TRAINER Henry Oliver hopes Keel Haul can take his career to new heights in the £30,000 Unicoin Group Handicap Chase at Cheltenham this Saturday.
This is the horse which provided Oliver, and resurgent jockey James Davies, with their first victories at the home of jump racing when prevailing in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at last month’s Open meeting.
Oliver, a former rider in the North who worked for, among others, Sue and Harvey Smith, has made an impressive transition to the training ranks – and his new association with Davies is proving particularly advantageous.
“Providing all goes well between now and Saturday, Keel Haul will be running at Cheltenham,” said the trainer.
“He has come out of the last meeting in great order and is fresh, which is a big positive for him.
“He should have every chance again at the weekend. The ground was only just right for him the last day and any more rain they get will improve his chance – he appreciates plenty of cut.
“He is up to a career-high mark (131) now, but I think there is more improvement there and he is still at the right end of the handicap. He is not a big horse and keeping a light weight on his back is important.”
Entries also include Michael Scudamore’s Next Sensation and the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Eastlake, who were first and second respectively in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Meanwhile, Colin Tizzard believes Cue Card “deserves” to have the William Hill King George VI Chase on his roll of honour.
The popular chaser will be rising 10 when he lines up at Kempton on Boxing Day and Tizzard was eager to laud his longevity.
Cue Card sprang to prominence as a four-year-old when winning the Cheltenham Bumper at 40-1 and has notched a further four Grade One victories in the five years since.
He was forced to miss last year’s Cheltenham Festival with a trapped epiglottis.
But Tizzard feels the corrective surgery he has had has enabled him to bounce right back to his best in winning Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase at the end of October before landing a second Betfair Chase at Haydock last month.
This year will be his fourth attempt at winning the King George, having looked all over the winner in 2013 only to be caught be Silviniaco Conti.
“Cue Card’s epiglottis was operated on in February. It’s saggy old skin and it actually trapped the air pipe.
“It was like a golf ball was stuck in his throat and he couldn’t breathe,” said the trainer.
“The King George, it’s never an easy race is it? We’re looking forward to it.
“I think we’ve got more strings to our bow this time, we can let the others drag us in to the race.
“Very few horses have won at Haydock as easy as he has and he won with his head in his chest.
“I just have to make sure he’s fit and well. I would just love to win a King George. He’s been a damn good horse for five years now and he deserves to.
“He’s a classy, brilliant horse and he ought to have that race to his name.”
Cue Card is 9-2 third favourite with the sponsors behind Don Cossack at 5-2 and Vautour at 3-1.
Gold Cup winner Coneygree can be backed at 7-1, but he needs to be supplemented.
Carlisle racecourse is doing its bit to support the flood-hit region by offering free admission to Sunday’s meeting.
The track managed to survive Storm Desmond relatively unscathed and will throw its doors open to the general public.
“Like everyone, we have been deeply shocked by the extent of the damage caused to so many homes and businesses,” said Geraldine McKay, the racecourse’s general manager.
“As a gesture of support and solidarity for everyone affected by the flooding, we have decided to offer free general admission to Sunday’s race meeting. We know this cannot make up for what people are going through, but it’s our way of supporting our county and giving everyone who wants to come here some light relief.”
Among the entries is 2014 Grand National winner Pineau De Re, a second fence faller in Saturday’s Becher Chase at Aintree.