Mania back on the crest of a wave – with retirement a distant memory

It is not looking a bad decision from Ryan Mania to return to the saddle, having bagged yet another big-race success through Midnight Shadow in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

Mania prematurely called an end to his career just a year after scaling his Everest, when winning the 2013 Grand National on Auroras Encore.

Just shy of his 25th birthday at the time, it shocked many people, but Mania cited weight problems and that he no longer got the kick out of winning that he once did. He went to work as a hunt master in Scotland, as well as being assistant trainer to his father-in-law, Sandy Thomson.

By October 2019, however, the itch returned and Mania, with his weight now back on an even keel, was back in the saddle. Both metaphorically and literally.

Having resumed his role as principal rider for Auroras Encore’s trainer Sue Smith, due to the enforced retirement of Danny Cook through an eye injury, Mania enjoyed his first Cheltenham Festival winner in March on Vintage Clouds.

And it was for Smith he enjoyed further Cheltenham success on Midnight Shadow, who had finished second in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup last December.

“I’m sure it is emotional for most jockeys, but it is especially emotional for me to have retired and come back and do all this for my family. To come down and ride these big winners is amazing,” said Mania

“Coming down the chute in front of the crowd was really emotional and then getting back to the paddock to see Sue, I had a lump in my throat. We’ve shared a few big days now, it’s unreal.

“They keep supporting me and keep producing these big winners. They deserve all the credit.

“In March it was empty so we could take things in a bit more than normal, today you are distracted by the crowd, they were unbelievable and it makes it more special.

“I never say I regret retiring because ultimately it was the best thing I ever did, but coming back was also the best thing I could have done. Everything happens for a reason and works out the way it’s supposed to. Days like this are the reason.”

Midnight Shadow jumps the last in isolation
Midnight Shadow jumps the last in isolation (David Davies/PA)

Midnight Shadow is now Smith’s flag bearer, but while she has been famed down the years for picking up major staying chases with the likes of the aforementioned Vintage Clouds, The Last Fling, Wakanda and of course Auroras Encore, Smith is hoping this one might just be a bit better and is planning an ambitious tilt at the King George.

Given he will now be rated in the mid 150s and Mania felt he was idling in front, he is certainly entitled to have a go.

“He got a little bit lonely which he can do in his races if he is in front for too long, and the lack of concentration maybe didn’t help,” said Mania.

“In fairness, he was never being beaten as he is very game and I could feel the horses coming to me but he was never going to let them past.

“He is a very easy horse to ride in a race as he jumps and he travels, so you can do what you want with him. He is a jockey’s dream really and I’m very lucky to ride him. Everything went to plan and he barely missed a fence, so I can’t complain.

“He ran a really good race last time out and the only negative was that it was three weeks ago and I thought he might have had a hard race in the Old Roan at Aintree, but he has come here and he has never felt any effects of that race, thank God.”

He added: “There are no plans to retire, I’ve got a good 10 years in me yet.”

Midnight Shadow strikes Paddy Power gold

Midnight Shadow claimed the spoils in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham after last year’s winner Coole Cody fell at the second-last when leading the field.

Midnight Shadow was one of those in close pursuit and jumped the last in front – but he made a mistake there and was all out up the hill to hold the late challenge of Protektorat to land the prize for the Grand National-winning partnership of trainer Sue Smith and jockey Ryan Mania.

The eight-year-old was just three-quarters of a length in front at the line to strike at odds of 9-1. Protektorat (11-2 favourite) was half a length ahead of Lalor (7-1) in third, with Dostal Phil (16-1) a length back in fourth place.

There was a strong pace from the start, with Coole Cody getting into the lead once the field settled down. Simply The Betts was prominent in the early stages, as was Al Dancer while Midnight Shadow was fairly handy.

Paint The Dream took closer order as the tempo increased, but his challenged petered out. Coole Cody looked certain to take a hand in the finish, only to make a dramatic exit at the tricky penultimate obstacle.

Smith – whose finest hour came with Auroras Encore and Mania in the 2013 Aintree spectacular – said: “I probably get more emotional these days because I’m that much older!

“It’s special, it’s special for everyone because we’re only a small yard and northern trainers don’t get to do this very often, so it’s lovely.

“I’ve probably got about 45-50 in training, but they are not all Midnight Shadows! I probably had a few more in when we won the National, but these are once-in-a-lifetime horses, the same as Auroras Encore was – and he’s still in the field looking very well now.

“He was bought at Doncaster by Harvey (Smith) and he was bred by Mr Smith-Maxwell who actually runs the horse ambulance service here.”

Smith revealed an ambitions target for Midnight Shadow at Christmas.

She said: “I think the plan could be to go to Kempton for the big race – the King George.

“We’ve been thinking of stepping him up to three miles for some time so we may as well do it then, if you don’t try these things you don’t know. Eventually he will get three miles, I’m sure.

“You don’t often come across a horse like this, so it’s amazing to have him in our yard – he’s obviously the best horse in our yard.”

Maximum field declared for Paddy Power

Simply The Betts and Protektorat top the weights for the Paddy Power Gold Cup after a maximum field of 20 was declared for the valuable handicap chase at Cheltenham on Saturday.

The original top weight, Assemble, was withdrawn at the 48-hour final declaration stage on Thursday leaving the Paul Nicholls-trained Simply The Betts and Dan Skelton’s Protektorat, part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, at the head of the list.

Nicholls also has leading ante-post fancy Lalor, formerly trained by Kayley Woollacott, going for honours while Skelton has Spiritofthegames, who was runner-up 12 months ago.

Last year’s winner Coole Cody, trained by Evan Williams, bids to become only the sixth horse to land the prize twice with the last being Cyfor Malta in 1998 and 2002.

Al Dancer, who was third in 2020 when with Nigel Twiston-Davies, bids to go two places better for Sam Thomas.

Others in the mix include Nicky Henderson’s Caribean Boy, Sue Smith’s Midnight Shadow and the Brian Ellison-trained Nietzsche, winner of the Greatwood Hurdle in 2018.

Skelton’s Third Time Lucki, hugely impressive at the October meeting, faces three rivals in the Grade Two From The Horse’s Mouth Podcast Novices’ Chase.

Two of those are Dr Richard Newland’s Captain Tom Cat and Nicholls’ Mick Pastor, first and second in the “Rising Stars” Novices’ Chase at Wincanton last week. Tom Lacey’s Sebastopol also runs.

Sporting John (right) beat Shan Blue last season but returns over hurdles
Sporting John (right) beat Shan Blue last season but returns over hurdles (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Philip Hobbs’ Sporting John returns over the smaller obstacles in the Paddy Power Games Handicap Hurdle.

A Grade One-winning novice chaser last term, he has had a wind operation since disappointing at Cheltenham and Aintree in the spring.

There are nine runners in the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle with Nicholls’ Magistrato catching the eye on his British debut at Chepstow.

Coole Cody primed for Paddy Power defence

Last year’s winner Coole Cody is among 24 horses standing their ground for Saturday’s Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham at the five-day confirmation stage.

Evan Williams’ charge took the valuable two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase by three and a quarter lengths from Spiritofthegames 12 months.

The 10-year-old shaped encouragingly on his pipe-opener over hurdles at the Prestbury Park track last month when runner-up to Guard Your Dreams in a handicap over a similar distance.

Williams said: “We’re giving it another go. He had a nice run last time and blew the old cobwebs away. Obviously we’re a bit higher than last year but we’ll give it a crack.

“He goes well round the track. He enjoys the old course which is a bonus.”

Protektorat is due to represent Dan Skelton
Protektorat is due to represent Dan Skelton (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Spiritofthegames is one of two possibles from the Dan Skelton stable along with Protektorat. The latter is one of the 5-1 ante-post joint-favourites along with Lalor, who would be having his first run for Paul Nicholls.

The Ditcheat handler also has Simply The Betts, who would be another making his debut for the yard.

Other fancied runners include the Sam Thomas-trained Al Dancer and Caribean Boy from Nicky Henderson’s stable. The weights are headed by Assemble, trained by Joseph O’Brien.

Caribean Boy to swerve Grand Sefton for Paddy Power

Caribean Boy is set to head for the Paddy Power Gold Cup after the weights for the valuable handicap chase at Cheltenham on Saturday week were unveiled.

The seven-year-old, trained by Nicky Henderson, is likely to wait for the Prestbury Park event rather than go for the Betway Grand Sefton Handicap Chase, over the Grand National fences, at Aintree on Saturday.

Owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede also have Charlie Hall victor Fusil Raffles and Janika in the Cheltenham feature, but Caribean Boy could be their only representative. He has been allotted 11st.

“The only one of ours that is likely to be confirmed is Caribean Boy – he’s unlikely to go for the Grand Sefton – and I think the Paddy Power Gold Cup is the latest plan for him,” said Anthony Bromley, racing manager for the owners.

“It will be interesting to see what others are confirmed on Monday, but we knew his handicap mark so his weight could go up a bit higher depending if others come out.

“He’s a horse who goes well fresh and it’s a big prize and he is one of our tallest horses so we’re not too worried about his weight – it’s probably more about whether his handicap mark is fair or not.

“He’s in good shape and has got stronger and goes well fresh so ‘Double Green’ team are pinning our hopes on him.”

He went on: “Daryl (Jacob) can ride at Cheltenham and he’s at Wincanton this weekend so can’t be at Aintree which is another factor.

“He did run quite well at the Festival at Cheltenham in the spring and not quite so well at Aintree over the National fences after that so that’s another factor.

“We wouldn’t want the ground too heavy, just nice genuine good to soft ground would be perfect for him.”

Protektorat on course for Paddy Power Gold Cup date

Part-owner John Hales is excited about his Grade One-winning novice Protektorat starting his season in the Paddy Power Gold Cup next month.

The Dan Skelton-trained six-year-old, who also counts Sir Alex Ferguson among his owners, enjoyed his finest hour when winning the Manifesto Novices’ Chase at the Grand National meeting.

The first major handicap of the new season has been his aim for some time and the sponsors make him their 7-1 favourite.

“It was an excellent performance at Aintree and, fingers crossed, I genuinely think this is a very good horse. He’s had a few niggling problems, but he was fit that day and produced a lovely performance,” said Hales.

“The Paddy Power Gold Cup is the early season target and this race was always the plan over the summer after that performance. He has matured very well in the summer, grown up physically and developed very well and this was the logical target to go for.”

All Protektorat’s wins have come with the word soft in the description and Hales admits he would not want quick ground.

“I think he is a typical French-bred and likes a bit of cut in the ground. The softer side of good – it doesn’t matter to him,” said Hales.

“I would normally have something in mind (for later in the season) but he likes to go left-handed rather than right-handed.

“If he produced a top performance, I’d say the King George but he won’t be going for that as he doesn’t like going right-handed, so that’s a non-starter and we’ll have to talk to Dan.

“Possibly the Ryanair Chase could be an option later – he’s an improving horse and at this stage we’ll keep all opportunities open and see how he’s running. I’m very confident in this horse and hopefully if he keeps fit, the Ryanair could be one of many options at Cheltenham or Aintree.”

Coole customer O’Brien times it to perfection in more ways than one

Timing is often everything in racing – and Tom O’Brien not only got his fractions right, but secured a victory to thrust him back into the spotlight aboard Coole Cody in the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

In what has been a difficult year for everyone in the sport following the coronavirus pandemic, the 33-year-old has struggled more than most with his all-the-way success aboard the Evan Williams-trained nine-year-old in the Grade Three handicap feature at Cheltenham just his ninth of the campaign.

While big-race wins are nothing new to O’Brien, who has tasted Grade One glory in the past, he hopes his latest landmark triumph can transform a season which has been slow to gather momentum into a campaign blessed with further opportunities.

He said: “It’s at the right time (this winner). I’ve gone a little bit quiet on numbers and it just puts you back in the limelight and hopefully I can just kick on from here.

“I’m not riding enough winners to be positive like that (and feel I had the others held). I was hoping for the line to come, but I had a very willing partner.

“To get back going again after the last and keep going to the line was a brilliant effort from the horse.”

Though O’Brien is now able to reflect fondly on the success of the 10-1 shot, it was nearly a case of what could have been had he not sat tight following a shuddering mistake at the fourth fence.

He said: “He slipped at the back of the last (on the first circuit).

“I jumped it right on the inside and that course did not have a big amount of runners on it so the ground is easy on top.

“I thought he was going down, but thank God he didn’t.”

Despite Coole Cody, who was making just his sixth chasing start, being one of the least experienced runners over fences in the field, the 2006/07 champion conditional jockey – who was standing in for the injured Adam Wedge – believed he had plenty in his favour coming into the race.

He said: “He came at it at the right time. He was relatively unexposed over fences though he had good form over hurdles around here.

“The light weight allowed him to do it and there were some very proven horses in behind him with a lot more weight.

“He just got into a good rhythm and I managed to fill him up at the right times and he kept going.”

Coole Cody may have ticked plenty of boxes coming into the two-and-a-half-mile prize, but with the calibre of opposition he was up against O’Brien felt making the frame would have been an acceptable result.

He said: “To be 100 per cent honest I thought he was just an each-way chance just looking at the two-mile-five form Simply The Betts had (from the Festival) and obviously there was David Pipe’s horse (Siruh Du Lac).

“Paul Nicholls’ horse (Saint Sonnet) was an unknown and there was also Mister Fisher. It looked very hot and what I knew I had was the light weight on my side and that was definitely a help when I got into rhythm out in front.”

It is not the first time Williams and O’Brien have joined forces to good effect this season, with the pair combining to take Listed honours with Silver Streak at Kempton last month, and O’Brien believes the Welsh handler deserves his fair share of praise for the victory.

He added: “Evan really got it right. He phoned me this morning and said he is difficult to get up on (as he is a character) and he went through that in detail.

“The position to get, which didn’t go to plan, was I was meant to take a lead off Tom (Scudamore on Siruh Du Lac), but he had all of his boxes ticked anyway.”

Coole Cody makes all for Paddy Power Gold Cup glory

Coole Cody ran the opposition ragged as he made all the running to win the ultra-competitive Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

The Evan Williams-trained nine-year-old kept pulling out more to ward off all-comers and land the prestigious handicap chase in determined fashion.

There was early drama when Siruh Du Lac, who was sharing the lead with Coole Cody and Simply The Betts, unseated Tom Scudamore at the first fence.

That gave Coole Cody the opportunity to open up a 10-length lead as the field set out for the final circuit under Tom O’Brien, who was replacing the injured Adam Wedge.

Despite making the odd mistake, Coole Cody (10-1) maintained his momentum as rivals such as Happy Diva and Saint Sonnet came down.

Spiritofthegames (14-1) tried to put in a late bid but Coole Cody would not be denied and went on to score by three and a quarter lengths. Al Dancer (5-1 favourite) was another length away third, with Kauto Riko (50-1) a staying-on fourth.

Williams said: “They are very hard races to win and we are usually second, third and fourth in all these big races – we have been second, third and fourth in them all! But if you keep trying, you’ll get there in the end.

“Wedgy is out injured and it’s a disappointment for him, but Tom has ridden me loads of winners over the years. We have had some bad luck stories here with Tom in the past, so it’s great he’s got a good one on the board.”

The Vale of Glamorgan trainer went on: “We got lucky with a few loose horses at the right time and he just kept him going. It was a bit rough and ready out there, but it’s not a beauty contest. You saw him nearly fall in front of the stands. He was down, but that probably just woke him up.

“I didn’t think he had gone too quick, the horse was pricking his ears down the back straight.

“He can be a funny old horse at times, but when he gets the bit between his teeth and gets rolling, he is a tough horse. I don’t mean he is funny in that he doesn’t want to do it, I mean he is a funny character.

“If he could do things the hard way all the time, he would do it the hard way. If he wanted to do it an easier way he could, but if there were two directions, he would always choose the hard way.

“If he could go to the pub and have a fight he would prefer to do that rather than sit in front of a fire with his slippers. It doesn’t matter what we do now, as he has won a Paddy Power. I don’t care what he does from now on.”

On whether the horse might come back to Cheltenham next month, Williams added: “We will see how things go.

“At the end of the day it is job done as far as I’m concerned with him. If we dropped him back to novice company, he could be dangerous in some of those small-field novice chases.

“There’s some great twos (mile) races around Ascot that spring to mind – two-mile-five, two-mile-three round there could be right up his street, and he doesn’t have to go into big handicaps and get slaughtered, he could tickle away in novice chases because he could be dangerous in some of them.

“As far as his mark is concerned, that is going to get blown out of the water now and he might win a Grade Two. Whether he’s a Grade One horse is debatable, but he could win a Grade Two over fences.”

O’Brien said: “I am absolutely delighted, thank you very much to the Evan Williams team. I’m sorry for Wedgy, who I am stepping in for, but I am delighted to take the opportunity.

“I am a second jockey, my good opportunities are few and far between and I would like to think I take them when I get them.”

Dan Skelton was again proud of Spiritofthegames – and sincerely hope a big race goes the way of the eight-year-old soon.

He said: “He has been second so many times and I thought we were going to win one. To be fair to the winner he pulled out more when we got to him.

“I desperately want him to win one as he has been second and third in all the top handicaps here. He has been a bridesmaid in all off them, just please one day one of them I’d like one to go his way.

“He had a chance, but what more can you say he has only won one chase in his life – he has been a bridesmaid so many times. It is not because he is ungeniune. He puts his heart on the line, the handicapper has his say and there is often a more progressive horse than him.

“I think I will miss the December race as he has had a hard race there and go for the New Year’s Day race. He is entered in the Sefton (at Aintree), but I probably don’t need to subject him to that really.”

Happy Diva bidding for famous double at Cheltenham

Happy Diva aims to become the first back-to-back winner of the Paddy Power Gold Cup since Bradbury Star when the Kerry Lee-trained mare lines up at Cheltenham on Saturday.

While Cyfor Malta did win the famous handicap twice after Josh Gifford’s top-class performer, his victories came four years apart.

Happy Diva may turn 10 on New Year’s Day, but continued to improve throughout last season and was second at the Festival behind Simply The Betts, whom she meets on better terms this weekend.

When it was put to her that Happy Diva would be attempting to emulate one of the greats of the National Hunt scene, Lee said: “She’s already one of the greats in our eyes!

Jockey Richard Patrick and trainer Kerry Lee (right) celebrate 12 months ago
Jockey Richard Patrick and trainer Kerry Lee (right) celebrate 12 months ago (Nigel French/PA)

“I still maintain that her career-best effort was at the Festival last year, she just got chinned. She’s in great form going there, but we know she’s up against it as she’s up in the handicap (from last year).

“At the weights we probably can’t win but we’ve got to have a go at it, her prep run brought her on and we’re 100 per cent happy that she’ll run her best race, whether that is good enough we’ll find out.

“This will probably her her last handicap – mares’ races like the one at Doncaster at Christmas, where she just got beat by Lady Buttons, and the new one at the Festival are probably what we’re looking at.”

Simply The Betts has taken to chasing with real aplomb, winning four of his five starts last season, culminating in his win in March.

That was a breakthrough at the big meeting for trainer Harry Whittington, who has been delighted with his preparation for this.

“We were thinking about the Old Roan or the Paddy Power in the summer and the same owners have got Itchy Feet, so it makes sense for him to be going back to Cheltenham,” said Whittington.

“He’s two from two, he loves the track, he thrives (there). I think that’s a huge advantage.

“He’s fresh, he’s incredibly well. He’s done plenty of work because he started off when he came in in June.

“His work has been sparkling, we’re very happy with him and he’s won fresh every season so we’re really looking forward to running him.”

Happy Diva was the beneficiary of a late fall by Slate House last year with Colin Tizzard’s charge, who was a novice at the time, slipping up two out.

He later went on to win a Grade One at Kempton and assistant trainer Joe Tizzard feels he is back in top form.

He said: “He has not had a prep run before the race this year, but he goes well fresh. He likes the track and it seems like a nice target for him.

“It looked like he was cruising in last year’s race until he fell, but it was just one of those things. As his season went on he improved like we hoped he would although the Cheltenham Festival never really worked out for him.

“He is quite a bit higher in the weights this year, but we still feel it is the right race for him.

“If you forget his Cheltenham Festival run he has always run pretty well round Cheltenham. He goes well fresh and runs well at this time of year.”

The Russian Doyen is quietly fancied by Joe Tizzard
The Russian Doyen is quietly fancied by Joe Tizzard (David Davies/PA)

The Tizzards also saddle one of the outsiders, The Russian Doyen, but he could outrun his odds.

Tizzard said: “He got injured at Aintree and that was it for last season, but the season before he finished fourth in the Listed novice handicap chase at the Cheltenham Festival where he was the best of the English-trained runners.

“He could be a slightly forgotten horse and had a nice prep run over hurdles at Fontwell. I think he has got a great each-way chance.”

The ante-post favourite for a long time was Paul Nicholls’ Saint Sonnet, before he was joined at the head of the betting by Mister Fisher and Simply The Betts.

Nicholls told Betfair of his French import: “We freshened him up before he won a little race at Catterick at the end of February and he then ran an encouraging race in the Marsh Chase at the Festival. I’ve had the Paddy Power Gold in mind for him ever since.

“Saint Sonnet has had a perfect preparation since coming back into training at the start of July, he should be very fit, and a mark of 147 is fair enough without being a gift.

“I did plan to give him a pop over hurdles at Chepstow a month ago, but took him out because the ground was too quick. He is an improving five-year-old and I couldn’t be happier with him.”

The Pipe family have a good record in this race and David Pipe hopes new recruit Siruh Du Lac can get involved at the finish on his first run since leaving Nick Williams.

Siruh Du Lac was a Cheltenham Festival winner for Lizzie Kelly in 2019
Siruh Du Lac was a Cheltenham Festival winner for Lizzie Kelly in 2019 (Nigel French/PA)

“Siruh Du Lac is in good form. He had a wind operation over the summer. He works well as you would expect from a 150-rated horse. He needs to step up his game to be involved in the finish, but he has been working well at home and we are very much looking forward to it,” said Pipe.

“Siruh Du Lac has been to all the big occasions anyway. He usually races up towards the front of the field and touch wood is a good jumper.

“He did fall at Cheltenham last time and you just think about whether horses remember that. He has jumped nicely at home and jumping is one of his strengths, so I think he was just unlucky last time.

“The horses have been in good form and are running well. We of course have a history with the Paddy Power meeting, and it would be great to enjoy another good weekend at Cheltenham.”

Nigel Twiston-Davies is another trainer with a good record in the race and feels the step up in trip could suit his Al Dancer.

The William Hill ambassador said: “His win first time up this season at Newton Abbot was quite remarkable to be honest. The reason why I felt it was so good was because he settled so well, better than he ever had done before, and that could be the key to him.

“He had to run over two miles before because he wouldn’t settle, but if he settles here then this trip might bring out the best in him. I think this extra distance should put him ahead of the handicapper.”

Aso tops Paddy Power Gold Cup field

Cheltenham regular Aso heads a field of 17 in the Paddy Power Gold Cup after all the five-day confirmations stood their ground

Trained by Venetia Williams, the 10-year-old is without a win since New Year’s Day 2019 but has run several good races in defeat since, including when runner-up to Frodon in the Ryanair that same season.

There are plenty of second-season chasers, who have the potential to mix it in top company, taking him on.

They are led by Harry Whittington’s Festival winner Simply The Betts, beaten just once over fences in five outings last season, and his jockey Gavin Sheehan has won his race for fitness in time to ride him again.

Nicky Henderson’s Mister Fisher has always been highly regarded and was not beaten far by Samcro in the Marsh Novices’ Chase in March.

Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Al Dancer was a length behind Mister Fisher in a Grade Two at Doncaster last season and meets that rival on 1lb better terms, having already won this term at Newton Abbot.

Colin Tizzard may feel Slate House has a score to settle in this race, given what happened 12 months ago.

Sent off favourite, despite being a novice, Slate House was coming with what looked like a winning run when falling two from home. He went on to win a Grade One, but his season ended on a flat note.

Tizzard also runs The Russian Doyen.

Happy Diva was a popular winner of the race 12 months ago for Kerry Lee and Richard Patrick – and she continued to progress all through last season, going close behind Simply The Betts at the Festival.

The ante-post market leader for some time has been Paul Nicholls’ Saint Sonnet.

Nicholls could hardly be in better form, and his French import remains hugely unexposed, having had just two runs in Britain. Nicholls also runs Brelan D’As, beaten a neck in this last year.

Siruh Du Lac has his first run for David Pipe, and Dan Skelton’s Spiritofthegames will be aiming to make it ninth time lucky at Cheltenham – while Fidux aims to cap a magical few days for Alan King.

Domaine De L’Isle, Kauto Riko, Pinson Du Rheu, Coole Cody and Sky Pirate also run.

Simply The Betts sticking to familiar routine before Paddy Power Gold Cup

After a breakthrough Cheltenham Festival in March, Harry Whittington is set to return to Prestbury Park at the weekend with two of the horses that provided him with the most memorable week of his career.

Simply The Betts secured Whittington his first winner at the showpiece meeting when holding off Kerry Lee’s Happy Diva to claim the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase.

The seven-year-old has not been seen since and is due to make his seasonal reappearance in the Paddy Power Gold Cup on Saturday.

Whittington expects the historic handicap to be an acid test of whether his gelding is cut out for even bigger things, with only Venetia Williams’ Aso required to carry more weight.

Gavin Sheehan celebrates with Simply The Betts at Cheltenham in March
Gavin Sheehan celebrates with Simply The Betts at Cheltenham in March (Tim Goode/PA)

“It’s going to be tough for him, 157 is a big mark to be winning off in a handicap,” Whittington said.

“We’ll find out whether he’s a Grade One horse. I think he’s going to have to perform like a Grade One horse to win on Saturday, but he’s confident around the track, he’s a dual handicap winner around there, a course and distance winner.”

The seven-year-old will make his usual detour to the yard of three-day eventer Laura Collett, who schools him over showjumps before he is loaded back onto the horsebox to set sail for Cheltenham.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s the winning formula,” Whittington said, speaking on a press call hosted by Great British Racing.

“I had the idea because when he ran at Kempton he just didn’t jump well enough, it was as simple as that.

“The showjumping at Laura’s taught him where to put his feet when he was coming in to a jump, he went there once a week from Kempton to Trials Day and he got better and better. It used to freshen him up, he’d come back from Laura’s squealing and bucking.

“We recognised that he really enjoys that day out at Laura’s so I said to my assistant ‘is it the maddest idea in the world to stop in there and just give him a pop to get his blood up and get him revved for the day?’. He said he thought it was a great idea, so we did it and obviously he won.

“Going into the Festival I said ‘we can’t take him this time, this is the Cheltenham Festival. How can we take him to do some showjumping a few hours before his actual race?’. My assistant said ‘you cannot change the plan, it’s an edge, it worked last time!’. So we stuck to our guns.”

Whittington will also use the race to gauge where to target the horse next, with the trainer still to discover what his optimum trip is.

“Gavin (Sheehan, jockey) has always said he’s got the speed for two miles, he’s very good over two and a half but he’ll stay three,” he said.

“I suppose if he wins we’ll keep him over two and a half, but if he gets beaten we might be thinking it’s the speed or it’s because he wants further.

“I think with him we’ll probably learn about the trip, at the moment we’re thinking he’s extremely versatile, we’re thinking that he could actually drop back to two miles.

“I don’t think we’ll step him up to three, but he’s in the King George. Andrew (Brooks, owner) wants to have the entry in the King George just to keep all bases covered. We’re keeping an open mind, but I think we’ll learn a lot about the trip.”

Sheehan, who was given the all-clear to return to action on Monday after an absence caused by a broken wrist, is also the regular pilot of Whittington’s second weekend runner, Rouge Vif.

Another to run in the silks of Kate and Andrew Brooks, Rouge Vif finished third at the Festival in the Arkle Trophy.

He returned to action at the same track in October, winning a handicap by a facile seven and a half lengths under stand-in jockey Daryl Jacob.

The French-bred bay will contest the Shloer Chase on Sunday, a Grade Two race, among a high-quality field that includes his Arkle conqueror Put The Kettle On and seven-time Grade One winner Defi Du Seuil.

Whittington highlighted how impressive the six-year-old’s jumping is, with any doubts about his ability to performance on Cheltenham’s rolling turf dispelled by his earlier victory at the track.

“This is a horse that ever since we’ve jumped a fence with him, he has just been electric,” he said.

“When he lands he just has this ability to accelerate away from a fence and I think that’s what makes him so lethal, especially on good ground. His ability to get away from a fence is very impressive so we’re really looking forward to the Shloer with him.

“There have been so many question marks about the undulations of Cheltenham, but he put that to bed in his run three weeks ago.

“We had the Haldon Gold Cup as our Plan A, but we thought we’d put the Cheltenham entry in, just to look at it. We then thought we’d be mad not to run because of the good ground and because we wanted to learn about the track anyway.

“Thank goodness we did, because he’s gone there and he’s obliterated them and he’s given himself a lot of confidence to go back there on Sunday.”

Pipe eyeing Gold run for new recruit Siruh Du Lac

David Pipe believes Siruh Du Lac will have to take another step forward if he is to make a winning debut for the stable in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday.

The seven-year-old gelding, who also holds an entry in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury on November 28, was pulled up in the Grade Three prize last year when trained by Nick Williams.

Though failing to complete either of his two starts last term, Siruh Du Lac had previously looked a horse on an upward curve having completed a four-timer over fences culminating with victory in the 2019 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Plate at the Festival.

New handler Pipe said: “He does have a Ladbrokes Trophy entry, but I would probably say he will go for the Paddy Power as long as the ground is right.

“He looks a lovely horse to have at the yard and his form is in the book for all to see. We gave him a wind operation during the summer and he works like a nice horse.

“He would have to improve to win the Paddy Power off his mark of 150, but he is a decent horse and he is still only seven.”

Pipe reports the Anne Underhill and John White-owned gelding to have settled into his new surroundings well.

He added: “He came in during lockdown, so we had him during the summer and he has had a good summer.

“Last season he had a heavy fall at Cheltenham and he pulled up in this race, so it didn’t quite work out for him on track.

“He has been in with us for a while now and he is fairly straightforward. He is a good addition to the yard.”

Stablemate Panic Attack could also be Cheltenham bound, with Pipe earmarking the Valda Energy Handicap Hurdle on Friday as a possible target.

After finding only Vegas Blue too strong on her hurdles debut at Huntingdon, the Listed bumper winner went one better on her most recent start at Uttoxeter.

Pipe added: “It was a good performance at Uttoxeter and she showed a good attitude to win up there.

“She will have an entry in the two-mile novice handicap hurdle at Cheltenham on Friday and we will take a look at that.”

Happy Diva set to defend her Cheltenham title

Happy Diva is ready to defend her crown in next week’s Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

The Kerry Lee-trained mare proved a neck too strong for Brelan D’As 12 months ago, and later went close to a famous Cheltenham double when second to Simply The Betts in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase in March.

The nine-year-old was fifth on her return to action in a Listed handicap chase at Wetherby last week.

Bradbury Star was the last back-to-back winner of the feature race at Cheltenham’s November meeting, back in 1993 and 1994, but Lee reports her stable star – who has been allotted 11st 5lb – in good order.

She said: “Happy Diva has come out of Wetherby in fine fettle. She will come on plenty for that run, and the Paddy Power Gold Cup is once again the aim.

“We were delighted with Wetherby, because she showed every inch of her usual zest and enthusiasm for the game.

“She is a fantastic horse, and we are lucky to have her. She is so consistent and professional – she is just a pleasure to have in the yard.

“It was very special to see her win the Paddy Power Gold Cup, and hopefully she can go close again.”

She added: “I only train around 20 horses, and to be on the biggest stage in the biggest handicap pre-Christmas is very special.

Smiles all round for the Happy Diva team at Cheltenham
Smiles all round for the Happy Diva team at Cheltenham (Nigel French/PA)

“We are rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson – what she has done for my career so far is phenomenal, and hopefully we can create more memories at Cheltenham later this month.”

The Venetia Williams-trained Aso heads the weights on 11st 12lb for the £130,000 contest, while Nicholls’ seven entries this year include the sponsor’s 6-1 joint-favourite Saint Sonnet (11st 1lb), who has not raced since finishing seventh behind Samcro in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Festival.

A strong team for Nicholls also features Haldon Gold Cup victor Greaneteen (11st 5lb ex 5lb penalty), recent Chepstow scorer Grand Sancy (11st 3lb) and last year’s runner-up Brelan D’As (10st 11lb).

Imperial Aura (Kim Bailey) shares favouritism and will shoulder a minimum of 11st 11lb following a comeback success in the Listed Colin Parker Memorial Chase at Carlisle on Sunday.

Imperial Aura and David Bass on the way to victory at Cheltenham
Imperial Aura and David Bass on the way to victory at Cheltenham (Simon Cooper/PA)

The prolific seven-year-old ran three times at Cheltenham last season and ended the campaign with victory in the Listed Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase at the big meeting in the spring.

Nigel Twiston-Davies is the most successful current trainer in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, with four wins. The Gloucestershire handler’s three entries include second-season chasers Al Dancer (11st 8lb) and Good Boy Bobby (11st), who have been in winning action this season at Newton Abbot and Bangor respectively.

Harry Whittington’s Simply The Betts (11st 11lb) could face Happy Diva again – with other names to note including Mister Fisher (11st 9lb), one of four entries for Nicky Henderson, and Kauto Star Novices’ Chase victor Slate House (Colin Tizzard, 11st 6lb).

Betts set for Paddy Power Gold Cup reappearance

Festival winner Simply The Betts is on course to return to Cheltenham for the Paddy Power Gold Cup on November 14.

Trained by Harry Whittington, he provided the handler with a first win at the Festival in March and could again meet Happy Diva, who finished second in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase and won the Paddy Power 12 months ago.

“Simply The Betts is on course for the Paddy Power Gold Cup and one would assume that is where we will go,” said Whittington.

“I will talk to Andrew Brooks again, but we have made the entry and that looks to be where we are heading.

“He is a course-and-distance winner and an exciting prospect for this season.

“I have been delighted with how Simply The Betts has summered – I am thrilled with him to be honest with you.

“We have just done things slightly differently to sweeten him up and he has been working really well at home.

“We are looking forward to this season with him.”

Paul Nicholls has seven entries with Saint Sonnet the current 6-1 market leader with the sponsors.

Southfield Stone won at Cheltenham last weekend
Southfield Stone won at Cheltenham last weekend (David Davies/PA)

Greaneteen and Southfield Stone, a winner at the track last Saturday, are among his team.

Mister Fisher is one of four possibles for Nicky Henderson, with Al Dancer and Good Boy Bobby entered by Nigel Twiston-Davies.

Imperial Aura, another Festival winner in March, Cepage and Siruh Du Lac are also among the 37 contenders.

Last year’s winner Harambe is one of 36 in the Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle on November 15 – as is Henderson’s exciting mare Marie’s Rock.

Tom Symonds is also considering the race for Kingwell Hurdle winner Song For Someone.

“Song For Someone is in great form and the Unibet Greatwood Hurdle is a possibility,” said Symonds.

“He is entered at Ascot on Saturday and could head there, but the Greatwood is also in our minds.

“He is in really good form, and I am delighted with how he looks and how he has done over the summer.

“It is very exciting to have a horse like him in the yard, as he was a real flag bearer for us last season.

“His victory at Kempton was a real highlight and with his rating of 153, we will have to pitch him into some big races. Hopefully, he can have another good season.”