Lady Buttons in ‘grand’ shape for tough Cheltenham test

PHIL KIRBY says Lady Buttons – horse racing’s ‘Queen of the North’ – is in “really good order” ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

Lady Buttons and Jennie Durrans on the gallops at Phil Kirby's stables.

The North Yorkshire trainer was speaking after declaring the 10-year-old for Tuesday’s Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.

One of four elite Grade One races on day one of the Festival, Lady Buttons was a gallant fourth in last year’s renewal.

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But this year’s race appears to be a tougher proposition after Willie Mullins, Ireland’s champion trainer, declared Benie Des Dieux who won the 2018 contest before crashing out at the final flight last year when she had the race at her mercy under the now retired Ruby Walsh.

Tommy Dowson will partner Lady Buttons at the Cheltenham Festival, it has been confirmed. Photo: Phill Andrews.

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Cheltenham race for Lady Buttons confirmed

And with Henry de Bromhead opting to run Honeysuckle, the winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle, in this contest, Kirby agonised over the decision with Jayne and Keith Sivills who own Lady Buttons.

They could have taken on the big guns in Wednesday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase – or lined up in Friday’s Grand Annual Chase which is a ferociously competitive two mile steeplechase.

“I wanted to run her in one of the Grade One and I chose the mares’ hurdle over the Queen Mother,” said Kirby who also saddles Desaray Girl in the two-an- a-half mile race.

Trainer Phil Kirby.

“That’s the top and bottom of it – we’ll run her here and then in the handicap chase at Aintree in which she came in second last year.

“She’s absolutely grand and in really good order and is ready to go.”

Kirby is under no illusions about the scale of the task facing Lady Buttons, who has captured racing’s imagination with her 15 career wins to date from 32 starts as well as her versatility over both hurdles and fences.

“I think it is very, very competitive. I was hoping that it would cut up a little bit but they have all decided to have a go,” he said.

“Six or seven of the 10 runners are serious horses – hopefully we are one of them. As long as she runs her race and comes back in one piece.”

Connections also had an equally difficult decision over choice of jockey – regular rider Adam Nicol injured his back in a crunching fall at Sedgefield on Boxing Day and is only due to return to the saddle today.

It means another call-up for Tommy Dowson, who has won twice at Doncaster on the mare, most recently last December in a thrilling three-way finish. The in-form jockey also rode Lady Buttons at Cheltenham and Aintree last year while the luckless Nicol was recovering from a broken leg.

“Adam has one ride on Monday and I thought one ride back is not quite enough for a race that will be this competitive,” added Kirby. “It’s a big ask for anybody – I had to do the right thing for the horse – but he will ride her at Aintree.”

Meanwhile, two-time winner Altior is a major doubt for the Champion Chase after being struck down with lameness. Declarations close at 10am today and Altior had been expected to attempt to equal Badsworth Boy’s three successive wins in the historic race for the Dickinson family, who trained at Harewood.

“Unfortunately Altior was lame due to an old splint that has been dormant. It’s never bothered him before and typically it rears its ugly head now,” bemoaned traienr Nicky Henderson. “It’s an uphill battle. We have the treadmill he can go on and it’s very cold water, which helps these things a lot. We have to keep going. We’re working away and we’ll either get lucky or we won’t.”

He added: “He was sound as a pound yesterday – you wouldn’t have seen a sounder horse.”