TRAINER Ben Pauling’s decision to run stable star Barters Hill at Doncaster – rather than Cheltenham – is a major vote of confidence in the South Yorkshire track and the growing prestige of its Sky Bet Chase meeting.
Pauling, who is based in the Cotswolds, could easily have sent his top novice hurdler to his local track for its Festival Trials Day this afternoon. It would certainly have been more convenient.
And it could also have been far easier – the all-conquering Willie Mullins has declared Up For Review for the Town Moor test with the two horses disputing favouritism for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.
Yet, with Barters Hill unbeaten from six starts following an imposing win in the Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury, Pauling is keen to run his charge over three miles in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle – the former River Don Novices’ Hurdle – before the National Hunt Festival in March.
“The main reason we’ve decided to go to Doncaster is because of the ground. It’s good to soft, good in places and it doesn’t look like they’ll get as much rain overnight as they originally thought,” said Pauling.
“I just felt the conditions at Doncaster would suit him better than wet ground at Cheltenham. The Doncaster race might actually be a tougher race with Up For Review in there.
“It’s a match-up nobody expected to see before Cheltenham, but we clearly both think it’s the right race and it should be a good prep run for March for both horses. The ground is amazing at Doncaster and they deserve the good races they’ve got there.”
While Pauling admits the Albert Bartlett is his most likely Festival target for Barters Hill who has been described as a potential champion by his under-rated rider David Bass, those with ante-post slips for the shorter Neptune should not throw away their tickets just yet.
“The Albert Bartlett is looking the most likely, but who knows? He might not stay three miles and then we’ll have to go to the Neptune,” added the trainer.
Up For Review has won each of his two starts over hurdles in most impressive fashion as the aforementioned Mullins looks to consolidate his challenge for the British trainer’s title from his base in Ireland.
His son and assistant Patrick, a champion amateur rider, expects conditions at Doncaster to be ideal.
“Up For Review is in good form and being by Presenting you would think the drier ground should suit him,” he said.
“It’s going to be a very interesting race against Barters Hill. He beat my horse Bellshill in the Bumper at Aintree last year and I was very impressed with him that day.
“All the way up the straight I thought I’d go by him but he just kept pulling out more.
“He’s a horse who only looks to do enough, but he has huge ability.
“Up For Review has done nothing wrong over hurdles so far, but this is obviously a lot tougher. It should be fascinating – it’s like a Cheltenham race in January.”
Further Cheltenham clues on this most informative of cards could be provided by Morning Run as she looks to put a Christmas blip behind her in the OLBG.com Mares’ Hurdle.
The Mullins-trained seven-year-old looked a potential heir to her illustrious stable companion Annie Power after winning her first six starts, but tasted defeat for the first time when finishing a distant third on her first run in almost a year at Leopardstown last month.
“She obviously didn’t fire at all at Christmas and I think it was just too bad to be true,” said Mullins Jnr.
“She’s shown at home that she has trained on – her work has been very good and we’re delighted with her. I’m hoping Leopardstown was just an off-day, that can happen with mares and it was her first one.
“We wouldn’t be bringing her to England if we weren’t confident. I’ll be disappointed if she doesn’t get back to winning ways.”
The home challenge includes Brian Ellison’s Smart Talk, who authoritatively landed a Haydock Listed event last time.
“She’s a good, solid mare and improving all the time,” said the Malton trainer. “It’s a tough race, but she’s entitled to go there.”
On a fascinating afternoon which sees Middleham trainer Micky Hammond saddle his Grade One runner-up Just Cameron in a handicap chase against in-form handler Henry Oliver’s Aintree winner Dresden, the recently-retired Sir AP McCoy has highlighted the well-being of Jonjo O’Neill’s Holywell ahead of the Sky Bet Chase.
The 20-time champion jockey partnered Holywell to a Grade One win at Aintree in 2014 and he hopes the horse, fourth in last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, can shoulder top weight of 11st 12lb.
“Holywell is better from the turn of the year onwards, the drying ground will help him and he’s not badly handicapped,” McCoy told Leeds-based bookmaker William Hill. “I wouldn’t put anyone off backing him from now until the end of the season. He’s definitely one to keep an eye on.”
That revealing appraisal was backed by O’Neill, who is hopefully Holywell can bounce back from disappointing runs in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase and then Haydock’s Betfair Chase.
Good ground is key and O’Neill disclosed: “The ground has been really bad for him this season. He tends to come right in the Spring, so we’ll hopefully head to Cheltenham with him and maybe the Grand National.”
Local hopes rest with Sue Smith’s No Planning, while Guiseley trainer Samantha Drake hopes to cap a memorable week with Distime. She was only granted her trainer’s licence on Tuesday and triumped with her very first runner when Star Performer prevailed 24 hours later at Catterick under her fiancee Jonathan England.
Drake’s second-ever runner Bourbon Prince, a 25-1 outsider, was third in Doncaster’s finale yesterday, confirming the wellbeing of her 12-strong string.