MIDDLEHAM trainer Ben Haslam is eyeing Cheltenham Festival races for JP McManus-owned pair Squouateur and Bouvreuil.
The powerful Irish owner is certain to have a formidable team heading to the Cotswolds next month – with stars like Buveur D’Air, Le Richebourg, Champ and Sir Erec.
Haslam’s two contenders have proven form at the Festival, and the Middleham handler hopes that will stand them in good stead.
Bouvreuil, who has been placed at three Festivals when trained by Paul Nicholls, has the Brown Advisory & Merribelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase and Grand Annual as his two options.
Squouateur may return for the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup, in which he was third last year for Gordon Elliott.
“We’ve had some good winners with some of Mr McManus’s horses – and with a bit of luck, we might have some heading to Cheltenham in March,” said the trainer who is invariably tasked by his high-profile owner with rekindling horses which have lost their way.
“Squouateur, who hasn’t run for me yet, was third in the Kim Muir last season. We’ll try and freshen him up and have a go at that with him.”
He has taken his time, meanwhile, with Bouvreuil. Haslam said: “Bouvreuil won at Wetherby in December. He’s a horse that seems to run best fresh, so we’ve kept him back for the Plate on the same day as the Kim Muir – unless there’s a lot of rain. He’s got the option of the Grand Annual as well.
“Those horses that have good form at Cheltenham, it’s always good to try to get them back there for another crack. For those handicaps, you need an enormous amount of luck to even be placed in those races.”
Meanwhile, Haslam saddles the McManus-owned Rock On Fruity in today’s four mile-plus Vertem Eider Handicap Chase at Newcastle.
Normally a marathon run on bottomless ground, drying conditions have changed the complexion of the race – hence why High Eldwick trainer Sue Smith did not declare ante-post favourite Sharp Response.
However, Rock On Fruity has two course wins to his name since moving over the Irish Sea from Charles Byrnes’ County Limerick yard.
“It will be his first time over that trip, so it will all depend whether he stays,” said Haslam. “It’s a question of getting him switched off and settled. If he gets into a rhythm and stays, I think he will be competitive.
“He’s got some very good form in Ireland. He was placed in a Grade Three. I’m not saying he’s improved, because he is 10. He always has had that kind of ability. The change of scenery may well have helped, but at the same time I think he’s just been able to get his confidence back.”
The field is headed by 2018 winner Baywing who triumphed on heavy ground last year under Ryan Day.
Yet trainer Nicky Richards intends the horse, a former winner of Wetherby’s Grade Two Towton Novices’ Chase, to take his chance.
“It’s a very long trip, though – there aren’t many races as long as this, so I hope that will help bring his stamina into play,” he said. “I think we’ll know our fate after a circuit. If he’s able to keep in touch, then he might be able to creep into like last year.”
Meanwhile, Richards has his fingers crossed that his popular veteran Simply Ned will make it to the Cheltenham Festival where he could take on the so-far impregnable Altior in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Having won his second Grade One in Ireland when beating Footpad at Christmas, the 12-year-old was all primed for the Dublin Racing Festival before he knocked himself in his box on the eve of the race. “He’s back cantering now and I’m hoping he’ll make Cheltenham,” said Richards. “We won’t need any setbacks along the way, we’ll need everything to go right between now and then.”