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Cheltenham Festival puts a spring in Brian Ellison’s step
IF form is universally considered the key pointer in a horse’s prospects of winning a race then it is no surprise Brian Ellison is excited about next month’s Cheltenham Festival.
It is a select string which will wind its way from the Norton trainer’s Spring Cottage Stables base to Gloucestershire but they are winning horses that will take to the stage at National Hunt’s showpiece meeting.
“We are going there with some good chances this year and I am really looking forward to it,” Ellison said.
“We set our stall out at the end of last year to have horses that would go to Cheltenham and we bought a lot for the Flat. We have probably got the best set of horses we have ever had.”
A Cheltenham winner would be yet another boost for a yard that seems inexorably on the up.
Following another record year of successes in 2012, Ellison’s string is approaching 90 – the largest number he has ever had – and he’s been able to bring in bigger and better investments.
Like Totalize, who signalled his readiness for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle at the Festival with a smart win at Kelso last week.
The four-year-old, under rider Danny Cook, came from last to first and beat Phoenix Returns by two-and-a-half lengths to put down a serious marker.
Having cost 50,000 guineas when bought out of Luca Cumani’s Newmarket yard last October, he has won his last two starts for his relatively new trainer.
Ellison said: “He absolutely bolted up last time out. Danny just thinks the better ground will help him. Hopefully, the ground at Cheltenham would be good for him.
“The thing with the Fred Winter is that everyone wants to get their horses well enough handicapped and then you have to make sure you get in. You have to have a win somewhere along the way. He’s rated 131. You could call him that but there is definitely scope for improvement.
“He’s a big horse, he’s very athletic, travels really well through his races, jumps well and has got a turn of foot. He likes to get on with it, and you have to rein him back a bit because he wants to do too much.”
At the vanguard of Ellison’s group is Viva Colonia who, despite an entry in the Arkle, is more likely to target the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase on the Festival’s final day.
“Viva Colonia came to me when the owners moved him from David O’Meara and he has settled in really quickly,” added Ellison. “He’s unbeaten in two races (both at Musselburgh) and we know he was a good horse in the past as well. He’s absolutely flying at the minute.
“We have left him in the Arkle in case anything happens to the supposed good thing Simonsig. He’s also in the Grand Annual. At the moment, I would think that is the favourite but if anything happens to the first two in the betting he might be switched to the Arkle.
“If you think you can beat Simonsig and Overturn then you must be a good thing in the handicap, which is what I have told the owners.
“He won well the first time out, and went out next time out and won by a distance. It was a very useful race.
“Totalize and Viva Colonia go there in good form and the form of their races has worked out well. They worked on Wednesday and they were absolutely bouncing and so I am really happy with them.”
But it isn’t just with expensive purchases with which Ellison could make his mark at Prestbury Park.
Yesyoucan cost a mere £6,000 at Ascot sales last June but smashed Renoyr by 12 lengths in a handicap hurdle at Carlisle earlier in the week – a performance which left Ellison purring.
“He is a proper National Hunt horse,” he said. “He had a bad run at Haydock the time before but I think that came on the back of having a couple of runs.
“He went to Carlisle and absolutely sluiced up. We are thinking about it at the moment and we will see what the handicapper does next week. He is in the Coral Cup and the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. He will be entered for Aintree and we will see how he goes.
“The Coral would be the favourite if he goes but, if we don’t, there is a three-mile novice race at Aintree. We might just leave him for that.”
Neptune Equester’s appearance in either the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup or the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle might be touch and go.
The ten-year-old, who was 13th in the Grand National last April, surprised Ellison by winning a Wetherby hurdle on Boxing Day and has been campaigned sparingly after a couple of heavy years on the go.
Ellison said: “He ran the other day at Haydock but the ground was really heavy and sticky. Neptune is the kind of horse that if he’s not enjoying it you can see it in his races.
“He wasn’t enjoying it. He wants better ground, which he will get at Cheltenham, but, in the long term, I think we are going to go for the Scottish National again.
“Kristian (Strangeway, owner) is thinking about where to run him.
“Last year he had a lot of races and, this year, we freshened him up and purposely kept him until the back end of the year and keep him a fresh horse.
“As long as the horse is well, he can run anywhere. I’ll leave it to Kristian to see what he wants to do but, if he wants to take him to Cheltenham, he will be ready.”
Even at this late stage, with the Festival just a couple of weeks away, plans are still fluid. Cape Explorer’s second place at Sedgefield yesterday – the only chance the trainer has been able to get him on the track since October given his aversion to soft ground – might see him make what looks like a highly competitive Triumph Hurdle.
And Travis County has also yet to be ruled out.
“I am really looking forward to it,” said Ellison of the Festival. “Obviously, we have got another two-and-a-half weeks and so, hopefully, nothing goes wrong but at the moment they have been through their paces and they are brilliant.”