It has been a mad couple of weeks but worth every effort and every drip of petrol to visit the finest yards in the land ahead of Cheltenham and talk to the masters of their trade about their horses chances.
Our last journey of the pre-arranged visits saw us head off toward Cheltenham itself to have a chat with our partner Nigel Twiston-Davies who has a strong team as always this year and some serious contenders for the main races as well.
I think it would be reasonable to describe Nigel as a bit of a character, and in his defence he does a remarkable job of dealing with the press when you can quite clearly that it is not his thing, and he would be far happier with his horses. Coffee tea, Danish pastries and even a glass of port were all on offer from under the gazebo attached to the green double decker bus that is parked near the gallops (and no, that is not a misprint or a typo).
Whenever we get to visit, Nigel walks his horses down the all-weather gallops then back up the hill at an increased speed three times to give us enough time to take it all on board and to snap a few pictures, before stopping to tell us who is in good shape, their probable targets, and an idea of their chances.
I have to start by saying that Nigel is a pretty positive person when it comes to his horses and that does shine though in his comments but he is what he is (and I like him), so let’s see what he said! Leading the gallops we had Bristol De Mai, a grand looking grey who went in to the notebooks when winning at Haydock in the Peter Marsh Chase before an appalling effort when last of three to Native river at Newbury. Nigel explained that he had returned lame that day but is 100% again now, and that we could all put a line though that effort and although he don’t seem overly enthusiastic but he would not be 33/1 as he is now had he missed Newbury and he is most clearly over priced in the circumstances.
The New One is still the apple of his trainer’s eye and I sensed that he still feels he should have already won a Champion Hurdle with him but so far it is not to be and he is back for another try this season. Nigel told us “We have decided that The New One goes for the Champion Hurdle – we are all agreed on that. The race is not as hot it has been in the past – no Faugheen this year and if you look at the ratings – the handicapper as he tells us is always right – The New One should be right there at the finish. The New One is one of the top-rated – there is only a pound between him and Yanworth, who are the two top-rated horses in the race. Cheltenham brings the best out of him – he was only beaten eight lengths last year and the different tactics we are employing now should turn that around. I am very excited by him and looking forward to the day”.
Ballyandy was seen as his natural successor but started this season badly with three frankly unexpected losses over hurdles before showing his true colours last time out in the Betfair Hurdle where he won a shade cleverly. That was the real Ballyandy and Nigel certainly seems pretty sweet on his chances, though it won’t be as easy as he seems to think to reverse form with Moon Racer in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle though he clearly has solid chances if he continues on his current upward curve as expected.
Nigel did seem pretty enthusiastic about Flying Angel who is in both the Arkle and the JLT Chase. He is still unclear where to head saying “Flying Angel is one of the puzzles of the whole thing. He was very good at Warwick in the Kingmaker so what do we do? Should we take on the supposedly unbeatable Altior or do we go for what could be an easier task in the JLT? But you should not be frightened of one horse – we don’t know and will probably be discussing it right up to the end.” The point seems to be that he may be a bit better than we have seen so far, but whether he is up to winning at the Festival just yet is open to question though a big (placed) seems a possibility.
Of the lesser known horses Calett Mad could be the one for the handicaps with a couple of pounds age allowance as a five-year-old. He heads off for the J T McManamara National Hunt Chase and he seems pretty sweet on his chances. A rating of 148 seems pretty fair but be warned, his last run was put down to the softer ground (it wasn’t that bad but not up to expectations), so on good ground he may be worth a bet, on soft ground maybe not.
To end with, Nigel was asked the obligatory “which is your best chance at the meeting” question, one I know he loathes, but when pushed it was Foxtail Hill whose name came out of the hat ahead of the Close Brothers Chase on Day one. He said: “Foxtail Hill was very impressive at Cheltenham at the end of January and he has managed to stay inside the rating band 0 to 140 for this race. The race is nearly a slightly lower class JLT – because all the runners will be within 3lb or 4lb of each other. I am very hopeful for him. He is quite keen but you can ride him in any way. He and Ballyandy are my two best Festival hopes….”