RUBY Walsh, the most successful jockey in Cheltenham history, insists he will be “100 per cent fit” for the National Hunt Festival – despite remaining on the injury sidelines over the weekend.
The two-time Gold Cup-winning jockey allayed concerns about his well-being after it was suggested that Paul Townend, his understudy at the all-conquering yard of Willie Mullins, could also miss Cheltenham following a heavy fall.
Townend is due to ride the Mullins first string – such as Boston Bob in Wednesday’s RSA Chase – when Walsh is committed to horses trained by Paul Nicholls, such as Unioniste in the three-mile test for novice steeplechasers.
Both Walsh and Townend suffered heavy falls at Leopardstown just over a weekend ago, prompting suggestions that the latter would not race for at least a month.
Walsh has also not ridden since suffering falls in successive races at the top Irish track on March 3 but he said: “My absence is purely precautionary and I’m 100 per cent ready to go. I left Leopardstown, however, with a sprained ankle and it was badly bruised.
“I could have ridden this week, no problem, but both Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls were anxious I gave it a skip and to arrive fresh and well for the start of the Festival. It’s a similar situation for Paul Townend, who was also in the wars at Leopardstown. Willie wanted Paul to also head straight to Cheltenham and that is now the case.
“Our whole season, of course, has been geared towards this extravaganza and it is terrific that both Willie and Paul’s horses are in the form of their lives. That wasn’t the case a year ago, when they were just a bit flat. I don’t think Nicky Henderson – he had seven winners last year – will find it as easy this time round.”
There will be an early test of Walsh’s horsemanship in tomorrow’s Stan James Champion Hurdle when the Mullins-trained Hurricane Fly, the 2011 hero, bids to become the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in the 1970s to regain the title.
The select nine-runner field includes the last three winners – AP McCoy’s Binocular and defending champion Rock On Ruby – were also declared while Countrywide Flame carries the hopes of North Yorkshire trainer John Quinn.
However, Walsh is surprised at the negativity surrounding Hurricane Fly, who has won a remarkable 14 Group One races. “I know there has been much negativity of late about the horse, but it has left me utterly perplexed,” said the jockey, who has 32 Festival wins to his name. “All I will say is that those of us closest to him are more than happy at where he is at the moment.”
The one slight surprise is that Rock On Ruby, who beat Countrywide Flame at Doncaster last month in a race marred by the death of the McCoy-ridden Darlan, is to run in blinkers for the first time tomorrow.
Trainer Harry Fry said: “We were in front from two out last season and he just slightly idled into the last and they came back to him. This is just to help make sure he keeps going all the way to the line. At Doncaster, Noel (Fehily) felt that once he’d beaten Countrywide Flame coming to the last and after the last, all he did was idle in front.”
Coneygree is highly unlikely to take his chance in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on Friday. The six-year-old, trained by Mark Bradstock, returned stiff after a pleasing workout on Saturday.
“He did the most fantastic, best-ever piece of work. He came in a little bit stiff and last night he was lame behind,” said Bradstock’s wife and assistant, Sara. “He’s got a massive future. We are not going to take any risks.”
In other Festival news, John Quinn’s Calculated Risk could now run in Wednesday’s Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle after an impressive win at Sandown on Saturday.
Another Sandown winner on track for the Festival is First Avenue after his 20-1 upset in the Paddy Power Imperial Cup.
Laura Mongan’s gelding will be aimed at the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockey’s Handicap Hurdle on Friday.
This was a fairytale win for Mongan, wife of Flat jockey Ian, and First Avenue’s rider Nathan Adams who was celebrating his first victory of the season.
Only the fourth win of his career, Adams had, in fact, broken his collarbone when First Avenue fell at Sandown last November.
Horse and rider were the beneficiary of long-time leader Kazlian’s blunder two out for jockey Tom Scudamore.
It was a slight setback for Scudamore as he prepares for a Cheltenham week which revolves around the novice chaser Dynaste.
Though Dynaste has headed the three-mile RSA Chase market all winter, the grey – unbeaten over fences – now swerves Wednesday’s stamina-sapping race in favour of the slightly shorter Jewson Novices’ Chase on Thursday when he will be the beneficiary of fresh ground.
“Touch wood he’s the best horse in either race. We thought that on the ground the RSA could be a real slog, so we’ve leant towards the Jewson,” said trainer David Pipe who will be represented by Wetherby winner Goulanes in the RSA.
Last night, both courses at Cheltenham were covered after a heavy frost – and some snow – was forecast.
Covers will not be removed from the Old Course until tomorrow morning, while the New Course will remain protected from the elements until Thursday.
The going on both courses was described as ‘soft’ and Cheltenham’s clerk Simon Claisse said: “The ground is unlikely to dry out much under the covers. It is soft everywhere.”
All the major ante-post fancies are among 21 acceptors for the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Festival on Friday. The Dessie Hughes-trained Our Conor, Paul Nicholls’s Far West and Nicky Henderson’s Rolling Star are the three main market fancies while the John Quin duo of Kashmir Peak and Hidden Justice merit respect.
Defending champion Finian’s Rainbow could swerve the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday. His trainer Nicky Henderson is responsible for the red-hot favourite Sprinter Sacre and said: “No-one wants to see a past champion beaten in humiliating circumstances.”
Today’s meetings at Taunton and Plumpton must pass inspections while Stratford’s card has been abandoned because of waterlogging.
Tindall’s Dude is going for gold at Cheltenham
MIKE Tindall’s Welsh National hero Monbeg Dude is to take his place in Friday’s Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup as ground conditions in the Cotswolds deteriorate.
The prospect of soft – or even heavy – going swayed trainer Michael Scudamore and the rugby-playing connections of the staying chaser who was third in Haydock’s Grand National trial last month.
Otley-born Tindall, who co-owns the horse with Gloucester team-mate James Simpson-Daniel and Nicky Robinson, of Bath, were also influenced by the victory 12 months ago of Synchronised, a perceived mudlark whose stamina kicked in to great effect on the uphill climb to Cheltenham’s winning post.
“Looking at the race and speaking to the owners, the Gold Cup is now first choice, especially as it looks like being soft and one or two others might still go elsewhere,” said Scudamore.
“We can take a bit of hope from Synchronised’s victory last year, although we’re not quite in that league, but he doesn’t owe us anything. Paul Carberry can ride him again and will have him out the back again and, hopefully, he can stay on and pick up some prize-money towards the end.
“The equine physio Mary Bromiley has been down working on his jumping and we have done the things she has advised and the way he worked this morning he seems in the best form we have had him. I’m not saying that is good enough to trouble the first few in the betting but we certainly couldn’t be happier with where he is. He has come on a bit since Haydock. We know he will stay the trip and handle the ground so two things are in his favour but it will be a huge step up in class.”
The 66-1 shot will be ridden by Paul Carberry, who was in the saddle for the Welsh National, because the trainer’s older brother Tom has been snapped up to ride The Giant Bolster, last year’s Gold Cup second, for David Bridgwater.