Cheltenham Festival: Race dilemma for Phil Kirby and Lady Buttons

PHIL KIRBY will spend today weighing up his Cheltenham Festival options for stable star Lady Buttons – the crowd-pleasing horse now known as the Queen of Yorkshire racing.

Lady Buttons and Jennie Durrans on the gallops at Phil Kirby's stables.

The trainer also told The Yorkshire Post that “the next three or four days” will be among the hardest of the year because his Cheltenham-bound horses cannot afford any setbacks.

Speaking last night, he confirmed that Top Ville Ben, a runaway winner at both Hexham and Wetherby, will line up in Wednesday’s Grade One RSA Chase under Sean Quinlan, who is enjoying a career-best season. Softer ground, and Cheltenham’s left-handed configuration, should suit.

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He will also declare Nautical Nitwit, winner of the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby on Charlie Hall Chase Day, for the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday with Tommy Dowson, one of the North’s top conditionals, in the saddle.

Kirby does not expect Niven to make the cut for Tuesday’s handicap chase – and former RSA Chase winner Blaklion, a recent acquisition from the yard of Nigel Twiston-Davies, will miss the Gold Cup and head straight to the Grand National.

But the dilemma is the versatile Lady Buttons who has already won four high-profile races this season for ever-enthusiastic owner-breeders Jayne and Keith Sivills, who run a North Yorkshire hostelry.

Now nine, Lady Buttons holds an entry in Tuesday’s Mares’ Hurdle – entries close at 10am tomorrow – and the more prestigious Queen Mother Champion Chase, the premier race for two-mile steeplechasers, 24 hours later.

And while Kirby believes the former could be the easier target, especially if Ireland’s leading contenders like Apple’s Jade, Laurina and Limini line up in the Champion Hurdle, the two-and-a-half mile trip is longer than ideal.

Lady Buttons ridden by Adam Nicol wins the Mares' Hurdle On Racing UK Handicap Chase during day two of The Bet365 Meeting at Wetherby Racecourse (Picture: Richard Sellers/PA Wire)

Yet, while the Champion Chase is over the optimum distance, the line-up includes 2018 winner Altior, the superstar steeplechaser still unbeaten over larger obstacles.

Either way, Kirby – who trains near Catterick – is the first to acknowledge that he is fortunate to train such a horse who deserves to take her place in either race.

“Neither,” he said when asked which contest he was favouring. “I can’t make my mind up. I keep switching and changing my mind. I’m studying the form now – and I’m still undecided. I’ll talk it through with the owners and we’ll make a decision today.

“Yes it is a massive ask, whichever race you are in. If you can’t win a race, I’d rather go for the one which you do have a chance of winning. But then I’d probably be rather placed in the Champion Chase than the hurdle.”

Trainer Phil Kirby.

The same uncertainty also affects jockey arrangements after Adam Nicol, the regular rider of Lady Buttons, broke his leg in a horror fall at Musselburgh on New Year’s Day.

He was replaced by the aforementioned Dowson when the mare won at Doncaster in late January. If Lady Buttons lines up over hurdles, Dowson is likely to keep the ride – with a more experienced jockey likely to be considered for the Champion Chase because of the speed of the race and its test of horsemanship.

Now one of the country’s foremost dual-purpose trainers, Kirby is also aware that his job is far from over as the 2019 Festival nears.

He is the first to check the horses each morning while his assistant, Simon Olley, does the evening shift. “As long as I don’t get any unexpected phone calls from him, that is good news,” said the trainer.

Horses on the gallops at Phil Kirby's North Yorkshire stables.

“From my point of view, there is still an awful lot to do before we go. Keeping them right. Nothing going wrong. I think this is the hardest bit, the last three or four days.

“The horses need plenty of work and we need to keep them in one piece.

“We can’t afford a cut, nick or stone bruise – the problems Nicky Henderson is having with his RSA horse Santini or Joseph (O’Brien) with his Triumph Hurdle favourite Sir Erec. This is the time when you don’t want because you haven’t time to sort it out.”