There’s no such thing as a safe bet in racing, but Marcus Armytage highlights the potentially thrilling and moving stories that could come out of next week’s Cheltenham National Hunt Festival.
The longshot: Thebannerkingrebel
Former Army officer Jamie Snowden is no stranger to the winners’ enclosure at the Festival, having sent out Present View to win there in 2014. His five-year-old Thebannerkingrebel is unbeaten in two starts; winning by 12 lengths at Warwick as if he had just joined in and then following up with another easy win under a penalty at Bangor.
If he was trained by Willie Mullins, he’d be single-figure odds for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Wednesday), but he’ll more likely be nearer 33–1 (unless a lot of people read this, of course). A tenner on should leave you with some change after a night in a half-decent hotel in Cheltenham.
The Irish banker: Samcro in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle
There are a few in contention for this award: Apple’s Jade in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (Tuesday) and Laurina in the Trull House Mares’ Novice Hurdle (Thursday), but Samcro (pictured below) in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle (Wednesday) looks spectacular.
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His owner, Michael O’Leary of Ryanair fame, is trying to keep a lid on the hype by saying he won’t mean much to him until he goes chasing, but the Gordon Elliott-trained six year old is the next big thing, already being lauded as the second coming (of Arkle, in case the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks he’s missed something). He’ll be sent off odds-on and will be one of the horses the bookmakers would most like to see beaten.
The first lady: Bryony Frost
Cheltenham is the natural habitat of Irish sisters-in-law Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, but, since turning professional at the start of the season Bryony Frost, the Dartmoor-born daughter of 1989 Grand National-winning jockey Jimmy, has become the darling of the British jump scene, regarded as a breath of fresh air by the racing press.
Much of that is down to one horse, the Paul Nicholls-trained Black Corton, on which she’s won seven races this season. They’ve only been beaten once and their victories already include two at Cheltenham; they have an outstanding chance in the RSA Chase (on Wednesday). Bryony’s key asset is that she gets her horses jumping; last year, as an amateur, she won the Foxhunters on Pacha Du Polder.
The heroic recovery: Edwulf
Edwulf looked booked for second place in last year’s National Hunt Chase when he suffered a freak neurological episode on the run-in, lying on the ground for an hour as vets fought to save him. His owner, J. P. McManus, told his young trainer, Joseph O’Brien, to be patient, see if the horse came back and, if he didn’t, not to worry.
Not only did Edwulf come back, but he won the Irish Gold Cup in February at 33–1 and is now bidding to emulate Sizing John, the horse that completed the Irish-Cheltenham Gold Cup double a year ago.
The fairytale: Jedd O’Keeffe
Trainer Jedd O’Keeffe, who has a degree in Russian, was so ill with his cancer treatment in August 2011 that he told his patrons he was quitting the sport. His owners talked him out of it and last summer he recorded his best Flat season.
Although he has mainly Flat horses at his yard in Middleham, North Yorkshire, he’s a jumping man and his handful of horses under that code includes Sam Spinner, a £12,000 buy now vying for favouritism in the Stayers’ Hurdle (Thursday). Jockey Joe Colliver spent three months in Teeside jail for perverting the course of justice after a car crash, but he can’t be accused of not taking his second chance with both hands as he gets a shot at redemption on racing’s biggest stage.
The quiet owner: Patricia Pugh
There’ll be no shortage of loud owners, but Patricia Pugh, who owns red-hot Champion Chase favourite Altior (Wednesday), one of three horses she has in training with Nicky Henderson, prefers to keep a low profile.
She is curator at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art at Palace House, Newmarket – the best reason to go there these days. Before that she was curator of paintings, prints and drawings at the Museum of London and at the National Museums of Liverpool. With horses, she likes to start with a blank canvas; Altior (Latin for higher) was bought as an untried three year old.
New trainer on the block: Amy Murphy
One of the youngest trainers is Amy Murphy, also one of Newmarket’s few jump trainers. She runs second-favourite Kalashnikov, winner of the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury recently, in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Tuesday).
Amy, 26, was brought up on her father’s Wychnor Park Stud in Staffordshire, went to Hartpury College and had spells with Tom Dascombe, Gai Waterhouse in Australia and Luca Cumani before setting up on her own in August 2016. Her father, who owns Kalashnikov, reserved the name for the first horse she had that she reckoned would be a potent weapon.
New jockey on the block: James Bowen
James Bowen, who only celebrates his 17th birthday the day before the Festival starts, has already won a Welsh National. The advent of organised pony racing in Britain over the past 15 years has meant a lot of young British jockeys are coming through and riding like 25 year olds.
James, the son of Pembrokeshire trainer Peter, was home schooled from 14, won 90 pony races and on his 16th birthday switched to point-to-points, riding two winners on that day. He hasn’t looked back: he’s ridden 46 winners as a professional and, as the best 3lb claimer in the country, is bound to be in big demand in the handicaps.
The coolest watering hole: Gin and Jazz Bar
For pure exclusivity it’s the Gin and Jazz Bar, a ‘pop-up’ on Gold Cup Day (Friday) only. The 140 tickets – an extra £95 – were snapped up in a week so it’s a safe bet this will be rolled out to something bigger next year. Gin is the cool drink these days and Ronnie Scott’s will be providing the jazz after the last race.
Those who still prefer a pint of the black stuff have the traditional Guinness Village to go to – anyone who’s anyone has an early sharpener there – and, new this year, there’s British racing’s first Pan-Asian restaurant, in the tented area by the second-last fence.
If you only watch one race: Arkle Challenge Trophy
In keeping with a British racing tradition that the best shall be first – Royal Ascot’s first day is the best – the second race of the Festival meeting could prove the most exciting. As much as the Gold Cup is jump racing’s blue riband and this year’s renewal is fascinating because of its openness and its quirky favourite, the Arkle Challenge Trophy (Tuesday) looks sensational.
The Willie Mullins-trained Footpad for Ireland and the big British hope, Harry Whittington’s Saint Calvados, are unbeaten over fences and both destroy their rivals by going flat out in front. Something will have to give here and I suppose the worst-case scenario for their trainers is that they go toe to toe so far out that they set it up for Petit Mouchoir (Henry de Bromhead), Sceau Royal (Alan King) or, Nicky Henderson will tell you, Brain Power.
The trainer with most to look forward to: Nicky Henderson
The newly married Nicky Henderson is the Festival’s all-time leading trainer with 58 winners, his first being Champion Hurdler See You Then back in 1985. This year, he fields the red-hot favourites for the three big races: Buveur d’Air, defending his 2017 Champion Hurdle (Tuesday), the imperious Altior, still unbeaten over fences, in the Champion Chase and the unpredictable Might Bite in the Gold Cup (Friday).
No trainer has done the treble before and, recalling his time as assistant to Fred Winter, Mr Henderson remembers having the three favourites in Bula, Crisp and Pendil, only for them all to be beaten.
The Henderson team will number about 40 – for good measure, he also has Apple’s Shakira as a short price to win the Triumph Hurdle (Tuesday). He’s unlikely to match the seven-timer in 2012, but three would be about par.
Theme for 2018: Northern resurgence?
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Festival was dominated by the big northern yards – Yorkshire-trained horses such as Sea Pigeon, Night Nurse, The Thinker, Little Owl, Bregawn, Alverton, Silver Buck and Forgive’N Forget – but a northern-trained horse hasn’t won the Gold Cup since Jodami in 1993.
These days, Ireland out-performs Britain and, within Britain, the North has had a long spell in the doldrums – pretty much since Graham Wylie took all his horses to Ireland. However, with Sam Spinner in the Stayers’ Hurdle and Definitly Red, trained in Ireland by Brian Ellison, having a cracking chance in the Gold Cup, not to mention the possibility of Ruth Jefferson’s Waiting Patiently in the Ryanair Chase (Thursday), racing will be hoping the North’s resurgence is not just a flash in the pan.
The jockey with most to look forward to: Nico de Boinville
This is usually Ruby Walsh territory, but Nico de Boinville, once best known as the work rider of Sprinter Sacre, has a good-looking book of rides. After winning a Gold Cup on the novice Coneygree as a conditional jockey, he was promoted to being Sprinter Sacre’s jockey and proceeded to win the Champion Chase.
His other Cheltenham wins include a brace on Altior and the 2017 RSA on Might Bite, this year’s Gold Cup favourite (Friday); the race was not without incident when Might Bite tried to duck out to the paddock after jumping the last. A man who excels on the big occasion, Nico will have a hatful of other rides for Nicky Henderson, very few of which can be dismissed.
The Cheltenham National Hunt Festival is on March 13–16 (www.thefestival.co.uk)