RUBY Walsh has named North Yorkshire’s Grade One-winning hurdler Sam Spinner as the horse that he would like most to ride at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Walsh – the winning-most rider in Festival history with 56 wins to his name – was speaking to ITV Racing after Cheltenham’s Festival Trials meeting on Saturday.
The leading rider at 11 of the last 14 Festivals, Walsh will be riding for Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins in March if he recovers from a broken leg.
However the mercurial Walsh was very impressed by the manner of Sam Spinner’s front-running win in Ascot’s Grade One Long Walk Hurdle under jockey Joe Colliver.
He believes the Jedd O’Keeffe-trained horse is a worthy favourite for the Stayers Hurdle after Nichols Canyon, the horse that Walsh rode to victory in last year’s race, broke a leg at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting.
“What he (Sam Spinner) did as a five-year-old at Ascot to win the Long Walk Hurdle, he can only be physically improving,” said Walsh. “He can only be a big player on March 15 when he runs because of maturity and his age. He still has to be improving.
“You’re looking at what horses are going there in a bit of form and, to me, Sam Spinner is a big improver.”
Though O’Keeffe initially described Walsh’s praise as “scary”, he said the comments were also “very exciting and very flattering”.
“When he (Ruby) picked us, it was something of a shock but we’re enjoying it. The extra publicity has to be a good thing as a stable,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“In terms of the training the horse, we’re just do the same as we always do.
“You probably spend a bit more time watching him and making sure he’s okay – it’s probably a little paranoia – but we’ll just do the same thing.”
O’Keeffe confirmed that Sam Spinner will head to Cheltenham without a prep race. “This was always the plan after Ascot,” he added.
These are resurgent times for Yorkshire jump racing. Malcolm Jefferson’s Waiting Patiently is a leading contender for the Ryanair Chase while Brian Ellison’s Definitly Red heads to the blue riband Gold Cup after an emphatic win in Saturday’s Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham.
“Is he a Gold Cup winner? It’s hard to think so but he has earned a shot at it and will run a massive race,” said Walsh.
Though Definitly Red has to improve again to beat the likes of defending champion Sizing John, and King George hero Might Bite, he said the Yorkshire horse’s “winning habit” is a plus – this success followed an eyecatching win in last month’s Many Clouds Chase at Aintree.
Walsh said only three horses – Might Bite, Ireland’s Road To Respect and Definitly Red – had clear “winning form” this season.
The Betfair Hurdle at Newbury is a potential next port of call for Irish Roe following her fine effort in defeat at Doncaster on Saturday.
Northallerton farmer Peter Atkinson’s prolific mare, who cost just £2,000, has won seven of her 11 starts to date and following successive handicap victories at Doncaster in December, she returned to Town Moor for a Grade Two mares’ hurdle on Saturday.
After moving smoothly into contention, she was unable to wear down hot favourite Maria’s Benefit, who justified odds-on favouritism to clinch her fifth win on the bounce.
Irish Roe was nicely clear of the remainder, however, and Henry Brooke’s mount could now feature in one of the most competitive handicaps of the season on February 10.
“She ran very well on Saturday and we’re very happy with her. I think she was beaten by a very good horse on the day,” said Atkinson. “We’ll see how she comes out of the race in the next few days. She’s in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury and she might go for that if we’re happy with her.”