Underdog can earn Twiston-Davies an elite place in Cheltenham folklore

TOP trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is clearly relishing his underdog status as his stable star The New One flies the flag for England on day one of Cheltenham’s National Hunt Festival.

Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies. (Picture: John Walton/PA Wire).

He could not be happier that his horse, the leading home hope for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, has been written off in the face of a formidable challenge from Ireland.

Despite The New One being an unlucky third last year after being badly hampered by Our Conor’s fatal fall, the hurdler remains unbeaten from four starts this season.

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And Twiston-Davies has never been a person to shy away from a challenge – it was his Imperial Commander who beat Kauto Star and Denman, two of jump racing’s all-time greats, in a vintage denouement to the 2010 Gold Cup.

Victory today would see the 56-year-old become just the third current trainer, after his great friend Kim Bailey and Paul Nicholls, to saddle the winners of National Hunt racing’s three most celebrated contests – the Grand National, Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.

It will not be easy. Five of the eight runners herald from the Emerald Isle and are headed by the 2014 winner Jezki who will be ridden by the soon-to-retire AP McCoy. And then there is Faugheen, Hurricane Fly and Arctic Fire from the all-conquering stable of Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins.

Hurricane Fly, already a dual winner, is bidding to become the first 11-year-old to win the race since Great Habton trainer Peter Easterby’s Sea Pigeon in 1981.

He will be ridden by Paul Townend, who has the privilege of riding ‘the Fly’ on the gallops each day, after McCoy’s great rival Ruby Walsh – Cheltenham’s winning-most rider – sided with the unbeaten Faugheen who is stepping back in trip.

This could be a momentous day for Walsh and Mullins who have a formidably strong hand in all four Group One races – Douvan heads the field for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, while exciting novice chaser Un De Sceaux could turn the Racing Post Arkle Trophy into a procession if his jumping holds up.

And this is before Annie Power, a winner at Doncaster last season, returns to the track following an 11-month lay-off to contest OLBG Mares’ Hurdle – this is the race which Mullins and Walsh monopolised for six seasons with Quevega.

If Walsh and Mullins win all four races, bookmakers are predicting losses comparable with those incurred when Frankie Dettori rode his ‘magnificent seven’ at Ascot in 1996.

However, this does not perturb Twiston-Davies, who has 15 Festival wins to his name and is even more proud of the progress made by his 22-year-old son Sam who is now established as one of Britain’s top jockeys and who will be aboard The New One this afternoon.

“The whole thing is easier than last year because he is not meant to win – the pressure is totally off,” said the trainer with reference to last year when The New One was expected to become the champion hurdler.

“Two years ago, when he won the Neptune, he could not possibly win as two Irish horses were definitely going to win and The New One might as well not turn up. But he did and he won.

“You could say the same thing with Denman and Kauto Star – Imperial Commander shouldn’t have turned up for the Gold Cup, but he did and won too. It is much nicer that way. My worst year was when Imperial Commander was favourite in 2011 and then everything went wrong – that felt hard.”

The great imponderable is the form – some have crabbed the quality of the horses that The New One has beaten this season and how he had to rely upon guts to beat Bertimont, a big outsider today, at Haydock in January.

Yet Twiston-Davies believes this battle could be to The New One’s advantage because Faugheen has yet to be tested in his three starts this season.

“The New One has done brilliantly this season. He and Faugheen haven’t been racing against championship horses, they have been beating also-rans – the one who sticks out is Hurricane Fly who has beaten good ones,” added the handler.

“Faugheen is always going to be impressive because he takes up the running far earlier.”

As for the rider, Twiston-Davies junior is the first to admit that he could have handled the disappointment of defeat much better 12 months ago.

However, he also has far more experience riding at the top level after succeeding Walsh as stable jockey to Paul Nicholls.

This promises to be the biggest week of his career and victory aboard The New One would silence those who prefer more experienced riders.

“The New One has been cleverly campaigned this year because only Silviniaco Conti has won more prize money than him,” said the jockey.

“Who knows if he’d have won last year? But in races like that you can’t afford to lose a length and we lost nearly 10.

“It’s a bit like boxers sparring before a fight. It seems like it’s the Twiston-Davies family versus Ireland, though!”

Welcome to Cheltenham Festival. Let battle commence.

CAN NIGEL TWISTON-DAVIES BECOME THIRD CURRENT TRAINER TO WIN JUMP RACING’S BIG THREE CONTESTS?

Kim Bailey

Grand National: Mr Frisk (1990).

Cheltenham Gold Cup: Master Oats (1995).

Champion Hurdle: Alderbrook (1995).

Paul Nicholls

Grand National: Neptune Collonges (2012).

Cheltenham Gold Cup: See More Business (1999); Kauto Star (2007); Denman (2008); Kauto Star (2009).

Champion Hurdle: Rock On Ruby (2012).

Nigel Twiston-Davies

Grand National: Earth Summit (1998); Bindaree (1992).

Cheltenham Gold Cup: Imperial Commander (2010).