THIS is the spring-heeled jumping that has left the excited owners of top Yorkshire steeplechaser Cloudy Too reaching for the skies.
After winning Wetherby’s William Hill Rowland Meyrick Chase by an emphatic 10 lengths, Sue and Harvey Smith’s horse faces his biggest test yet in today’s Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase.
Even though the eight-year-old is competing on equal terms against established stars like Cheltenham Festival winners Riverside Theatre and Captain Chris, the gelding takes his place in this prestigious contest on merit.
The trip, two miles five furlongs on rain-sodden heavy ground, will suit. Likewise Ascot’s stiff uphill finish – and the nagging belief that Cloudy Too is even better suited to right-handed tracks, according to connections.
As such, this race will determine whether this stout stayer has the class to do himself, and his stable, justice in next month’s Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup – especially if there is no let up in the rainc – or whether a more realistic proposition is the slightly shorter Ryanair Chase over today’s trip.
Yet this is immaterial to Neil Howarth and his relatives who own Cloudy Too. To them, the horse, which runs in the colours of their family business, owes them nothing after he won a Listed race at Carlisle (a demanding right-handed course like Ascot) before running away with the Rowland Meyrick under his young jockey Jonathan England, who competes in a Group One race for the first time today.
“I used to go as a boy to Wetherby on Boxing Day,” said Howarth, 58, whose firm is based at Ramsbottom.
“To be there 50-odd years later owning the winner, it doesn’t get much better. On that day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people queueing up to get into the track.
“I’m involved in the horse with my wife Jacqueline, my son Mark, my brother-in-law David Mortimer and my father-in-law Lawrence Mortimer. He’s over the moon. He’s 86 and the horse has already made his dreams come true.”
The family have had horses at the High Eldwick stable for the past decade after acquaintances advised them to team up with Smith, the showjumper. Yet they had to hold their nerve when Smith went to the sales and advised Howarth’s son to spend £20,000, a not inconsiderable sum by this stable’s standards, on Cloudy Too who had come nowhere in his first point-to-point race before winning his second.
“It was a lot of money,” said Howarth. “I think Harvey’s favourite pastime is going to Doncaster Sales, spending £500 on a horse and making sure it is good enough to win a race.
“He’s a very astute person and all credit to him, but we did have a panic during his first run when Shane Byrne pulled him up in a novice hurdle at Wetherby back in November 2010.
“It turned out he had the same thing Denman and Sprinter Sacre had, a fibrillating heart. We were panicking then. He was off the track for six months, Harvey and Sue know when to be patient, and was third on his comeback race at Sedgefield. He then won his next race at Sedgefield, Tjade Collier rode him that day, and has gone on from strength to strength.”
After making a successful transition to fences at Carlisle in November 2012 when beating stablemate and Crabbie’s Grand National contender Vintage Star, Cloudy Too’s reputation has remained in the ascendancy.
He returned to the Cumbrian track to beat Lucinda Russell’s highly-rated Tap Night, owned by JP McManus, last autumn before slightly disappointing in the Hennessy at Newbury.
Ridden prominently in a fast run three-and-a-quarter mile race on glue-like ground, connections are undecided whether the horse did not stay the trip – or was just having a rare off day – before bouncing back to form at Wetherby.
That said, Sue Smith did convince connections this week to keep the horse in the Gold Cup in the likelihood of bottomless ground at Cheltenham next month. “He is a heavy ground horse and you never know,” added Howarth, who said he was keen to retain England’s services in the saddle because of his rapport with Cloudy Too, even though the jockey cannot utilise his 5lb weight allowance today because of the Ascot race’s Grade One status.
As for the trainer, Smith’s appraisal was similar to her assessment of Mr Moonshine before he won his National prep race at Warwick last weekend. “He’s very well and is going down there in good form,” she said.
“It could be just the right trip for him, especially in heavy ground. I hope he’s going to run a nice race.
“Over two-six and with that pull up the hill, it should be just about right. He liked the stiff finish at Carlisle.”