jason Maguire’s message could not be simpler to those steeplechasing sceptics who have the temerity to question Harry Topper’s jumping ability.
“There’s not a horse in the country who won’t try as hard as Harry Topper,” the top jockey told the Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview ahead of today’s Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.
Maguire, a never-say-die jockey who regularly strains every sinew to get the most out of his mounts like the 2011 Grand National winner Ballabriggs, has always held Kim Bailey’s gutsy stable star in the highest order.
This faith was rewarded when the mud-splattered horse outbattled Wayward Prince and Unioniste to land a thrilling renewal of Wetherby’s bet365 Charlie Hall Chase last November and, in doing so, enter the calculations for next month’s Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup – jump racing’s ‘blue riband’ race.
And Maguire believes his judgement was vindicated still further when the seven-year-old galloped up Cheltenham’s stamina-sapping final hill a fortnight ago to finish a very creditable third to course specialist The Giant Bolster who was the beneficiary of a masterful ride by Tom Scudamore.
Today’s five-runner race – subject to Newbury passing an early morning inspection – was not a target for the Harry Topper team.
Yet, given the horse’s liking of bottomless ground, they’ve taken the decision to take on the highly-rated Paul Nicholls chaser Al Ferof and see if the Gold Cup is still a viable proposition.
Both Maguire and Bailey have said that Harry Topper will not run at Cheltenham unless the going is on the testing side – and this could just be the year, given the scale of the flooding in the West country, when jump racing’s championships are decided on heavy going.
“He’s a grand horse and I’m looking forward to the race at Newbury,” said Maguire who is on the 113-winner mark for the campaign and third in the standings behind his great rivals AP McCoy and Richard Johnson.
“He’s not the quickest horse in the world, hence why all his form is on soft ground, but he deserves to take his chance because of the improvement that he has made. Al Ferof is the class horse in the race and Katenko, the Venetia Williams horse, was a good fourth at Haydock last month, but my boy will expose any chinks if they’re not on their A game.”
They’re the words of a jockey who was impressed by Harry Topper’s three wins over fences last season before the horse suffered an unexpected setback when unseating Timmy Murphy at Kelso.
Harry Topper’s confidence then appeared to be shaken when he was brought down in a Grade One chase at the Punchestown Festival in Ireland.
Yet the fact that he had been entered in such a prestigious contest was testament to his potential which was then confirmed when Harry Topper won Wetherby’s Charlie Hall after 2011 Gold Cup winner Long Run clouted a fence in the back straight.
A subsequent third in a three-runner race at Sandown on unsuitably good ground, Maguire, 33, actually believes that the gelding’s most recent race at Cheltenham was Harry Topper’s best to date.
“He’s still a big baby and was always going to take time to strengthen up,” explained the rider whose uncle, Adrian Maguire, was a top class rider before becoming a successful trainer in Ireland.
“I actually think Cheltenham was a career best run to date. At Wetherby, he beat Wayward Prince who is a course specialist and the Nicholls horse Unioniste who hasn’t done anything much since. Cheltenham, that was good form behind The Giant Bolster who was second in the Gold Cup two years ago. The second that day, Rocky Creek, could be a Grand National horse.
“A lot of people seem to quibble his jumping. To be honest, I’m not quite sure why. When he was winning around Exeter and Newbury in his novice season, people weren’t saying anything. He’s quite gangly. That’s how he is. I’m not being rude but if you saw him in the sales ring, you wouldn’t go out of your way to buy him.
“His physique, he’s not put together like a Kauto Star or a Denman, but he has his own way of jumping and getting from A to B. When a horse is not very quick, it puts too much pressure on them if you force them at the fences. That’s why I’ve learned to let him do his own thing because I know there’s not a horse about who will try as hard as him.”
Although Maguire predominantly rides for Donald McCain and nominates Corrin Wood as a young horse to follow in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, he has enjoyed a long association with Bailey – who trains near Cheltenham – since the retirement of JP McNamara through injury.
It has enabled him to play an integral role in the resurgence of Bailey who was one of jump racing’s dominant forces in the 1990s when landing the Grand National, Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle with Mr Frisk, Master Oats and Alderbrook respectively. Yet he then became a victim of racing’s great roller-coaster and hit rock bottom in 2007-08 when recording just three winners from 131 runners.
However Bailey persevered and his yard’s fortunes, chronicled each day by an award-winning blog, have coincided with the rise of horses like Harry Topper and The Rainbow Hunter who confirmed his Crabbie’s Grand National credentials when winning the prestigious Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster two weeks ago.
“He’s very patient. He’s had a lot of good horses. He’s old school and doesn’t rush,” observed Maguire. “He won’t be hard on his horses. He loves them. He’s been at the top. He’s been at the bottom, but the horse always comes first.”
No horse has ever won the Charlie Hall Chase and then the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season, and Maguire is honest enough to admit that he will be pleasantly surprised if Harry Topper makes history. That said, he says the horse is good enough to contest the minor places. “After that, anything can happen,” he added. “If there’s one trainer in the country who could turn Harry Topper into a Gold Cup horse, it is Mr Bailey.”