Here is one for the experts at pub-quiz racing nights: which well-known jumps trainer has scored twice at Royal Ascot without yet registering training a winner at the Cheltenham Festival? Answer: Paul Webber. His glorious Cropredy Lawn yard near Banbury turns out a stream of decent hurdlers and chasers most winters — think of Flying Instructor, De Soto and Imperial Cup winner Carlo Brigante — but never seems to have much luck at the Festival. Meanwhile, from his comparatively rare forays on the Flat Paul can point to Royal Ascot victories on the Flat both with Ulundi (who also won a Scottish Champion Hurdle) and Full House.
In March this year, 99 per cent of the racing world was convinced that things were going to change. The leading novice chaser Time For Rupert, an imposing chestnut gelding by Flemensfirth, was the heaviest-backed horse at the Festival in the RSA chase. He had won at Cheltenham in November and December. But that day he ran without his usual zest, could manage no better than fifth place and was later found to have suffered lung damage from an infection that had prevented him running in January.
His trainer, one of the cheeriest, best-tempered figures you will meet on the racecourse, took the defeat with grace at the time, but with that Festival hoodoo hanging over him it must have hurt. This season the Festival will be Time For Rupert’s focus. Lung problems are behind him and when I went to see him before his planned seasonal debut in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby (where he finished second to Weird Al) he looked an absolute picture, both on the gallops and after the swim which habitually follows the horses’ exercise at Cropredy. I only need to see him on a bicycle and I would happily back him for a triathlon.