Local trainer Martin Keighley is set to be represented by three of his stable stars at Cheltenham tomorrow, Festival Trials Day, Saturday, January 25 – the day that star hurdler Big Buck’s makes his long-awaited comeback.
Annacotty will get the ball rolling in the £25,000 Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase (1.15pm, 11 runners) over two miles and five furlongs.
The progressive six-year-old gave Keighley the biggest success of his burgeoning training career when making all of the running in first-time blinkers for an impressive 10-length victory in the Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day and carries top-weight of 11st 12lb tomorrow.
Keighley reported: “I will be expecting a good run from Annacotty. It will be great for him to get some experience around Cheltenham over fences and, if he runs up to his Kempton form, he must have a live chance.
“If you go for a Graded race, you are always going to get a Grade One penalty. It will just be interesting to see if the handicapper has got him right or not, but off 144 he should be very competitive.”
Annacotty’s 10 rivals include improving Sandown scorer The Italian Yob (Nick Williams), Ohio Gold (Colin Tizzard), who finished third in the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase at last year’s Festival, and Samingarry (Nigel Hawke), who beat Annacotty at Chepstow in early December.
Course specialist Champion Court steps up in trip for the £100,000 Grade Two Argento Chase (2.25pm, seven runners) over three miles, one and a half furlongs.
The son of Court Cave has captured three Grade Two contests at the Home of Jump Racing, most recently in April when getting the better of Menorah in the MacMillan Cancer Support Silver Trophy over two miles and five furlongs.
He was an unlucky second in the Grade Two Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon in early December and, after unseating his rider in the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park over Christmas, finished second to Captain Chris in a Listed chase at the same venue on January 11.
Keighley added: “Champion Court was not 100 per cent after his run at Kempton last time, but he seems fresh and well again now.
“I personally think he will be fine stepping up in trip. He didn’t stay in the King George last season in heavy ground, but he was ridden very aggressively from the front that day.
“If we ride him more patiently, I don’t see it being a problem. He stayed on well behind Bobs Worth in the 2011 Albert Bartlett over three miles and is a stronger horse now.” The Argento Chase is a trial for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup and also among those testing their credentials are Hennessy Gold Cup runner-up Rocky Creek (Paul Nicholls), Grade Two Charlie Hall Chase scorer Harry Topper (Kim Bailey) and soft-ground specialist Houblon Des Obeaux (Venetia Williams).
Keighley’s trio is completed by Creepy in the £30,000 Grade Two Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle (3.00pm, seven runners) over an extended two and a half miles.
The six-year-old beat Timesremembered in a similar contest at The Open in November, but could only finish fifth behind Deputy Dan in a Grade Two event at Warwick on January 11.
Keighley commented: “Creepy didn’t scope right after that run at Warwick. I think we have solved the problem there and he absolutely loves Cheltenham, so I will be expecting him to bounce back to form.
“He has form on soft ground, so I don’t see conditions being a problem.”
A high-class field of seven is set to face the starter, including the unbeaten Red Sherlock (David Pipe), lightly-raced five-year-old Aubusson (Nick Williams), who won over the course and distance on New Year’s Day, and Irish raider Rathvinden (Willie Mullins).
Four-time Ladbrokes World Hurdle hero Big Buck’s (Paul Nicholls) returns from over a year off the track in the £60,000 Grade Two galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle (3.35pm, six runners).
The 11-year-old is after a third success in the three-mile contest, following victories in 2009 and 2011, but faces a top-class field featuring multiple Grade One winner Reve de Sivola (Nick Williams), At Fishers Cross (Rebecca Curtis) and Boston Bob (Willie Mullins).
Big Buck’s has won his last 18 races – a record number.
The seven-race programme is completed by the £30,000 Grade Two JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial (12.40pm, six runners), the £50,000 Grade Three freebets.com Trophy Chase (1.50pm, 10 runners) and the £25,000 Steel Place And Sections Handicap Hurdle (4.10pm, 10 runners).
Cheltenham has been voted Britain’s Racecourse of the Year for the last 10 years by members of the Racegoers Club and the presentation of the latest trophy will take place at 11.15am in the paddock.
Simon Claisse, Cheltenham’s Clerk of the Course, said at 2pm today (Friday, January 24):
“The going remains soft and we are still expecting eight to nine millimetres of rain tonight.
“The rain is meant to cease in the wee hours of tomorrow morning, giving us 12 hours of dry weather before racing starts.
“The New Course, which was last used on New Year’s Day, has recovered remarkably well and a couple of yards off the rail there is fresh ground.
“It is forecast to be mostly dry tomorrow, with maybe a few showers in the afternoon. I have told trainers that if we get all the rain we are forecast tonight then to expect the addition of heavy into the going description in some way.”