But it would be remiss to discount the galloping credentials of Melodic Rendezvous, one of a new generation of horses to be prospering from the emerging partnership of trainer Jeremy Scott and jockey Nick Scholfield.
A first Grade One winner for both Scott and Scholfield, both of whom are too good to be described as underdogs, when landing last month’s Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown, Melodic Rendezvous then franked this form at Exeter on Sunday when beating Oliver Sherwood’s highly-regarded Puffin Billy by nine lengths, while also conceding five pounds in weight on desperately heavy ground.
The 57th winner of 23-year-old Scholfield’s career-best season, comfortably eclipsing last year’s tally of 48, Melodic Rendezvous should not be discounted when it comes to the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the traditional Cheltenham curtain-raiser and a race that normally reveals future Champion Hurdle candidates.
Though My Tent Or Yours, Champagne Fever and the Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki head the ante-post betting market, Scholfield believes his horse has one crucial advantage – age. At seven, the gelding, trained at Scott’s stables high up on Exmoor, is far more mature in physique than many of hurdling’s young pretenders.
“Maturity on this ground is key,” said Scholfield. “It’s so much harder for five-year-olds to battle through. It’s certainly to our advantage, though you couldn’t fail to be impressed by My Tent Or Yours at Newbury or Champagne Fever in the Grade One at Leopardstown.
“Of course, we wanted to confirm the Tolworth form and what we thought, but we were up against it with Puffin Billy – he was an unknown quantity who has won a lot of races in very good style and was in receipt of five pounds from us.
“It was very deep ground. Puffin Billy is only five, we’re seven and maybe a bit stronger and we probably handled the ground better.”
Significantly, the corresponding race in 2006 was won by subsequent Supreme Novices’ winner Noland and Scholfield, sponsored by Yorkshire-based Simple Landlords Insurance, believes that this fiercely competitive race will be the Festival target for Melodic Rendezvous.
The only caveat, he says, is if the weather relented and there was faster ground at Cheltenham when the Neptune Investment Hurdle, over two and a half miles, would become a possible target.
“Why change a winning formula?” he pondered. “Exeter was only an hour away from Mr Scott’s yard so it won’t have taken too much out of him. It will be ground dependent at Cheltenham, but his odds would be a lot shorter if he was at one of the bigger yards.
“It’s great to ride for people like Mr Scott. I picked up some rides two or three years ago, some owners I know have horses with him, and it’s gone on from there – horses like Melodic Rendezvous don’t come along often. I liked him when he won his Bumper at Chepstow and he was second to Champagne Fever in the Bumper at the Punchestown Festival on that awful ground. And then he won the Tolworth; not many novices have Grade One form.”
Scott, who has around 40 horses with his point-to-point trainer wife Camilla, is one of several trainers to benefit from the services of Scholfield whose promising career took off when he partnered the ever popular Hunt Ball to Cheltenham glory last year in the Pulteney Land Investments Handicap Novices’ Chase, which Ferdy Murphy’s Divers won in 2011 for North Yorkshire.
As well as being spurred to even greater heights by his on-course rivalry with weighing room friends Aidan Coleman, Tom Scudamore and Sam Twiston-Davies, Hunt Ball’s win for West Country trainer Keiran Burke and extrovert owner Anthony Knott has given Scholfield a taste for the big time.
The only disappointment is that Hunt Ball has now been withdrawn from the Cheltenham Gold Cup – the heavy ground has not played to the strengths of this handicapping sensation who won seven races last season and saw Knott jump on the horse’s back after he had been ridden to a memorable victory at Wincanton by Scholfield.
The Byrne Group Plate will be his Festival target. “Mr Knott feels that is Hunt Ball’s best chance of success,” added the jockey.
Victory at Catterick sees Coleman clock up his best tally yet
LIKE his great friend Nick Scholfield, Aidan Coleman is another in-form jockey enjoying a career-best season and Shangani’s chase win at Catterick yesterday took his tally to 70 successes – one more than his 2009-10 total.
The success also reaffirms the resurgence of Venetia Williams after a couple of years in the doldrums following Mon Mome’s Grand National success in 2009, and vindicates her decision to send many of her horses to northern tracks to seek confidence-boosting victories.
Williams, based near Ross-on-Wye, is enjoying her best season for almost a decade and is operating at a near 20 per cent strike-rate thanks to numerous young chasers like Gold Cup outsider Katenko.
Shangani won at Sandown just nine days ago and the seven-year-old had no trouble in seeing off Mr Syntax in the £12,000 Weatherbys Bank Handicap Chase, despite a hefty rise in the handicap.
“He was very good at Sandown so he was entitled to come and win this,” said an elated Coleman.
“It’s good prize-money, so fair play to Venetia and the team at home for spotting this race. We’ve been very lucky up north this season and we’ve had a few winners at Musselburgh so we’ve been rewarded for travelling.
“This horse is very versatile, he made the running the last day, but only because nothing else wanted to. Ideally he wants to be ridden like this – dropped in with a lead. He’s a safe jumper and is improving nicely.”
Though West Witton trainer Ferdy Murphy was disappointed by steeplechaser Balding Banker’s fall at Catterick yesterday when holding a winning position, he has been buoyed by his son Rhys winning his first point-to-point race at the weekend aboard Galant Nuit, a stable stalwart that memorably beat subsequent National hero Don’t Push It at Cheltenham in November 2009.
Meanwhile, enigmatic grey Grands Crus will be scratched from the Gold Cup today as David Pipe’s stable star continues to recover from gastric ulcers.
Third in the King George VI Chase after having a breathing operation, the eight-year-old ran poorly once again when pulled up in the Argento Chase at Cheltenham last month. However, he still holds entries in both the Ryanair Chase and Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Festival.
A close second to the iconic Big Buck’s in the 2011 World Hurdle, Pipe said: “He was given an easy time of things while we tried to get to the bottom of his lacklustre effort. He is back on the gallops and looks well in himself.”
Ripon racecourse is to become the third track in the country, after Chester and Bangor, to scrap pool betting through the Betfred-owned Tote and start its own betting operation.
Managing director James Hutchinson said: “RiponBET means that all the proceeds from race day betting are still retained by the course for reinvestment in to facilities and prize-money.”