s Rock, who was last seen coming third in Listed company at Wetherby and is one of two mares in the race alongside Jane Williams’ Galice Macalo.

Gary Moore’s Botox Has will look to bounce back from a fall on his chasing debut at Plumpton in October, whereas Sheila Lewis’ Straw Fan Jack returns to Cheltenham in good form having been beaten by just a head last time out.

Four chances for an Irish-trained winner come with the Noel Meade-trained Jesse Evans, Charles Byrnes’ Advanced Virgo, Denis Hogan’s Bua Boy and Tony Martin’s Tudor City.

Stuart Edmunds’ Rowland Ward, Alastair Ralph’s Rockadenn, Nick Kent’s Mick Maestro and the Chris Gordon-trained Mount Windsor complete the list of contenders.

Grand Sancy and Capeland bid to extend Nicholls’ Newbury domination

Paul Nicholls fires a twin assault in his bid for a 10th victory in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday.

It is 15 years since the Ditcheat handler first landed the prestigious handicap chase with Cornish Sett, since when he has added to his tally with the likes of Big Fella Thanks (2010), Pacha Du Polder (2013) and San Benedeto (2019).

Nicholls said: “The race fits in with the programme for horses that don’t go to Cheltenham and like nice ground, so we always like to have runners.

“It is good prize-money and a nice race to run in. I’m excited about the two I have in this year.”

The trainer’s chief contender appears to be Grand Sancy, who makes his handicap debut over fences in the hands of Bryony Frost.

An impressive winner of a Listed novice chase at Chepstow in October, the seven-year-old was disappointing when a hot favourite for the Grade Two Rising Stars Novices’ Chase at Wincanton the following month and has not been seen since.

“He won impressively at Chepstow before a blip at Wincanton when he choked a little bit, and half-panicked after making a mistake on tacky ground,” Nicholls told Betfair.

“Basically his wind is fine and I’ve held him back for the spring because he can’t handle the type of deep mid-winter ground we’ve had over the past three months.

“We know Grand Sancy goes well fresh, he will relish the ground, the trip is right and his best form has been racing left-handed, so he has loads in his favour in a race we have farmed in recent times, with nine winners in 15 years.”

The other Nicholls-trained runner in a 14-strong field is top-weight Capeland, who will be ridden by Daryl Jacob.

“I’ve booked Daryl Jacob for Capeland as they got on so well together in victory two months ago at Wincanton,” the trainer added.

“While this horse can handle most types of ground, it is fair to say he is hard to place because he is on a stiff enough handicap mark.

“However, the flat nature of the course at Newbury is very much in his favour.”

David Pipe saddles Umbrigado, who is bidding to complete a hat-trick following wins at Fontwell and Wetherby since the turn of the year, while Emma Lavelle’s Killer Clown appears for the first time since scoring at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Lavelle said: “I’m really happy with him. It was a toss-up between running him here or waiting for the novices’ handicap chase at Sandown next weekend, but I know he wants nice ground and it looks like that is what we’re going to encounter at Newbury.

“He’s an improving horse and I think a lot of him, but he’s been heavily penalised for winning impressively at Kempton – he’s gone up 15lb.

“I’m looking forward to running him against more experienced rivals. His jumping has been good and hopefully he’s going the right way.”

Windsor Avenue is an interesting northern challenger for Brian Ellison.

The nine-year-old was runner-up to the top-class Imperial Aura on his first start of the season at Carlisle, and while he has failed to rediscover that form since, he is fitted with both a tongue-strap and cheekpieces for the first time this weekend.

Ellison said: “He was travelling well at Ascot last time, but he basically made a mistake and lost his confidence.

“He had his wind done last year and we’re putting a tongue-strap on him on Saturday to help him. He’s also wearing cheekpieces as he’s one of those that seems to look at other horses rather than concentrating on what he’s doing.

“Being quite honest, he looks fantastic, and I think the better ground will help him as well as he’s a horse with a lot of speed.”

Alan King’s Senior Citizen, the Nicky Henderson-trained Pistol Whipped and The Big Bite from Henry Oliver’s yard also feature.

Ex-racehorses playing key role in Greatwood charity work

The coronavirus pandemic is taking its toll on all aspects of life, but it has not stopped Wiltshire-based charity Greatwood from continuing their valuable work with children, with the help of an unlikely therapist – the ex-racehorse.

The charity was founded in 1998 by Michael and Helen Yeadon and was initially a racehorse rehoming centre based in Devon.

The couple were asked to help a young girl who had become so withdrawn that she refused to speak, and the healing partnership she subsequently created with a rescued ex-racehorse inspired the creation of the organisation as it is today.

World Hurdle hero Cole Harden retired to Greatwood in 2018
World Hurdle hero Cole Harden retired to Greatwood in 2018 (Mike Egerton/PA)

Now based in Marlborough, Greatwood is home to more than 30 ex-racehorses and an array of small animals, all of whom are central to the charity’s work to help children struggling with behavioural, educational, social and emotional issues.

“We work with young people from the age of five upwards, and it is mainly those that don’t thrive in mainstream education,” said Alex Shaw, Greatwood’s Education and Wellbeing Lead.

“That can be because of behavioural issues or physical disabilities and mental health issues – things like anxiety and depression, (and) social anxiety is one that we’re seeing a lot of.”

The team at Greatwood is currently limited to offering one-to-one sessions because of coronavirus restrictions, but ordinarily groups are also hosted at the yard – with students referred to the charity via a number of different routes.

“We have a regular cohort of primary schools that we work with, so they will refer either groups or one-to-ones to us,” added Shaw.

“For older students, we do a lot of NEET (not in employment, education or training) groups – they may be referred from social care teams, youth offending teams or job centres.

“The more vulnerable students are still coming to us, so we’ve got one-to-ones running most days at the moment.”

Once at the centre, students are encouraged to involve themselves in the daily care of the horses, learning to groom, muck out and lead them around the yard.

Greatwood also welcomes adults, offering a two-day Wellness and Wellbeing programme intended to combat the stress and worry caused by the pandemic and its many repercussions.

“We call them wellbeing weekends, and it’s just a chance to be here in the present with the horses and stop thinking about other things that are going on,” said Shaw.

“Just grooming the horses or mucking them out really helps, and we’re lucky to have woodland here. The Japanese call it ‘forest bathing’, so it’s our Wiltshire version of ‘forest bathing’.”

The connection students create with the horses and the respite provided by time spent on the farm can result in increased confidence, self-esteem and communication skills.

“We call it animal-assisted intervention,” said Shaw.

“The nice thing about the horses is that some of them come from a background that the students almost recognise – we have had a couple of rescue cases in the past, and the students bond with them because of that.

“They know the horse has been through something. They can see that they’ve both had an experience that wasn’t particularly positive, and they then form a bond.”

The charity maintains close ties with the racing industry, hosting a fundraising raceday at Newbury every February with a card that includes the Grade Three Greatwood Gold Cup.

San Benedeto won the 2019 Greatwood Gold Cup Handicap Chase at Newbury
San Benedeto won the 2019 Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury (Bradley Collyer/PA)

Many of the charity’s horses come to them directly from racing stables, either at the end of a fruitful career or earlier if the trainer suspects that the horse may not make the grade but has a suitably gentle temperament.

Greatwood’s work revolves around the bond between horse and human, something Shaw says becomes increasingly visible as the students return to yard.

“They’ve always got their favourites – it might be a particularly quirky one that suits their personality,” he said.

“You’ll find the students come here and go straight to see their favourite horse – we’ve got a few big old boys here who are about 17 hands, but they’re so gentle that the primary school children, at the age of five, love to just stand and groom a leg or something.

“The horses will just stand there and fall asleep. It’s that kind of connection that is really important.”