THERE is not a moment’s hesitation when Brian Ellison is asked to name his Cheltenham ‘banker’. “Marsh Warbler,” he says. The confidence and certainty in his voice is a tip in itself.
When the conversation at his stables, painted in the black and white of his beloved Newcastle United, turns to sport – and whether he would swap a Festival winner for the Magpies ending their 42-year trophy drought – the trainer is adamant. “Cheltenham every time.”
This is how much the National Hunt Festival – the pinnacle of horse racing – means to him as he seeks an elusive first victory at this enduring Anglo-Irish sporting celebration, now in its centenary year, where pints are downed and Kings crowned.
Ellison has had his chances. Two consecutive Festivals, in 2002 and 2003, saw Latalomne have the Queen Mother Champion Chase at his mercy before falling at the penultimate fence on both occasions.
Yet those nightmares will be extinguished if Marsh Warbler, the most improved horse in the North, prevails next week – with Tuesday’s Supreme Novices Hurdle and Friday’s JCB Triumph Hurdle targets for this most progressive and appealing of four-year-olds.
The Triumph remains the favourite, though Tuesday’s race will come into the equation if conditions continue to dry out at the Cotswolds track. A decision will be made on Monday.
Marsh Warbler, an imposing chestnut gelding certainly has the speed for the Festival; two years ago, when with Middleham trainer Mark Johnston, he was ridden by Frankie Dettori at Royal Ascot, albeit trailing home in last place behind the impregnable Canford Cliffs.
The horse’s route from Royal Ascot to Cheltenham has been slightly unorthodox. He was bought by professional punters Kristian Strangeway and Dan Gilbert, long-standing supporters of Ellison, for a bargain £12,000 – and then they told the trainer: “See what you can do.”
The improvement has been electrifying. A far from fluent third at Market Rasen on Marsh Warbler’s hurdling debut was followed by a hat-trick of victories at Bangor, Sedgefield and then Chepstow where he won Grade One honours – another first for Ellison and the horse’s Irish-born jockey Fearghal Davis.
No horse has won Chepstow’s Coral Future Champions Finale and the Triumph since Mysilv in 1994. Ellison is unperturbed. “The horse doesn’t know that.”
For, on every occasion Marsh Warbler has run, he has improved markedly. One more step up in class and Ellison’s Cheltenham dream will be fulfilled.
As Mick Fitzgerald, the former Gold Cup-winning jockey, observed: “If this horse was trained by Nicky Henderson or Paul Nicholls, he would be favourite for the Triumph. He’s that good.”
“It is unreal,” says Ellison as Marsh Warbler, with his distinctive white baize, nuzzles against the trainer’s shoulder. “We always thought he would be a nice horse – but what he has done is nothing short of brilliant.
“The handicapper rates him at 151, higher than Menorah and Peddlers Cross a year ago and they are now Champion Hurdle bound, and higher than Soldatino who won last season’s Triumph.
“That’s good – but this is horse racing. Keeping them right, keeping them sound, it takes a good horse to become a better one.
“All we can do is keep them ticking over on the gallops – and hope nothing goes wrong.”
Ellison and his wife Claire are realists. As they look out of their kitchen window, they point to Carte Diamond grazing in a field by their Malton stables.
In 2005, the stayer became impaled by a running rail, in a freak gallops accident in Australia, in the week before the Melbourne Cup where he was expected to win the race for England. He has never been the same since.
“You just hope, when you open the stables in the morning, that they’re okay,” says Claire. “I think I’ll be glad when it is all over.”
It has also been a long winter for an in-form yard that won 70 races last year on the Flat and over jumps. With the stables frozen, the Ellisons and their team spent days on end filling buckets of water for the horses, and to sponge them down after each workout.
A Cheltenham winner would certainly make those sacrifices, and long hours over Christmas, worthwhile.
A stroll through the stables, nestled on the edge of Malton, reveals the extent to which Ellison has transformed his yard into a formidable operation. Next to Marsh Warbler’s box is Ultimate, a leading fancy for today’s William Hill Imperial Cup. Victory would secure his place at Cheltenham, a task made easier by the withdrawal of ante-post favourite Aegean Dawn.
Opposite is Coral Cup prospect Bothy, his head bobbing from side to side as he looks out of his stable to catch his trainer’s attention. Second in last month’s Totesport Trophy in Newbury – he lost the race by veering on the run-in – he has two Cheltenham entries, but needs soft ground.
Conversely Neptune Equester – a leading light with the Koo’s Racing Club that the aforementioned Strangeway runs – needs good ground if he is to prevail in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle next Friday.
The ground requirements for each horse are so complicated that Ellison has given up watching the weather forecast. “There’s nothing I can do,” he says.
Ellison clearly wishes otherwise as he considers Marsh Warbler’s options.
Yet, as he shows off Film Festival and Elite Land – Doncaster chase winners a week ago who could, also, be Cheltenham-bound – he smiles at the yard banter as Davis, Marsh Warbler’s jockey, prepares to have his photograph taken.
“By the muck trailer. That sums you up,” says one stable lass as Davis notices where he is awkwardly standing as he removes his riding helmet for the cameras.
He does not mind. He has heard much worse in racing yards. He will also put up with “such stick” if it means fulfilling his dream of a Cheltenham winner.
Davis is only riding for Ellison because Palomar, a former Sir Robert Ogden-owned horse, was switched from the Cumbria yard of Nicky Richards – where the jockey is based – to North Yorkshire.
His affinity with the horse saw him keep the ride, and then come in for Marsh Warbler when Richmond-based Keith Mercer broke his leg. Fate, luck, call it what you want – they are invariably part of every Cheltenham story.
Just to ride Marsh Warbler on the gallops meant Davis leaving home at 4.45am for a 118-mile drive. “Good horses make it worthwhile,” he says. “To get a chance at Cheltenham, on a horse with a chance, is just brilliant.
“On his first run at Market Rasen, he stank. Made a mess of the first and jumped left. Next time at Bangor, he was better – but not great. Then Sedgefield, a couple of mistakes but not bad. At Chepstow he never missed a trick. I cannot wait.”
Davis, with just two Festival rides to his name, will spend the weekend studying the past form of every horse that could oppose Marsh Warbler.
He says he will be trying to remember their colours – and when they normally make the move. A horse race, he says, involves split-second decisions. “There’s no time to think,” says the 24-year-old ‘journeyman’ jockey. “There is always a lot of homework to do.”
This is Davis the jockey rather than the ‘work rider’ enjoying a bit of banter – and catching up on the football results.
“Ask him the question you asked me,” Ellison tells me.
“A Newcastle trophy or a Cheltenham winner?” I ask Davis after being briefed on his football allegiance.
This time, there is a slight pause. Davis is trying to read his trainer’s mind. And then he says: “Marshie.”
“Good answer,” says Brian Ellison.