Robin Oakley

My top tips for Cheltenham Festival

The Irish threat may have English trainers quaking but what about the Welsh?

Jack Tudor riding Cap Du Nord to clear the last to win Kempton’s Coral Trophy Chase [Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images]
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Even when the authorities were refusing Milton Harris the right to renew his training licence after he got his finances in a tangle and went bankrupt in 2011, they acknowledged that nobody questioned his ability to train racehorses. Nor can they. On Saturday, in Kempton’s Adonis Hurdle, Milton’s Knight Salute, purchased for just £14,000, took his unbeaten record over hurdles to five. His trainer has had 42 winners this season at a strike rate of 21 per cent and is one of the few British handlers ready to take on the Irish at Cheltenham this month. Knight Salute is a 10-1 shot for the Triumph Hurdle and no British victory would be more celebrated. Said MiIton: ‘The Irish horses are all talented but some of them have been beaten and we haven’t. He does as little as he can and he wins, doesn’t he? At Doncaster nothing was right for him but he won. He won at Cheltenham and he’s won on a sharp track today –he’s adaptable.’ Rider Paddy Brennan added: ‘He’s probably the quickest horse I’ve ridden over hurdles – he’s so accurate.’ At Cheltenham, says his trainer, Knight Salute will take on horses who cost ten times what he did ‘but we need people with all budgets involved in racing’. Amen to that.

The Irish threat may again have English trainers quaking in the Cheltenham run-up, but what about the Welsh? They’ll soon need to rebuild Offa’s Dyke with razor wire to keep them out. Evan Williams from Llancarfan, Vale of Glamorgan, has been creaming the Saturday prizes this season with horses such as Coole Cody, Annsam, Dans Le Vent and Prime Venture. Sam Thomas, based at Lisvane near Cardiff, is having his best season yet, including a Welsh Grand National victory with Iwilldoit, and on Saturday Christian Williams, who trains in Bridgend, brought off a spectacular double. He won the four-mile Eider Chase at Newcastle with the 11-2 Win My Wings and 20 minutes later took Kempton’s £150,000 Coral Trophy Chase with Cap Du Nord at 13-2 ridden by his stable jockey, the 19-year-old Jack Tudor. For good measure at Kempton Williams saddled the second home as well, the 16-1 shot Kitty’s Light who is one of this column’s Twelve to Follow and who really needs a stiffer test than Kempton’s sharp three miles.

Kitty’s Light, desperately unlucky not to win last season’s bet365 chase at Sandown, is actually Jack Tudor’s favourite horse. After a piece of work last week from Kitty’s Light, the 3lb-claimer texted his trainer an emoji of an aeroplane as a hint but at the weights the trainer pressured him into riding Cap Du Nord and booked champion-elect Brian Hughes to partner Kitty’s Light. He’d had to pressure the owner, too, not to run Cap Du Nord in a much smaller race at Carlisle the previous Monday. The quietly spoken trainer – you can see how he would keep horses calm – was full of praise for his jockey declaring: ‘I wasn’t so much cheering on Cap Du Nord or Kitty but cheering on Jack.’ Theirs looks like a partnership to last.

The best tip of the day, though, came, I suspect, from trainer Dan Skelton after his seven-year-old Flegmatik had won the Coral ‘Fail to Finish’ Free Bets handicap chase in the hands of brother Harry over two and a half miles. ‘I was especially happy with the way he travelled,’ said Dan. ‘I worried that stepping back in trip there might be one that could come and outsprint us at the end but with the way he runs early on in his races I’ve always had it in my mind that Flegmatik will be a long-distance player. He can maintain his rhythm over a long period and I am sure one day he will be that kind of horse. I am going to leave off him now until the bet365 Chase at the end of the season.’

It was intriguing to hear Dan’s thoughts, too, on his readiness to reach for wind operations on his horses. He insists: ‘I’d rather run them and find they didn’t need to have had it done than run them and find they needed it. The same goes for tongue straps. If you can diagnose a problem, then why do without the remedy?’ He noted that some people say there are more minor tibial fractures than there used to be and wonder why. ‘There aren’t. All that has changed is the technology enabling us to discover them.’ He added: ‘The biggest inhibitor to performance is pain. If you can make an athlete pain-free in what he is doing, he will run faster. Human medical science has advanced because people can speak. We’re only scratching at the surface of equine medical science because horses can’t speak to tell us what is wrong.’

Quote of the day, though, came from jovial fellow-trainer Chris Gordon. Asked for future plans after his Aucunrisque had won the Dovecot novices’ hurdle, he ducked: ‘I haven’t had a drink in February so my judgment’s not great.’