THE contrast between Northallerton pig farmer Peter Atkinson and champion trainer Nicky Henderson is a striking one.
The former has just two horses in training; the latter has a multitude of equine riches for leading owners, who include the Queen and JP McManus.
Yet they are due to come head-to-head in Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury when Atkinson and his wife Lucinda, a top equestrian rider, saddle Irish Roe.
It is a big ask for a mare who cost just £2,000 – the aforementioned Henderson could have as many as five runners in this two-mile race that carries a prize fund of £155,000 and has been won by many star performers.
However, Irish Roe, who has won seven out of her 11 starts to date, heads to the Berkshire track on merit after just failing to chase down the highly-regarded Maria’s Benefit in Doncaster’s Grade Two Mares Hurdle just 10 days ago.
Despite finishing runner-up to Maria’s Benefit, who was recording her fifth win on the bounce, the front two had pulled so far clear of their rivals that Irish Roe – the mount of popular Middleham rider Henry Brooke – is due to go up 11 pounds in the handicap.
It’s a big ask. She’s in the handicap and, touch wood, the handicapper thinks she’s better than the mark she’s running off. I’ve never been here before so I don’t know what to expect.Peter Atkinson
Given this, Atkinson says the Betfair Hurdle is too good an opportunity to miss before his stable star’s higher handicap mark takes effect.
“We’re very lucky to have her,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “It’s a bit like winning the Lottery.
“Hopefully, she will perform okay all being well. She will go up to Middleham for a gallop on Wednesday, we’ll lunge her on Thursday and travel down to Newbury on Friday.”
When wished ‘good luck’ ahead of this proverbial David versus Goliath battle, the self-deprecating Atkinson, who owns Irish Roe with his wife, replied: “I think we will need it.
“It’s a big ask. She’s in the handicap and, touch wood, the handicapper thinks she’s better than the mark she’s running off.
“I’ve never been here before so I don’t know what to expect.”
Ante-post favourite Lalor is still in the mix for Westcountry trainer Kayley Woollacott, whose husband Richard died last month, with Henderson having five to choose from in Verdana Blue, Charli Parcs, Kayf Grace, Lough Derg Spirit and the revitalised Jenkins, whose latest win at Ascot was another high-profile success for 16-year-old rider James Bowen.
Meanwhile, Henderson says Queen Mother Champion Chase ante-post favourite Altior is in line to make his eagerly awaited reappearance at Newbury on Betfair Hurdle day.
He reports last season’s Arkle Trophy winner, who has had wind surgery, ready to return to the fray in the two-mile Game Spirit Chase. The eight-year-old, unbeaten over fences, has been out of action since late last April when landing the Celebration Chase at Sandown.