Nicky Henderson, Jack Channon, Gordon Elliott, Emma Lavelle and Sarah Hobbs gave updates at a media event organised by Cheltenham Racecourse about leading contenders ahead of The November Meeting this weekend.
Seven Barrows maestro Nicky Henderson is responsible for Rather Be in the feature £160,000 BetVictor Gold Cup (2.25pm, 28 five-day confirmations) on day two of The November Meeting, Saturday, November 17th.
Seven-year-old Rather Be (11st) has not run since finishing a head second to Mister Whitaker in the Listed Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase over course and distance at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
The son of Oscar is aiming to give Britain’s champion Jump trainer his second victory in the BetVictor Gold Cup, following on from Fondmort in 2003.
Henderson said: “Rather Be is in good form and everything has been great with him.
“He took a bit of time to come hand, but he has been good in the last couple of weeks.
“He has progressed every year and his work of late has been good. He will do one more bit of work tomorrow.
“His run at The Festival was very good, and two and a half miles around Cheltenham suits him very well. Good ground will not be a problem either.”
Mister Whitaker (Mick Channon, 11st 3lb) made a winning return in the Listed Colin Parker Memorial Chase at Carlisle, in which he defeated Happy Diva (Kerry Lee, 10st 5lb) by two and a quarter lengths.
Mister Whitaker is unbeaten in two starts over fences at Cheltenham, having also captured Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase on Festival Trials Day in January prior to his win at the Cheltenham Festival.
Jack Channon, assistant to his father Mick, reported: “Mister Whitaker’s success at The Festival™ was brilliant.
“We have been lucky enough to have Royal Ascot winners and Classic winners but, if I am honest, Cheltenham was definitely on a par.
“Tim Radford [owner] is a fantastic supporter of the sport and us, so it was great to give him his first winner at The Festival.”
Regarding Mister Whitaker’s improvement, which has seen the progressive chaser win four of his six starts over fences, Channon added: “A big part of our operation is Henrietta Knight. She does a brilliant job getting the horses jumping.
“Mister Whitaker has been so economical over fences. He doesn’t put in a big stride in or have a lunge at them, he just gets up and over with no fuss and saves so much energy at his fences for the finish.
“He was a revelation last season, going right up in the handicap, and he is even higher now after winning Carlisle. We were chuffed with his performance there. Some people in hindsight will say ‘why did you run there as you have now gone up 7lb’ but he is a horse who can run quite fresh first time out.
“We had him about 90 per cent fit for Carlisle so there should be a bit of improvement there.
“We ran him mainly for rustiness which you can’t afford to be in one of these big 20-runner handicaps. They can be a lot for a young horse to take in and, if he is going to be a real top horse, he should be able to defy the rise in the weights.
“We have got to take on Rather Be again who has a 9lb swing in the weights and we only beat him a head at The Festival. It is going to be a big ask, but we are delighted with Mister Whitaker’s condition going into the BetVictor Gold Cup.
“It all depends on where his ceiling is, but at the start of the season we said that if he has the ability to go that far then the Ryanair Chase would be the race for him at The Festival. He has to improve another 15lb or so and whether he can do that, I don’t know. If he could win this weekend, you are looking at 160 horse and that is unknown territory for us.
“We also run a real nice horse called Hold The Note in the Listed bumper at Cheltenham on Sunday (4.00pm High Sheriff Of Gloucestershire & Racing Remember NH Flat Race). He won his only start by six lengths at Newton Abbott. He is going to be a three-mile chaser in time, so they might just do him for a bit of toe, but it will be interesting to see where he stands.”
Another likely runner in Saturday’s BetVictor Gold Cup is lightly-raced nine-year-old Javert (Emma Lavelle, 11st 1lb), who has won four of his seven chase starts. His most recent success came in a handicap chase at Uttoxeter, staged over the same two-and-a-half-mile distance as the BetVictor Gold Cup.
Javert had been off the course for two and a half years prior to that victory and he then finished a length and a quarter second to Frodon (Paul Nicholls, top-weight 11st 12lb) in the Monet’s Garden Old Roan Limited Handicap Chase, also over two and a half miles, at Aintree.
Discussing the horse, Lavelle commented: “Javert is a big horse who is over 17 hands and it was not ideal for him to have more than two years off, though he has come back in very good form.
“He won at Haydock in May, 2016 on ground that was slightly faster than ideal. We took a chance as one of his owners was dying, so in that respect it was the right thing to do. However, after having the summer off, he came back cantering and had heat in his tendon.
“It was treated, but he missed the whole campaign and on scan, it didn’t look as good as we thought so we gave him even more time off. He is a horse who likes better ground and last season we didn’t get much of that until May, so that ruled out of all of that campaign as well.
“That is why it took us so long to get him back to the races. He likes nice ground going left-handed. Looking at the forecast at Cheltenham, the ground should be perfect for him.
“He ran really well in the Old Roan at Aintree, where the ground was probably quick enough. He travelled so well there and didn’t seem to be weary and it was a lovely run.
“Javert came out of Aintree really well. He looks fantastic and it’s very much all systems go for Cheltenham.”
Charli Parcs (11st 5lb) is set to represent Henderson in the £100,000 Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham on The November Meeting Sunday, November 18th.
Owned by J P McManus, the five-year-old son of Anabaa Blue was last seen when fourth in the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr in April.
Henderson continued:”Charli Parcs is in good form at home. He ran in the Unibet Champion Hurdle last year, but I think the Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle is a race that he comes into fresh and that could really suit him. He will have plenty of weight in the race, but he will definitely go for the Greatwood.”
In-form mare Verdana Blue (11st 11lb) could join Charli Parcs after her decisive victory in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, for which she has 5lb penalty.
Henderson said: “We have left Verdana Blue in the Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle. She was very good here [Kempton Park] and very good at Wincanton on Saturday, but it would be a tough ask.
“It is an interesting conundrum because I was under the impression that a penalty would not take her weight above 11st 12lb. In what was the Ladbroke Hurdle for example, it stopped at 11st 12lb – if you are on 11st 11lb, you can only get a 1lb penalty.
“Now with the Greatwood, and I was just looking at the calendar this morning, I could not see this famous line that says ‘no penalty to take a horse’s weight above 11st 12lb’. We have just spoken to Stuart Middleton and he said ‘ah, you are correct.’
“At the moment, Verdana Blue goes to 11st 11lb with a penalty, but of course if something comes out above her then she goes up and gets the penalty on top, so there is nothing to say she could not end up with 12st. That would make it unlikely that you will see her.
“She has come out of Wincanton fine and while the ground is good, you have to keep going really. This ground is not going to last forever. It is possible she will run.”
The Seven Barrows handler also revealed news about top-class chaser Altior, who is unbeaten in his last 14 starts and captured the two-mile Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Connections were debating whether to let the eight-year-old run in the £75,000 Shloer Chase on day three of The November Meeting, Sunday, November 18th, but he will now wait for the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown Park.
Henderson will instead run Brain Power, who finished a good second behind Footpad in the Racing Post Arkle Chase.
The trainer revealed: “Altior will not run in the Shloer Chase – Brain Power will run in the race instead.
“Altior is in terrific form, but I just feel with three weeks until the Tingle Creek, he does not need to run at Cheltenham.
“Brain Power and Altior do everything together. Brain Power is the only horse who can go with Altior anyway.
“Brain Power is in very good form. He is a quality horse and I am really happy with him.
“Altior is ready to run, but I just want him to be fresh and well for the Tingle Creek.”
Leading Irish trainer Gordon Elliott revealed that rand National hero Tiger Roll will be one of four runners for his stable on day one of The November Meeting, Countryside Day, Friday, November 16th.
Elliott said: “The plan is to run Tiger Roll in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase (3.00pm) on Friday. I want to keep him in cross country races this season before going for the Grand National again.
“He is only an eight-year-old, but he has been around a long time, having won the JCB Triumph Hurdle as a four-year-old. He has been a great servant to the yard and has really taken well to the cross country fences.
“This time last year, he wasn’t easy to train and we had a few problems with him. I was kind of scratching my head thinking what route we were going to go with him, but he has come back this season a completely different prospect. He is strong and looks great.
“I am looking forward to starting him off Friday. I know it will be a tough ask with top-weight. The cross country race in March is going to be his Gold Cup and that is the one we want to win.
“Trying to win the Grand National again is going to be a huge ask. He is not the biggest horse in the world and he will have a lot of weight this season. But if you are not in, you can’t win, and he has proven that he likes the track at Aintree.
“He is a favourite around the yard at home and is a character of a horse. If we could get him back to win for a fourth time at The Festival that would be special for me.
“I will probably have four runners at Cheltenham on Friday. I will have one runner in the Markel Insurance Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase, two in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase and Dinons will go for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.”
Another exciting entry for The November Meeting is Defi Du Seuil (Philip Hobbs), who is set to run in Sunday’s Racing Post Arkle Trial Novices’ Chase (1.50pm, 10 entries) over two miles.
The five-year-old son of Voix Du Nord, who runs in the colours of J P McManus, won his first seven starts in Britain, including a victory in the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March, 2017.
However, Hobbs’ charge struggled last term, finishing fourth in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot in November 2017 and a well-beaten seventh in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in February.
Hobbs has his horses in fine fettle with 11 winners in the last fortnight and connections are relishing the gelding’s debut over fences.
Sarah Hobbs, wife of the Somerset-based trainer Philip, revealed: “Defi Du Seuil is in great form. He has schooled three times and has been electric. Richard Johnson schooled him on Wednesday and was grinning from ear-to-ear.
“A lot of four-year-old juveniles are not always as good in the season after. He won seven races on the trot and I think he just had a very hard season as a juvenile and things were never quite right for him or the yard last season.
“The horses are sparkling at the moment. The horses are well and we’re just hopeful we can keep going like that.
“When he was seventh at Leopardstown, he didn’t come back quite right after that run and he went to J P McManus’s Martinstown Stud and has come back a different horse.”
Cheltenham Clerk of the Course Simon Claisse discussed ground conditions at Prestbury Park and the rails which will be put in place to prevent what happened on the Friday of The Showcase meeting being repeated. Two horses went left through temporary tapes where the run-in meets with the round course.
Claisse said: “We are looking in good shape at Cheltenham. We have had significant rainfall since last Wednesday with 35 millimetres of rain in that time.
“That has taken the ground back from Good to Firm to Good to Soft on the Chase and Hurdle tracks. The Cross Country Course is a little bit quicker and is Good, Good to Firm in places.
“The outlook beyond today and tomorrow is for no further rain. We might only get a millimetre or two of rain in the next day or so and then the outlook is to be dry through the week.
“I expect that the ground will be predominantly good on the chase and hurdle courses by Friday, based on the current forecast.
“The Cross Country track is going to be watered again and it has been watered for the last two weeks. It has had 50mm of irrigation put on it and it is mostly good on that track, but there is a little bit of good to firm ground coming down the hill. We might get most of that good to firm ground out by Wednesday or Thursday.
“After the incidents on the Friday of The Showcase and let’s remember they were only the second and third such incidents at the track in 30 years, where a horse was trying to run through the tapes and into the country again, rather than running up the hill towards the finish.
“On the Saturday of The Showcase, we replaced the tape with nine sections of rail and nine pins in the ground. We were a little bit uncomfortable with that as there is a risk of loose horses colliding with that rail if it was not put in place properly.
“We have come up with a system with Duralog, who provide our rail, to move a section that is about 36 yards long which already has pins inside the legs, with eight or nine men putting it in place.
“We are therefore going to replace the tapes in all of their configurations throughout the three days.”
Charlie McCann, Head of PR & Communications at BetVictor, said: “The BetVictor Gold Cup is our flagship racing sponsorship.
“We are in a fortunate position to sponsor both Liverpool Football Club and the feature race of The November Meeting at Cheltenham.
“The BetVictor Gold Cup is a fabulous race with a rich history and The November Meeting is one of the biggest meetings outside of the spring festivals.
“This is our third year of sponsorship and I would like to give a big shout out to Cheltenham Racecourse, who have been fabulous to work with.
“It is shaping up to be another excellent renewal of the BetVictor Gold Cup. One of the great things about the race each year is the clash between the experienced runners and the up and coming second season chasers. You are always looking for the next star.
“There is lots of interest in a race like the BetVictor Gold Cup from ante-post perspective. The three best backed horses have been Mister Whitaker, who won nicely at Carlisle, Rather Be and there was a move last week for Kalondra.
“Mister Whitaker has obviously gone up 7lb in the weights for his win at Carlisle and is 9lb worse off with Rather Be from when they clashed at The Festival. I think the drying week forecast is going to suit Rather Be as well.”