It is the Gold Cup or bust for Hunt Ball. Keiran Burke’s star is among 40 entries for the Cheltenham Festival showpiece on March 15 but his name was conspicuous by its absence from the 39 going for the Ryanair Chase 24 hours earlier.
There is only one Gold Cup – and owner Anthony Knott is determined to go for it. He has a dream, the money is down and the Sturminster Newton dairy-farmer won’t be deflected – never mind what trainer Burke says.
Burke makes no secret that he thinks the eight-year-old would be better suited by the Ryanair, a Grade One affair run over two miles and five furlongs which is five and a half furlongs shorter than the Gold Cup distance. He pleaded with Knott to enter the Ryanair as well but his words fell on deaf ears.
The handler from Henley near Crewkerne said: “I think the Ryanair would be perfect for Hunt Ball. Twenty minutes before the deadline I begged Anthony to enter and I nearly told him I would pay for the entry myself but he didn’t want to know.
“Now I just have to go along with it and I hope the horse does himself justice. The Gold Cup is going to be a gruelling test but the trip is no problem – he stayed three miles at Aintree in April on a fast track after a long season.”
Last year’s result showed it is not necessarily horses with a pedigree of Grade One victories who fight out the finish. Synchronised and The Giant Bolster were both glorified handicappers though the ill-fated Synchronised did rise to top-grade status less than three months before Cheltenham by taking Ireland’s Lexus Chase.
However, Burke reckons it will be a tougher race this time with an out-and-out stayer and mud-lover Tidal Bay in the mix along with a rejuvenated Long Run, the young pretender Bobs Worth and leading Irish hope Sir Des Champs.
Owner and trainer will hope that the current quagmire does not last until mid-March. Cheltenham is a fast draining track and if the weather dries up better ground would help their cause.
After floundering in the mud during the Paddy Power Gold Cup during November Hunt Ball re-appeared in heavy conditions again for the Peterborough Chase over an extended two miles and four furlongs at Kempton Park on December 27, purely because Burke was desperate to give him another outing.
“I didn’t think he would run that well but when Nick Scholfield jumped off the first thing he said was that he had run a cracking race to be second even though he hated the ground. We’ve got the horse back we had last season.”
For his Cheltenham build-up the gelding is due to go to Taunton on Saturday for a £30,000 open handicap chase on the richest day the course has ever staged.
Hunt Ball will be one of the highest-rated horses ever to appear on the Somerset track and is a great attraction for racegoers but though Knott is satisfied with the distance of two miles and three furlongs Burke feels the assignment is not ideal – especially on such a tight track.
Burke said: “It’s been quoted that he will make the running but he definitely won’t be doing that though he will be kept handy. It’s a very sharp track and I’ll walk it this week to make sure I’m happy before he goes there. If I’m not happy, he won’t run.”
His final prep outing is planned for the Racing Plus Chase (formerly Racing Post), a valuable three-mile handicap at Kempton Park on February 23.
Burke reports his charge “in cracking form” after the Peterborough where the £8,500 he won carried his career prize-money beyond £82,000, all of which has come in chases.
Besides Tidal Bay Paul Nicholls (Ditcheat) has Kauto Stone, Silviniaco Conti and What A Friend in the Gold Cup while Colin Tizzard of Milborne Port has put in Hey Big Spender.
The Ryanair contingent includes Tizzard’s Cue Card – 6-1 second favourite behind Ireland’s Flemenstar – and the Nicholls quartet of Ghizao, Kauto Stone, Poquelin and Unioniste.
Cue Card is also among 17 entries for the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase (March 13) along with Edgardo Sol, Sanctuaire and Shooters Wood from Ditcheat.
By David Briers