Twelve months ago, the thought of Harry Whittington heading into the Cheltenham Festival with a leading contender for a Grade One contest would have been the greatest figment of an alcohol laden imagination. However, the upwardly mobile Hill Barn handler heads to Prestbury Park with a trio of novices hoping to make a major impression on the sport’s showpiece Festival.
Leading the charge is the exciting five-year-old Saint Calvados, who is unbeaten over fences since joining Whittington and is one of a stellar cast set to line up in an enthralling renewal of the Arkle.
Whittington’s assistant trainer, Adam Tucker, talked through his build up;
“The preparation has gone great and very smoothly. He’s a very straight forward horse to get ready and we’re looking forward to him hopefully running a big race.”
“It’s a deep race and the opposition is top class. Footpad hasn’t put a foot wrong and Petit Mouchoir has placed in a Champion Hurdle and is entitled to improve on his latest run, but we are the unexposed horse and fingers crossed there is more to come.”
A five-year-old with a huge future, his big race jockey Aidan Coleman is just as hopeful of a bold showing from the son of Saint Des Saints;
“He’s ran three times with me on board and has been very impressive on every start. He’s answered every test we’ve asked so far, and Cheltenham is the next one we’re going to put in front of him. He needs to improve again but I’m confident he will.”
“He’s definitely the one I’m most looking forward to getting back on board”.
And coming up against two battle-hardened rivals in Footpad and Petit Mouchoir and two even more experienced pilots in Ruby Walsh and Davy Russell, how do the pair see the race panning out?
“He’s very easy to ride and is a forward going horse. So, it will be simple just jump him off, get a good start and he’ll do the rest.” Explained Coleman about his tactics.
“It’s not essential he goes from the front, he’s just had to in the races he’s been in so far. Aidan knows what he’s doing, and I imagine will just get him in a nice rhythm and not interfere with him. He has such a big lovely stride he goes quicker than you think.” Confidently added Tucker.
Another chaser to note from the Whittington yard is Bigmartre, who followed in the footsteps of the handler’s ill-fated Arzal in taking Newbury’s Fulke Walwyn Trophy for Novices’. The form of that race has worked out well and he lost nothing in defeat at Doncaster last time, of which Tucker said;
“It’s a shame the race at Doncaster came after the SkyBet Chase as the ground had cut up badly by then and the dead ground really killed him.”
“Although he still ran a great race in defeat and he hadn’t a clue he got beat.”
Attentions now turn towards Bigmartre’s step into Grade One company, as he goes up in trip to take his place in the JLT;
“He’s improved more than we could have hoped, and the form of his outings so far looks rock solid. We think he can run into the mid 150’s.”
“We’ve hung on to him over two miles in a hope that when we eventually stepped up in trip he would find improvement for the extra distance. He’s probably more exposed than most of his rivals but we hope his experience can give him the edge over some of the classier operators lining up.”
If Saint Calvados is a tactical challenge for Aidan Coleman to master, then Bigmartre is the opposite, and Tucker explained the instructions for his pilot would be quite straightforward;
“He’s all heart and will be ridden positively by Harry (Bannister) to hopefully put the others under a bit of pressure”
“We may just be the forgotten horse in the race.”
Opening the show for the Whittington operation however, is Simply The Betts in the Supreme Novices Hurdle on Day one. He is a firm favourite of the trainer and is another the Hill Barn team are quietly optimistic about;
“He’s more than capable of running well if the race cuts up. But whatever he does here he’ll be a better horse next year.” Said Tucker of his chances.
“We’ve realised he has to be ridden cold and for a turn of foot late on and he probably would have won at Musselburgh if he hadn’t have missed out the last hurdle.”
“He’s been to Laura Collett since then and done plenty of pole work to brush up his jumping, and we’re hopeful he’ll show himself as a good horse at some point as we really do think the world of him.”
Hopes are high at Hill Barn; the sky could be very much the limit for the young horses ridden by the jockey in the light blue.