The horse showed great guts, and resolution, to win the Castleford Chase at the rain-sodden West Yorkshire track on December 27 before taking Ascot’s Grade One Clarence House Chase with an exhilarating round of jumping.
Twenty-six years on from completing the Champion Hurdle-Cheltenham Gold Cup double with Alderbrook and Master Oats, Bailey says he is “undoubtedly” sending his strongest team to the National Hunt Festival since 1995.
First Flow is unbeaten now in six starts and – despite some erratic jumping – has struck up a great rapport with David Bass who is one of Britain’s most positive riders.
Time will tell if similar tactics can deny Ireland’s odds-on favourite Chacun Pour Soi; dual winenr Altior and defending champion Politologue, but Bailey and Bass relish challenges like this two-mile steeplechasing speed test.
“When I made the entry (for the Champion Chase) it was a little bit of a fairytale entry really, but what he achieved at Ascot was phenomenal – it was as good a race as I’ve ever watched in my life, I think,” said Bailey. “I really enjoyed the fact that he did what he did, and it was the way he did it on ground that we weren’t necessarily expecting him to be that good on.
“It launched us very quickly to a place where we have to go for the Champion Chase – whether we like it or not. He became a horse that’s certainly good enough (to run).
“We’re going forward in a new dimension and in a place where none of us knew we’d be. We’re going to take it on with both hands and with both feet firmly on the ground.”
Bailey would dearly love to add a Champion Chase victory to his CV, adding: “I’ve never had a fancied runner in it – I’ve only had one runner in the race before, and that was a situation where the owners insisted on running him.
“I’ve always loved the race and loved watching it. I go back to the days of Viking Flagship when there was three horses jumping the last upsides in front. What a moment it would be to have the horse that passes the post in front in a race like that.”
Bailey’s Festival team were put through their paces yesterday morning, and the Cotswolds trainer was relieved to report all came through with flying colours.
His main contender is Imperial Aura who is one of the favourites for the Grade One Ryanair Chase over two-and-a-half miles. He won the now defunct novices’ handicap chase at last year’s meeting and was impressive in winning his first two starts of the current campaign at Carlisle and Ascot.
The eight-year-old then unseated Bass on his latest outing at Kempton, but Bailey is not too worried about that. “We’ve done extensive schooling with him. He’s a good jumper, and I’m convinced something took his eye off the fence. I’m very thankful it happened there – and hopefully it won’t happen at Cheltenham,” said the trainer. “I’m delighted with the way the horse is progressing.”
Meanwhile, the Colin Tizzard team have retired multiple Grade One winner Thistlecrack, the winner of the 2016 Ladbrokes World Hurdle. The horse has suffered niggling injuries since making history by landing Kempton’s King George VI Chase as a novice at the end of the same year.
“Kind, gentle and a hell of a racehorse. Thank you for everything. The privilege was all mine,” tweeted the horse’s jockey Tom Scudamore in his own tribute.
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