Calgary Bay, the horse whose New Year’s Day victory began an unforgettable month for Dominic Elsworth and former Gold Cup-winning trainer Henrietta knight, is on track to bring January to a memorable close in Doncaster’s Sky Bet Chase.
The strapping Calgary Bay’s triumph at Cheltenham kickstarted a rich vein of form for the combination, epitomised by Somersby providing Elsworth with a first – and overdue – Grade One victory seven days ago in Ascot’s prestigious Victor Chandler Chase.
Although Calgary Bay has course and distance form at Doncaster – he prevailed on his last appearance at Town Moor in December 2009 when Graham Lee deputised for Elsworth, who was beginning his recuperation from concussion – the nine-year-old has gone up 8lb in the handicap after Cheltenham and will have to carry 11st 11lb to victory.
That said, there would be no more popular winner. Guiseley-born Elsworth has overcome injury; Knight’s husband Terry Biddlecombe, the former champion jockey, has been recovering from a stroke, and Camilla Radford, the owner of both Calgary Bay and Somersby, has been battling serious illness.
“Calgary Bay did it nicely at Cheltenham, didn’t he?” said Elsworth, who also rides Paul Webber’s highly-rated Alasi in the mares’ hurdle.
“Obviously it is a step up in trip but he’s a course and distance winner which is a big plus. Good horses can win these big races. All the boxes are ticked – bar the weight. He’s a big, fine, proper National horse.”
Having won a Grade One on Somersby, who is likely to contest the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, Elsworth has the confidence of a stable in fine form.
“Growing up, you wanted to win the big Saturday races – I’d ride my pony in the morning and watch the racing in the afternoon,” he said.
“I don’t know about January not ending, I don’t want the winners to end. I want to keep the momentum up on good horses.
“As a jockey, I’ve always wanted to win a Grade One and was delighted to do it on Somersby. I knew the uphill finish from Swinley Bottom would play to his strengths and he was only just beaten by Master Minded a year ago.
“A couple of days later, I was still getting calls on the phone and text messages.
“As much as racing is against each other, there is a community spirit when things go right for you and it is greatly appreciated.”
Calgary Bay’s chances are helped by yesterday’s defection of ante-post favourite Hold On Julio. Unbeaten over fences, the recent Sandown winner was reported to be off colour by trainer Alan King.
However, the quality of this wide open contest is epitomised by 16-times champion jockey AP McCoy swerving Cheltenham’s prestigious Festival Trials meeting to ride Galaxy Rock in the big race for Jonjo O’Neill.
He looked to be a staying chaser of great promise when prevailing at Cheltenham in November – but he was pulled up in last month’s Welsh National at Chepstow when well-fancied.
“The ground was terrible at Chepstow. We half knew that, but he had won at Leicester on heavy ground so we took our chance,” said O’Neill yesterday.
“Hopefully he’ll be much better at Doncaster and he’ll put on a better show. If he didn’t have that blot on his copybook you’d be very excited about his chance.”
One trainer not short of confidence is Malton’s Malcolm Jefferson. After landing Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick and then Haydock’s Peter Marsh Chase with According To Pete, he hopes Cape Tribulation can complete a memorable treble – even though the eight-year-old has not won since October 2010.
An eyecatching fifth to Calgary Bay at the turn of the year, Jefferson said last night: “He’s done grand since Cheltenham.
“He has won over the course and distance at Doncaster, but it was a hurdle race. He just wants a change of luck. He’s been running well without winning – things have just gone wrong for him. It’s a good race, but he’s a good horse.”
Meanwhile Ferdy Murphy is represented by Riguez Dancer, stablemate to dual Grand National contender Big Fella Thanks who, coincidentally, is the last winner of the Sky Bet Chase – back in 2009 – because the last two renewals have been abandoned due to a frozen track.