WHY is gaining a winner at the National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham the ambition of every trainer in jumps racing?
Because it’s Cheltenham, that’s why. For racing fans, no other explanation is necessary. Though the Grand National at Aintree will earn more cash for the winner, victory at the Cheltenham Festival is the Holy Grail for trainers, due to the hugely competitive nature of the racing and the prestige that a Cheltenham winner brings to a CV.
When she first started out in training, Scotland’s top trainer of the moment, Lucinda Russell, did not really understand why Cheltenham attracted so much attention from her fellow handlers.
Russell said: “I have to say that at first I didn’t really appreciate how important Cheltenham was when I started training, but I absolutely do so now. It doesn’t take you long once you start training to learn how important it is and, with Musselburgh putting on its trials and Kelso having some big money races in the run-up to the Festival, Cheltenham is much more visible in Northern racing than it was before.
“I am very proud of the fact that we are the last Scottish stable to win at Cheltenham.”
It is two years since Russell enjoyed her finest moment when Brindisi Breeze, owned by Sandy Seymour and brilliantly ridden by young Campbell Gillies, did Scotland proud by winning the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle, the first Scottish-trained winner at the Festival for a decade.
The double tragedy that then struck the Arlary stables would have broken sterner people. A few weeks after his win, Brindisi Breeze got out of his box and was killed by a lorry on the nearby motorway, before much greater tragedy occurred shortly afterwards with the death of Campbell Gillies the day before his 22nd birthday.
Though she will always mourn the loss of Gillies in particular, Russell is a naturally optimistic person, that being one of the necessary qualities that any top trainer must possess. She is looking forward to the debut of one of her charges with relish. She said: “We have Brindisi Breeze’s half sister, Lady Maggie, who will be running in a bumper (National Hunt flat) race soon. No doubt, like Brindisi, she will improve with racing, and she probably won’t be flashy first time out.”
A double at Ayr on Friday courtesy of Island Heights and Mysteree – their cumulative winning distance was 29 lengths – showed just how the yard is peaking at the right time, and seven of the 11 horses Russell saddled on Thursday and Friday finished first or second.
A few years ago, Russell might not have contemplated a tilt at the Festival, but she has grown in confidence since the arrival of Peter Scudamore as her partner in life and assistant trainer.
She said: “We are really lucky that the standard of our horses is going up and it is good that we are competing at this level – it is well worth the journey south.”
Although he holds an entry in the Grade 1 RSA Chase, Green Flag is most likely to go for the Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury handicap chase on Tuesday.
Russell said: “Green Flag has done nothing wrong and it is a big toss-up whether we run him in the RSA chase or stick to the handicap chase on Tuesday. I don’t think he has been very harshly handicapped on the runs he has had so far, and he could be on a good mark, so that’s why I am tending towards Tuesday’s three-mile handicap.
“He’s had four real runs over fences, as last time he slipped up on the bend at Wetherby so that doesn’t really count. He’s done everything well for us but he’s still a little bit naive and this will be his biggest test to date.”
Owner JP McManus’s famous green and gold silks will be seen on Tap Night, who also has dual entries but is most likely to go in the Byrne Plate chase on Thursday.
“Tap Night he was a really good novice for us but he kind of fell to bits when he started jumping fences,” said Russell. “It’s taken a bit of time to get his confidence again and he’s had to step up a gear in handicap company, but I thought his last run at Cheltenham was good and, if he can hold it all together, he has a good each-way chance.
Lie Forritt is being aimed at the Pertemps Final hurdle on Thursday.
“He was third in the big hurdle at Haydock, and that was probably a really decent quality race, and we had to run him too soon after that race to make sure that he qualified for the Pertemps,” added Russell. “He has had a nice break, and is possibly off a good mark, though he is a couple of years older than when he raced off a mark of 150. If the ground is on the easier side, he could be a good each-way chance at a big price.
Russell has three other entries for the Festival but they may not make it into the races as they are too low in the ratings.
Of those, four-year-old Thorpe has the best chance of making it on to the Prestbury Park turf in the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle on Wednesday.
For that, though, he needs six of the entries ranked above him to come out before the final declaration stage.
“He is still a maiden over hurdles,” said Russell, “but he has run some cracking races at Musselburgh against horses that are going in the JCB Triumph Hurdle.”