When Sheila Nash scored in a jumpers bumper at Kempton earlier in the month, it ended a three-month barren spell for Harry Whittington.
The corner looks like it has been turned and the Lambourn handler can now focus on Cheltenham and his trio of stable stars in the colours of Andrew and Kate Brooks.
However, with Saint Calvados and Simply The Betts forgoing assignments in the Ascot Chase and Denman Chase respectively this weekend, it’s very much a wait and see approach for Whittington’s leading lights.
“It was never really the plan to go to Ascot, but after falling in the Cotswold Chase, we thought we’d enter him and keep an open mind,” Whittington said of Saint Calvados when speaking to Tote.
“There’s no doubt he’s a better horse when fresh, he loves Cheltenham and is obviously better going left-handed, so to give him the best chance of running his best race at the Festival we decided not to run this weekend.”
The eight-year-old holds entries in the Ryanair Chase, for which he was beaten by just a neck by Min last year, as well as a tentative entry in the blue riband event itself. With his Sandown run ending before his stamina could really be tested, his Gold Cup credentials weren’t fully assessed.
“A lot can happen between now and Cheltenham, so it’s worth being open-minded. We’ll keep him in both races until the last minute and make a decision closer to the time.
Touch and go for Betts bid
Patience has been required for the other would-be runner this weekend, Simply The Betts, who has not been seen since finishing sixth in a Cheltenham handicap in November.
He was given an entry in the Denman Chase on Sunday, but after a period of minor injuries, Whittington was not happy enough with his gelding to make the short trip to his local track.
“He’s not had a great preparation, we’ve been struggling this winter with little niggles with him.”
“He did school this week, but with it getting so close to Cheltenham and him not having the ideal preparation we decided it was best not to run. We can always take him for a racecourse gallop somewhere in a week or ten days.”
Like, Saint Calvados, his Cheltenham target is yet to be fully decided, a defence of the Grade 3 event he won last year one possible race for him. All that however, depends on him getting to the Festival at all.
“He’ll be entered for the Plate on Tuesday, and will be given a number of options, and again, we’ll make a decision closer to the time,” Whittington told Tote.
“He’s got the pedigree for three miles, we’ve got no problem with thinking he might be better over further but it’s difficult to really know. Hopefully we can get him to Cheltenham, but as I say he’s had a troubled period with minor injuries, but if not there’s always Aintree.
“If we get a clear run to Cheltenham he could run in the Plate or Andrew might take a view that we’ll run him in one of the Grade 1s.”
Ground key to Rouge Vif run
One Cheltenham candidate whose target is in no doubt is Rouge Vif. However whether the seven-year-old lines up in the Champion Chase depends on the conditions on the day.
Last seen finishing fourth in the Desert Orchid at Kempton over Christmas, the former Kingmaker winner is reportedly in good heart at home, though is not 100-per-cent confirmed for the Festival.
“We want to try and keep him to his conditions, so he’ll run if it’s good to soft, or better. If it’s too soft we’ve decided that we’ll wait for other targets in the spring.
“He’s clearly 10lb better on better ground, so we’ll save him for the races in which we can get our conditions. Hopefully with such a wet winter, the rain stops a week before Cheltenham and the ground will be ideal for him in the Champion Chase.”
Should the trio in the Brooks colours make it to the Festival and run good races, it will be a huge relief for the Whittington team who have had to battle through a testing season.
The bug in the yard that kept them out of the winner’s enclosure for three months overcome, the Lambourn handler is reflective on the work his team have done and looking forward to better times.
“The team at home have been united in working incredibly hard behind the scenes and we’ve really pushed on through to get things turned around. It’s been evident with our recent runners that we looked to have turned a corner and with another three weeks and a bit of sun on their backs we might just be peaking at the right time.”
“You want to go to Cheltenham with a good chance, and those three are obviously high-class, quality animals and we look forward to running them.”