As two of the famous names of steeplechasing prepare to bow out, Tom Richmond reports on the next generation’s stars
THAT Kauto Star and Denman need no introduction to those with just a passing interest in the Sport of Kings is a measure of their greatness.
Yet, as these talismanic stablemates prepare for one final season at the very top of their sport, a new generation of golden greats are taking steeplechasing by storm.
The list is endless. Grands Crus and Cue Card clash in the Steel Plate And Sections Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham today, while the Paul Nicholls-trained Al Ferof is among those racing over the larger obstacles on Sunday at jump racing’s HQ.
Then there is Menorah, Silviniaco Conti and Peddlers Cross, the latter faultless at Bangor two days ago. And so it goes on.
But Henry Oliver, a journeyman jockey and assistant trainer at Sue and Harvey Smith’s stables near Bingley, hopes two novice chasers – Restless Harry and Mr Moonshine – can carry him to the top of Cheltenham’s finishing hill, his sport’s ultimate test.
He has a strong affinity with both. He’s ridden Robin Dickin’s Restless Harry in each of his 14 starts, including a commanding victory in the John Smith’s Hurdle at Wetherby over highly-respected horses like Fair Along and What A Friend.
Yet, while the seven-year-old is set to avoid the big names from the novice ranks and make his chasing debut at Cheltenham tomorrow provided there is give in the ground, the Smith-owned Mr Moonshine already has winning form after beating a quality field, including Charlie Longsdon’s Hidden Keel and Ferdy Murphy’s Divers at Carlisle recently.
Oliver’s wish is that he does not have to make a choice later in the season – owner Richard Whitehead asked him to continue riding Restless Harry when the jockey took up his role at the Smiths’ stable just over three seasons ago.
“It’s probably a very hard year to go novice chasing, but it could be a great year if you win some nice races,” said the 30-year-old.
“Mr Moonshine, if we can keep him fresh, he could be special – I was very pleased with him at Carlisle, that was good form. Though Restless Harry has form on good ground, the softer the better – I won’t be complaining if it rains all day.
“He’s probably the best horse I’ve ridden. I was champion conditional a few years back with 47 winners, but I’ve not had what you call a ‘Saturday’ horse – one where you can win the big races. We fell at the last in the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival two years ago.
“Would we have won? I don’t know, but we would have been no worse than third.
“Of the other novice chasers, Cue Card was good at Chepstow, I liked the Paul Nicholls horse Silviniaco Conti at Wincanton and they seem bullish about Grands Crus who got closer than most to the great long distance hurdler Big Buck’s last season.”
It’s too early to determine targets – two-mile chasers, like Peddlers Cross, will be aimed at the Arkle Trophy while the RSA Chase over three miles at the Cheltenham Festival could be the final destination for the likes of Grands Crus. From then, the 2013 Cheltenham Gold Cup – a race dominated by Kauto Star and Denman – will become a reality rather than a dream.
Oliver’s cheery character stems, in part, from the lessons in horsemanship and training that he’s picking up from his bosses. “In this job you never stop learning.”
Yet the sporting side of the Smith family is that they will release Oliver to ride Restless Harry whenever he competes.
It is an arrangement that suits Oliver’s former employer Robin Dickin at his stables near Stratford.
“Henry has struck up a wonderful relationship with the horse and the Smiths are very helpful and kind to me,” Dickin told the Yorkshire Post.
“They have both said that whenever I need Henry, I just have to shout.
“I also give Restless Harry’s owner Richard Whitehead great credit. What a loyal man he is. In the days when I was a jockey, I remember someone saying to me that when a jockey lost a ride that the trainer was usually next. That he’s stuck with Henry is a good sign!
“Seriously, Restless Harry has had a racecourse gallop at Towcester after the Wetherby race.
“He jumped from fence to fence and he is raring to go – I have done everything I can. It is a very hot year for novice chasers, but I have a very hot horse. He’s the horse of one’s lifetime.”
It’s a sentiment shared by David Pipe and Tom Scudamore, the trainer-jockey combination behind Grands Crus.
“He’s schooled nicely at home and hopefully he can do that on the track,” said Pipe.
“I’m sure there will be a few butterflies.”
They won’t be the only ones showing nerves as steeplechasing’s next generation begin the race to greatness.