MICK Channon says Somersby is “the forgotten horse” in the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
The former England international footballer made the comment after Paul Nicholls confirmed that his grey Al Ferof will swerve Wednesday’s feature in favour of Thursday’s Ryanair Chase over a longer trip of two miles five furlongs.
With reigning champion Sprinter Sacre another notable absentee, Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy, a winner of the Tingle Creek, Desert Orchid and Clarence House Chases, is an even warmer favourite for this two-mile test that was won by the Yorkshire-trained Badsworth Boy on three consecutive occasions in the Eighties.
Yet Somersby, the mount of Guiseley-born Dominic Elsworth, is a Festival favourite. When trained by the now retired Henrietta Knight and her late husband Terry Biddlecombe, the former champion jockey, he was third in the 2009 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and a close second in the following year’s Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase.
Even though Somersby unseated Elsworth in the Clarence House at Ascot, horse and jockey did lower the colours of the now injury-sidelined Cue Card in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter last November.
Channon, a pre-eminent Flat trainer who now oversees Knight’s former charges, is looking forward to the prospect of a first Festival winner.
He said: “Somersby is in great form and the intention is to run in the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase. Obviously, he unseated at Ascot, but his preparation has gone well since then.
“He is probably the forgotten horse, but he is renowned for making those silly mistakes and is his own worst enemy.
“A strongly run two miles around Cheltenham seems to suit him and, if the real Somersby turns up, he will shake them all up – I can assure you of that.”
Victory for Somersby would be bittersweet – this year’s Festival will be the first since Biddlecombe passed away and the National Hunt Chase will honour his memory.
Channon’s bullishness is intriguing because Sire De Grugy has not won at Cheltenham previously. Despite Sprinter Sacre’s absence, champion trainer Nicky Henderson still has a strong hand, with Tingle Creek third Captain Conan set to be joined by stable companion Kid Cassidy.
The Irish challenge is headed by the Willie Mullins-trained Arvika Ligeonniere, who secured his third victory from four starts this season in the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown last month.
As for Al Ferof, his opponents in the Ryanair Chase – one of the races of the meeting – are set to include David Pipe’s Dynaste and Benefficient, who provided young jockey Bryan Cooper with his first ever Festival winner in last year’s Jewson.
Cue Card’s injury is worse than originally feared – Colin Tizzard’s 2013 Ryanair Chase winner will now miss the rest of the season with a minor stress fracture of the pelvis.
“It’s only small. We sent him up to Newbury for a bone scan,” said Tizzard.
“We were getting nowhere. When we said he wasn’t going to run at Cheltenham we stopped riding him then.
“The week before that one day he’d be sound and the next he wasn’t.
“We said it must be muscle – the physio said it was muscle, the vet said it was muscle, so we assumed that’s what it was. It’s a good job we did what we did.
“If we had given him a spin on a good day, heaven knows what could have happened. It’s a gut-wrencher really. You try to say it’s only a horse and there are worse things in life, but expectations were high for all of us.”
Jamie Codd will ride Tranquil Sea in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup next Thursday.
Winner of the 2009 Paddy Power Gold Cup for Edward O’Grady, as well as a Grade One scorer in Ireland, the 12-year-old secured his first victory since joining Warren Greatrex in a well-contested veterans’ chase at Doncaster last month.
Greatrex felt the victory gave his charge a much-needed confidence boost and has snapped up the services of one of Ireland’s leading Irish amateurs, who has won the Kim Muir aboard John Quinn’s Character Building (2009) and Junior (2011).
Berkshire-based Greatrex said: “Jamie has ridden two of the last five winners of the race, so he knows what it takes. I’m very happy with the horse. He has come out of Doncaster in really good form and I think a race like the Kim Muir is right up his street.”
JT McNamara, paralysed following a fall in last year’s Kim Muir, is reported to be in “excellent spirits”.
The Irish amateur – a cousin of Yorkshire rider Brian Toomey – sustained serious injuries in a tumble from Galaxy Rock at the first fence. He is now being cared for at the North West Regional Spinal Injuries Centre in Southport.
A statement issued by Dr Adrian McGoldrick, Irish Turf Club senior medical officer, on behalf of McNamara’s family read: “John Thomas (JT) McNamara continues his rehabilitation...he is very conscious that many people are thinking of him with Cheltenham approaching.
“John Thomas, his wife, Caroline, and their extended families are extremely grateful for your ongoing support, prayers and generosity during the past year. He is in excellent spirits and looking forward to watching the Festival.”