WARREN Greatrex will choose Aintree over Cheltenham for La Bague Au Roi this spring.
Greatrex’s dual Grade One-winning mare still has entries in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Ryanair Chase held over from last season.
But she is instead bound for Aintree’s Betway Bowl following her tough performance to finish fifth in Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup.
She travelled to Ireland partly in search of a sounder surface after finishing third to Phil Kirby’s Lady Buttons in a thriller at Doncaster at the end of December.
But the plan came unstuck on that score when a watering programme and morning rain combined to produce more testing conditions than many anticipated.
Greatrex nonetheless had no complaints, either with La Bague Au Roi or his Irish hosts.
“She’s come back in great nick, all good,” said the trainer. “She ran very well, and I was very happy with her.
“It wasn’t ideal for me that it turned soft – it rained, and obviously they watered all morning to make sure it was on the soft side.
I can understand that, but it didn’t suit me.”
Concerns were expressed by several high-profile Irish trainers about drying ground during day one of the Dublin Racing Festival – but by day two, the feature race was run on a significantly softer surface.
“They’re not going to listen to me, just because I want better ground,” added Lambourn handler Greatrex.
“It’s a big Festival, and the powers that be in Ireland wanted softer ground – which is fair enough.
“We took our chance. She ran very well – but I know on better ground, she’d have been a lot closer.
“There were five of them there turning in, and she’s stuck at it, put her head down and galloped all the way to the line.”
La Bague Au Roi had revelled in controversially quick conditions at the same meeting a year earlier, when she won the Flogas Novice Chase.
Twelve months on, it was a different story as she failed to quicken but kept on admirably behind several Gold Cup hopefuls in a race won by Gordon Elliott’s Delta Work.
“It was what it was – but whether I would think about taking her over next year, knowing what the ground will be like now, may be a different matter,” said Greatrex.
“I’m very proud of her, and we’ll move on to the next race – which I would say would be Aintree. I hope we get a bit of better ground (there). I suppose most people will be either going to Cheltenham or Punchestown – so you never know, it might just be a race she can go for.”
La Bague Au Roi did enough in Ireland to vindicate her presence and encourage Greatrex for future Grade One ventures.
“Although she was 12 lengths behind, it proves she should have been in that race – and she ran great, and I’m chuffed to bits,” added the trainer who hopes champion jockey Richard Johnson, currently out with a broken arm, is back in action for the mare’s next run.
“It’s one of those things. We live to fight another day, and she’s taking her races very well – which is brilliant. It will be Aintree (next) – and if it’s not Aintree, it might be Punchestown. I think she now definitely wants three miles, and that will help her.”
Not So Sleepy has been declared among a maximum field of 24 for tomorrow’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury.
Hughie Morrison had been undecided whether to run the eight-year-old, who is lightly-raced over hurdles after a successful Flat career.
He won his last start at Ascot by nine lengths off a low handicap mark – yet despite a 17lb rise, he has been towards the head of the betting ever since.
Morrison is hoping his charge makes up into a Champion Hurdle contender.
In an open year for the Cheltenham showpiece, victory in Saturday’s big handicap – for which he would also win a £100,000 bonus – would put him right in the mix.
Johnny Burke has been on board Not So Sleepy this season and said: “The Betfair Hurdle is a much bigger test than what we faced the last day at Ascot.
“The horse seems very well, and he schooled well the other morning.
“What he did at Ascot was a bit breathtaking – so with the 17lb hike, he is going to have to go and back it up now. It’s going to be a tough ask – but I believe in the horse, and we will be going there with all guns blazing.
In-form Catterick trainer Phil Kirby sends Whoshotthesherrif down from the north – the horse will be ridden by Sean Quinlan.