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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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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.
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.”
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.”
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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.
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.”
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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.
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.”
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.”
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