Rouge Vif could find Celebration made to measure

Harry Whittington believes the Celebration Chase at Sandown is the ideal long-term target for Rouge Vif following his impressive performance in defeat over course and distance in the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase.

The six-year-old filled the same spot on his previous two starts at the top level, in the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival in March and the Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree in 2018, when chasing home the Paul Nicholls-trained pair of Politologue and Greaneteen in the prestigious two-mile contest on Saturday.

While a return to the Festival for an outing in the Queen Mother Champion Chase remains an option, the Sparsholt handler feels Rouge Vif’s best opportunity to gain a first Grade One success could come back at the Esher track on the final day of the jumps season in April.

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He said: “Rouge Vif ran a belter and he showed he can be competitive in the top tier when he gets quicker conditions. I’d like to think he would be winning a race of this kind in the future as he is a better horse on better ground.

“We will probably now wait with him until he gets his conditions. I’d imagine Andrew (Brooks, owner) would like to go for the Champion Chase if the ground was right, but if not we have Aintree or the Celebration Chase at Sandown.

“The Celebration Chase looks an obvious long-term target for him as he is going to be a better horse on that better ground while we know he handles the track and that he jumps the fences well around there. As ever Andrew will make the final decisions.”

Having decided against running Rouge Vif in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, Whittington was happy enough with conditions at Sandown to let him take his chance in the Tingle Creek.

He added: “I walked the course and I felt the conditions were fine for him to run. In the Shloer Chase it was going to be very testing and as it turned out it was a war of attrition.

“I’m not going to use the ground as an excuse at Sandown. Had it have been softer than it was he probably wouldn’t have run, but we got away with it and he didn’t come back tired.”

Saint Calvados could make his return to action in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton (David Davies/PA)
Saint Calvados could make his return to action in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton (David Davies/PA)

Whittington will make a decision at the weekend regarding the participation of last season’s Ryanair runner-up Saint Calvados, who is also owned by Brooks, in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

The seven-year-old, who is a general 33-1 chance for the Grade One prize, has recently returned to training after spending four days at the Donnington Grove Equine Vets following a bout of sepsis.

Whittington said: “Saint Calvados is good and is ticking over. He is in the King George and he will do a piece of work at the weekend and I will then take a view with Andrew whether to run him in the King George.

“He had four days in the equine hospital and has had an easy week to 10 days, but he is back cantering and seems in good form.”

Rouge Vif needs sound surface at Sandown

Harry Whittington is keeping an eye on the Sandown weather as he prepares Rouge Vif to take on Altior in the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase.

The Nicky Henderson-trained Altior has been the dominant force in the two-mile division for the last few seasons, save last term when an attempt to step up in trip left its mark on the 10-year-old as he was limited to just two starts.

In contrast, Rouge Vif was twice a winner in the 2019/20 campaign and finished third in the Arkle, boosting his mark to 156 – a perch from which he triumphed with ease on his return at Cheltenham in October.

A subsequent run in last month’s Shloer Chase back at Prestbury Park was scuppered by testing ground, and Whittington believes a sound surface at the Esher venue is crucial to Rouge Vif’s chances.

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He said: “Rouge Vif is in great form and firmly on course for the Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday.

“We would obviously rather have our conditions, given we are taking on the likes of Altior, so better ground will be important to him. I think if the ground remains as it is, we would be hopeful of a good run.

“If Sandown got plenty of rain then that would put his participation in doubt, but at the moment he is a definite runner if the weather holds – and it is something we are really looking forward to.

“These are the races you dream about running in. To have a horse capable of running in a big Grade One like the Tingle Creek against a horse of Altior’s calibre is hugely exciting. Hopefully, we don’t get too much rain, and it should be a very exciting race.”

Simply The Betts has the option of running at Huntingdon for Whittington
Simply The Betts has the option of running at Huntingdon for Whittington (Tim Goode/PA)

On what could be a big weekend for Whittington and owners Kate and Andrew Brooks, Simply The Betts is also entered in Sunday’s Fitzdares Club Loves The Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon.

The seven-year-old, who was a Festival winner back in March, finished sixth on his return in the Paddy Power Gold Cup back at Cheltenham last month – and he could yet return to that venue in preference to Sunday’s Grade Two contest.

Whittington added: “He’s in great form and has come out of his last race fine. He’s also in the Caspian Caviar at Cheltenham on December 12, and no decision about where he runs will be made until later in the week. Wherever he runs, I think he’ll run very well.”

Saint Calvados forced to miss weekend return

Saint Calvados faces a spell on the sidelines due to a bout of blood poisoning following an infection.

The Andrew and Kate Brooks-owned seven-year-old has been sent to the Donnington Grove Equine Vets, near Newbury,  after trainer Harry Whittington discovered the setback on Saturday.

Last season’s Ryanair Chase runner-up was being readied to make his return to action next Saturday in either the Betfair Chase at Haydock or the Chanelle Pharma 1965 Chase at Ascot on the same day.

Whittington said: “Saint Calvados has a bit of septicaemia from an infection. We found he had the infection and a high temperature last night during evening stables.

“We are not sure where the infection came from. There is a small overreach but we are not sure it is that as it could be a pin prick somewhere.

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“As a precaution we have sent him to the Donnington Grove Equine Vets. He will spend a few days there as it is the best place for him.

“They can get on top of the infection and if there is anything else untowards they have the resources to find it.

“It means he will not be running next weekend, which is frustrating as he did a lovely piece of work. ”

The Sparsholt handler has not ruled out running Saint Calvados over three miles for the first time in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

He added: “We want to make sure he is okay first before running. Hopefully he will be back in a few days but he will probably need a couple of easy weeks before we can get on with him.

“He is in the King George and whether that rules him out of that I’m not sure, but that will be Andrew’s decision. Hopefully all being well, we should have him for the second half of the season.”

An outing in the Grade Two Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton could be on the agenda for Rouge Vif after he was taken out of Sunday’s Shloer Chase at Cheltenham due to the soft ground.

Rouge Vif could be heading to Kempton over Christmas
Rouge Vif could be heading to Kempton over Christmas (David Davies/PA)

Whittington added: “It doesn’t really make sense running him on that ground at Cheltenham as it will be proper hard work in those conditions so we will wait for better ground.

“What we go for next I’m not sure, Andrew will have the final say. He is in the Tingle Creek but it is likely to be soft ground there.

“The Desert Orchid at Kempton is more likely as he always runs well at that meeting as he has been runner-up there two years in a row.”

Plans remain fluid for Simply The Betts, who suffered only his second defeat over fences when finishing sixth in the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

He added: “He made an error at the water and he just lost his confidence a little bit after that. Gavin (Sheehan) said he galloped home really strongly.

“He has come out of it fine but we will just let the dust settle before we decide what to do next. We will discuss things over the next few days as there is no rush to make a decision.”

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.

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“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.”

Sheehan hopes to return in time for Simply The Betts

Gavin Sheehan hopes to be fit to ride leading Paddy Power Gold Cup contender Simply The Betts at Cheltenham.

He has been out of action since breaking his right wrist in a fall from the Warren Greatrex-trained Eleanor Grove at Perth on September 23.

But having successfully undergone an operation, along with spending time recuperating at Oaksey House in Lambourn, the 28-year-old aims to start riding out again next week and then hopes to get the green light to return in time for Cheltenham’s big meeting – which starts on Friday.

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Sheehan said: “I’m hoping to be back for the Paddy Power meeting. I had an operation two weeks after the fall and I ended up suffering two fractures, some dislocation and there was also five loose fragments of bone in there.

“I feel like I could ride out now – but because of the wire, which I get out on Wednesday, and screws that were put in it wouldn’t be safe to. The plan is to ride out early next week before race-riding again.

“The recovery has been going well, and I’ve spent a lot of time down at Oaksey House. The movement in the hand took a bit of time to come back because of the wire, and it is fine now, while I never really lost any strength in the wrist.”

Sheehan reports Harry Whittington’s Simply The Betts to be in good order for his first start since landing the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate at the Festival in March.

He added: “He was very impressive at the Cheltenham Festival and he had the best form all last year in my opinion.

“Daryl Jacob has schooled him and said he has been very well – and Joe Quintin, the lad who rides him, phoned me up to tell me he feels much stronger now and is a more complete horse.”

Rouge Vif will step back up to Grade Two company for the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA Images)
Rouge Vif will step back up to Grade Two company for the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA Images)

Sheehan is equally excited about the chances of stablemate Rouge Vif, who will bid to follow up his victory at the course on his return, when stepping back up in class in the Grade Two Shloer Chase a week on Sunday – one day after Simply The Betts’ anticipated return.

He added: “I was at Cheltenham the other day when Rouge Vif won, and he looked very exciting. He travelled well, and his jumping was good. He looked the whole package.

“He was getting quotes for the Champion Chase afterwards – which is very exciting. He is such a gutsy horse that just has a great attitude.”

Hard act to follow as Whittington plots routes for his stars

Matching last season’s achievements will be a hard act to follow for trainer Harry Whittington, but the chances of another campaign to savour look distinctly possible.

The coronavirus pandemic may have cut the last National Hunt term short, but it failed to stop the Sparsholt handler from enjoying his best season numerically, and financially, along with saddling his first ever Cheltenham Festival winner.

Having provided Whittington with his breakthrough Festival victory in March, Simply The Betts will now bid to cement his status as the rising star of the stable by continuing his progression over fences this term.

Simply The Betts will bid to maintain his progress over fences (Tim Goode/PA)
Simply The Betts will bid to maintain his progress over fences (Tim Goode/PA)

Whittington said: “We sent him to Laura Collett midway through last season and she worked wonders with him. The more he went there, the more confident he got with his jumping.

“After jumping two fences on Festival Trials day, I said to my wife ‘we are going to run a massive race here’. He went on to do the same thing in the Brown Advisory with a round of neat and tidy jumping before showing his class.

“It is going to be tougher now, but he has all the right credentials and is a confident horse from what he did last season, so hopefully he can go up another level.

“He has done very well at two and a half miles and we will keep him to that for now. Because of his mark he is quite limited to what he can run in so the obvious ones are the Old Roan (Aintree) and the Paddy Power Gold Cup, but as ever Andrew (Brooks, owner) will have the final call. He could be a Ryanair horse later on.”

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Had Saint Calvados met the last on a better stride then Whittington could have celebrated a second Festival winner instead of having to make do with the runner-up spot in the Ryanair Chase. But it was a display that suggested the best is still to come from the seven-year-old.

He said: “What is so pleasing with Saint Calvados is that he can be ridden patiently now and it works.

“From a blistering front-runner in his early days, changing tactics has worked fantastic as there are many horses that would sulk and not want to be ridden that way.

“There was always a question mark about stamina, but I think he showed he is a horse that can stay and you could argue that is what was kicking in at the end of the Ryanair.

“Potentially we will go three miles and it will be Andrew’s decision, but we are talking about it a lot. I’d imagine we will see him out towards the end of November in perhaps the Christy 1965 Chase (Ascot) and/or maybe the Betfair Chase (Haydock).”

The switch to fences last season saw Rouge Vif take another step forward after claiming Grade Two glory in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick before finishing third in the Arkle, and Whittington feels his progress is not yet complete.

He said: “Rouge Vif is a lot more relaxed mentally as when he was younger he was half-mad and it was like trying to tame a lion.

“His performance in the Arkle was as good as the Kingmaker. The ground was against him, but his jumping was something to behold in the Arkle and that is what kept him in it.

“There is the race at the Showcase meeting at Cheltenham that Saint Calvados won last year, or there is the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter for him to start with.”

Having done well with his novice chase team last season Whittington appears to have in Stick With Bill and Young Bull two ideal candidates to give him further success in the same division this campaign.

He said: “Stick With Bill is still on the weak side as he is a big horse, but he has done well for a break. He will start off in a novice handicap chase, I’d imagine, over two and a half miles on soft, but I’d imagine we will go over three miles pretty quickly with him. He could be a future Welsh National type.

“Young Bull has a similar profile to Stick With Bill and he was three from five last season and he probably surprised us a little bit.

“He might start over two and a half miles this side of Christmas around a big, galloping track like Wetherby or Chepstow in a novice handicap chase. He will make up into a three-miler by the end of season.”

Like every yard, the father-of-one has welcomed in an influx of new talent, of which there are two he has high hopes of seeing appear in the winner’s enclosure over the winter months.

He said: “I got Docpickedme at the Cheltenham Festival Sale. I spoke to Derek O’Connor, who rode him in his point-to-point, during lockdown and he felt he had enough speed and class to go in a nice bumper somewhere.

“Qualismart is a very well-bred horse from France that has a lot of speed. He was going to run in France, but Andrew decided to give him a bit more time which was a wise move.

“He won’t run in a bumper as he has done a lot of work in France. He jumps well and will go straight over hurdles.”