Little has gone right for the Yorkshire horse in two starts this season, having pulled up behind Cyrname in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby before failing to beat a rival on his return to smaller obstacles in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November.
Having finished fifth in the 2018 renewal of the Stayers’ Hurdle before being a gallant runner up to Paisley Park 12 months later, O’Keeffe has not lost faith on Paul and Caron Chapman’s nine-year-old whose finest hour came when landing the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in 2017.
“The Stayers’ Hurdle is very much the plan and we will confirm him at the entry stage for the race,” said the Leyburn trainer, whose own past struggles with cancer means that he’s pleased to endorse Cheltenham’s partnership with the WellChild charity this year.
“This has been the plan for quite some time. He had a bit of a setback after he ran at Newbury so we lost a bit of time and unfortunately we couldn’t get him to the Cleeve or the Rendlesham.
“Going straight to the Cheltenham Festival without a run is not perfect but he has had no issues at all since the turn of the year. His fitness seems well and he has been schooling well and he has no issue with the foot problem.
“We still firmly believe that he is a very good horse. He will be one of the outsiders there is no doubt about that and on race form this season he ought to be.
“He got an injury last year (after winning at Doncaster) and that just shook his confidence more than anything. He has proved he has this level of ability and he likes the track we have just got to hope it all comes together. Everything has got to be right on the day.”
O’Keeffe admits the front-running tactics that have helped make Sam Spinner so popular with racing fans are likely to deployed again. However, he is considering equipping the Grade One winner with a set of blinkers to help bolster his chances against the aforementioned Paisley Park, the Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill and last year’s surprise winner Lisnagar Oscar.
“He will still be prominently ridden as all he does is gallop so that won’t change. His training has been going well and he will have his final school on Thursday. We are all ready to go,” added the popular dual purpose trainer
“We are considering putting a pair of blinkers on him in the race. There is usually a stigma attached to horses wearing headgear but there is no questioning his attitude – it is to just help him restore that confidence.
“I do think Paisley Park is a very good horse as is Thyme Hill and if we could finish a few lengths behind them it would be great.”
David Pipe has confirmed Conor O’Farrell will partner Vieux Lion Rouge in next month’s Randox Grand National.
The horse, who has jumped a record 223 consecutive National fences without mishap, won last December’s Becher Chase under O’Farrell.
The announcement came after Pipe’s stable jockey Tom Scudamore was confirmed as the intended big race rider of Jonjo O’Neill’s ante-post favourite Cloth Cap following high-profile wins at Newbury and then Kelso last weekend.
Meanwhile Dingo Dollar’s success at Newcastle for Berwickshire trainer Sandy Thomson and jockey Ryan Mania provided the yard with some compensation after their National hope Bellshill, a former Irish Gold Cup winner, suffered a fatal injury on the gallops on Monday.
The meeting saw Malton’s Oakley Brown, who is looking to re-establish himself here following a spell in Ireland with Joseph O’Brien, win on Moonlight Beam.
Thady Gosden is looking forward to “exciting times” ahead after confirming he is set to hold a joint-licence with his father and multiple champion trainer John from the start of the new Flat turf season.
The father-and-son team will become the highest-profile partnership yet, since joint-licence arrangements were introduced last year.
The Gosdens’ new licence should be officially in place in time for the start of the new season at Doncaster on March 27.
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