It is really disappointing and frustrating for everyone at Philip’s [Hobbs] yard and the owners that Thyme Hill has been ruled out of Cheltenham after pulling a muscle. He was our big hope in the Stayers’ Hurdle after two excellent runs this season and it’s obviously a real shame he’s not going to be there to take on Paisley Park again. Fortunately, it isn’t a major injury and hopefully he’ll be fine for the three mile hurdle at Aintree next month.
It happens every single year in the week or two leading up to Cheltenham. You build up their work and niggling knocks or tweaks can come to the fore – you just can’t go to Cheltenham unless you’re 100 percent. It is what it is, we move on.
I’ve still got some really nice rides to look forward to over the four days and it would be wonderful to come away with a winner. Here are five that I’m most looking forward to:
Native River, Wellchild Cheltenham Gold Cup, Friday
As I’m sure you know, I absolutely love this horse. He’s been so consistent for the past five or six seasons and it was a brilliant performance at Sandown in the rearranged Cotswold Chase. He jumped and travelled and was full of enthusiasm. He’s beaten the best of the English and I think he goes there with a great chance.
He wasn’t at his best in the 2019 Gold Cup behind Al Boum Photo but he still wasn’t far behind him and he’s in much better form now. Al Boum Photo is the one we all have to beat, he’s done absolutely nothing wrong. It’s worked for the last two years so why would you do anything different? We don’t know how good Champ is yet and there are plenty of other very good horses in there but I certainly wouldn’t swap Native River.
Sporting John, Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, Wednesday or Marsh Novices’ Chase, Thursday
We’re still not 100 percent sure which race he goes for and I imagine the decision will be made over the weekend. At this stage I’d say the three mile race looks the more likely given the weather forecast, but whichever race he goes for he will be taking on a hot favourite in Monkfish or Envoi Allen. They are two excellent horses and will be very hard to beat, although we see it year in year out that favourites get beat.
Sporting John has come out of Sandown really well and that will have given him plenty of confidence. He’s had a light campaign and considering the terrible winter we’ve had, horses who have been busy might struggle a little. He’s a fresh horse coming into the Festival and is very unexposed.
Adrimel, Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, Friday or Neptune Novices’ Hurdle, Wednesday
Looking at the weather I’d say it’s more likely he will run in the Albert Bartlett on Friday. He’s only been beaten once in his life and that was in the Champion Bumper at last year’s Festival, so he hasn’t done anything wrong. We were delighted with him at Warwick where he jumped well and really battled. I’m sure he’ll stay the trip, he’s a big strong brute and you need a horse like that in the Albert Bartlett.
He’s a point-to-point winner in Ireland and has done a lot as a novice hurdler. He handles soft ground really well but even if it’s good by Friday I can definitely see lots of improvement from him over three miles.
Zanza, Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase, Wednesday
He unfortunately fell three out at Cheltenham in December but he was going really well at the time and didn’t get moved in the weights. He actually jumped the fence well but crumpled on landing. The winner Sky Pirate has franked the form and we get a good pull at the weights with him.
He went to Exeter for a schooling session last week and the fall definitely hasn’t knocked his confidence which is good to see. He schooled really well and don’t forget he was second to Allmankind at Warwick earlier in the season and he’s now second favourite for the Arkle. Novices have a good record in the Grand Annual and for me he has all the right credentials to go really well.
Aye Right, Ultima Handicap Chase, Tuesday
He is a really nice ride to pick up but I do feel for Callum Bewley, who normally rides him, as he is suspended. I’ve ridden him once and won on him in a handicap hurdle at Kelso in 2019. He’s been in great form this season and the form from Newbury looks very strong after Cloth Cap won at Kelso last weekend. He ran another very good race at Doncaster last time and he’s one of the class horses in the field.
Even though he hasn’t won this season he’s performed very well in some top races and he was fifth in the RSA last year. I think he goes there with a live chance.
MISS HERITAGE – 2.25pm Sandown
Cheltenham is on everyone’s mind at the moment but there’s some good racing at Sandown on Saturday and I’m looking forward to riding Miss Heritage for Lucy Wadham in the Imperial Cup. She’s been incredibly consistent this season and although she’s a big price, I can’t see any reason why she can’t be involved.
This is always a wide open handicap and you can make a case for plenty in there. Gary Moore’s horse [Natural History] is potentially a big improver as he was very good on the Flat and he’s getting more experience over hurdles. But Lucy Wadham does really well with her horses and there have been some big priced winners of this race so I’m hopeful.
MARSHMALLO – 3.00pm Sandown
I’m surprised she’s such a big price to be honest. She improved an awful lot from Warwick to Doncaster and she’s been working well at home so I expect her to come on again. She stays very well and you need to do that at Sandown, so I think she’ll be suited by the test. She has a decent each-way chance.
FORTESCUE – 4.10pm Sandown
He ran well at Bangor in December but he was a bit disappointing on his last start at Exeter. That said, I schooled him on Friday morning and he was very good. I’m stepping in for Hugh Nugent who is injured and normally rides him. If he bounces back to his old form he can run well.
THAT’S THE BADGER – 3.12pm Warwick
He ran well to finish third last time at Carlisle. This will be my first time riding him but he’s only a young horse and is going the right way. It’s not going to be easy in a 19-runner handicap hurdle but I think he has a fair each-way chance.
THE WREKIN – 5.22pm Warwick
He’s a point-to-point winner and ran in a bumper at Fakenham in early January but the track didn’t suit. Warwick should suit much better and I can see him running a nice race, but it looks a very competitive bumper.