This will be the horse’s third attempt to win the National Hunt Festival’s day three highlight – he was a beaten favourite in 2018 before finishing a gallant second to Paisley Park 12 months later.
Today, the Emma Lavelle-trained Paisley Park, who runs in the colours of blind racegoer Andrew Gemmell, will be expected to regain his crown after being defeated by Lisnagar Oscar 12 months ago.
But O’Keeffe is buoyed by Yorkshire’s success in the Ultima Handicap Chase on Tuesday when the grey Vintage Clouds, ridden by comeback jockey Ryan Mania, prevailed in the race at the fifth time of asking.
“It was brilliant. I was so pleased,” O’Keeffe told The Yorkshire Post.
“Sue and Harvey Smith, and Trevor Hemmings, are flying the flag for the North. We want to go down there, contribute and do our bit.”
It is a tall order. After winning his first three novice chases in the autumn of 2019, Sam Spinner had nearly a year off the track with a pelvic injury and has disappointed on his two starts this season – both in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby and then the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.
But O’Keeffe, who trains at Leyburn, reports a smooth preparation and hopes the horse retains the enthusiasm that saw him win the 2017 Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December 2017 – and that the issue is one of confidence. “He’s great. To be fair, since Christmas, we have had an uninterrupted campaign,” said the trainer.
“He had a minor foot problem which ruled him out of the Long Walk in December.
“He had a corn on a foot – it is bruising around the heel. When a horse puts a weight on it, it’s very hard to get out but our farrier and vet have been brilliant. He’s as ready as we can have him.”
Owned by Paul and Caron Chapman, connections have decided to apply blinkers to aid Sam Spinner’s concentration. “It’s hard to be optimistic based on his form since he got injured over a year ago,” added the trainer with characteristic candour.
“The way he’s been working and schooling, however, gives us a little bit of optimism. His fire is still burning; his confidence has been knocked. We’re putting blinkers on just to try and restore his confidence. Blinkers sometimes give them confidence and forget what is going on around them.”
With regular rider Joe Colliver sidelined, Henry Brooke rides the horse for the first time.
Kim Bailey hopes Imperial Aura can record back-to-back successes at the Festival in today’s Ryanair Chase.
He won last year’s novice handicap chase from Galvin who franked that form by winning the National Hunt Chase on Tuesday.
But Imperial Aura came to grief on his last start at Kempton and Bailey, and jockey David Bass, have been working on the horse’s jumping ahead of today’s test against a typically formidable Irish challenge.
“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 ever enthusiastic trainer.
“I’m delighted with the way the horse is progressing. We didn’t go for the Ascot Chase the other day, and we’re hopefully going to Cheltenham as a fresh horse.”
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