IT was the racing celebration of the past year – Gavin Sheehan punching the air in sheer ecstasy, and disbelief, after Cole Harden won the Ladbrokes World Hurdle while the champion’s normally reserved trainer Warren Greatrex was overcome by emotion in the hallowed Cheltenham winner’s enclosure.
Not only were both rising stars recording their first successes at the National Hunt Festival, jump racing’s Olympics, but the victory vindicated their faith in the frontrunning horse that had come to prominence when winning Wetherby’s West Yorkshire Hurdle in November 2014.
They will never be under-estimated again after their ‘catch us if you can’ tactics paid off so spectacularly.
And nor should they.
Having recorded this breakthrough victory at Grade One level, Greatrex and Sheehan – two of jump racing’s most ambitious protagonists – are determined to prove that this success was no fluke as Cole Harden heads back to Cheltenham, the scene of what previously was his finest hour, for today’s Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle.
Though the trip is four furlongs shorter than the three-mile World Hurdle test, and the ground will be much softer than ideal, Greatrex hopes this race will put Cole Harden spot on for March when he will confront a new generation of stayers headed by Colin Tizzard’s Thistlecrack.
Now a year older and wiser, both are also keen not to over-extend Cole Harden, a horse that gives his all in every race and who has required a number of operations to improve his breathing as a result.
“The heavy ground is not ideal, but as the race is over two and a half miles it’s not going to take him to the extreme,” said Greatrex. “He does cope with soft ground, but it doesn’t really suit his way of running.
“We’ve gone for this race over the Cleeve at the end of January purely for the fact that at this time of year we don’t want to be running him over three miles on that ground all the time – we want to leave plenty of petrol in the tank for when he is at his best in the Spring.
“He is a very hard horse to get fit and we did everything we could with him going into Newbury, he was probably just a little less fit than we thought he was.
“Compared to last year’s run in that race, when he finished very tired, he actually ran on again and the way he finished really pleased me. Although I would be much happier if the ground was not as soft, he has come out of that race very well and he looks great. He is in much better form than this time last year.”
This is far from being a one-horse stable; quite the opposite.
Greatrex has a clutch of horses, including this week’s Newbury winner One Track Mind, which look ready to progress to the next level.
For the time being, however, Cole Harden is the stable’s standard-bearer and will have to be close to his best if he is to beat a quality field that includes Whisper, Top Notch and Bobs Worth from the yard of Nicky Henderson.
Whisper beat Cole Harden in Aintree’s Grade One hurdle at the Grand National meeting while Bobs Worth, the former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, is reverting to hurdling after finishing a game sixth in the Hennessy.
Last season’s Triumph Hurdle runner-up Top Notch runs beyond two miles and one furlong for the first time in his career.
“They all run and they’ve all got a chance,” said Henderson. “We always thought stepping up in trip would suit Top Notch.
“Bobs Worth is in very good form and won at Aintree earlier this season.
“I was disappointed with Whisper last time, but he has form in soft ground.”
Virgilio has made giant strides since arriving on British shores and completed a hat-trick in facile fashion at Aintree last time.
Trainer Dan Skelton said: “The reason we are trying him in this race is that he keeps improving rapidly. I would not have thought that we would be ever be here running in a race like this at Cheltenham, but he deserves to take his chance. Whether he can win the Relkeel Hurdle or not, he is still one of the most improved horses in training.”
Skelton, whose father Nick is the Olympic gold medal-winning showjumper, is hoping Virgilio is one of the horses that can take his career to the next level.