By Jon Lees
Rebecca Curtis hopes to make up for having no runners at last year’s Cheltenham Festival with a pair of candidates capable of extending the record of Wales’s winning-most trainer at the four-day fixture.
She is targeting two of the races in which she has a winning pedigree, with Lisnagar Oscar in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle and Drovers Lane set to contest the RSA Chase rather than the JLT Novices’ Chase.
Between 2012 and 2016 Curtis sent out a winner at the Festival four years in a row as Tea For Three, At Fishers Cross, O’Faolains Boy and Irish Cavalier put the Pembrokeshire trainer on the racing map.
She had just a single runner at the track last season and sent nothing to the Festival – but ended a quiet campaign in style by landing the Scottish Grand National with Joe Farrell.
Curtis, whose Newport stables are a three-hour drive west of Cheltenham, excels with long-distance horses, as Lisnagar Oscar showed in a 10-length victory in the Grade Two Prestige Novices’ Hurdle at Haydock, on the strength of which he is now 8-1 joint-favourite for the Albert Bartlett.
“He was very impressive at Haydock,” said Curtis.
“In every single race he has improved. I was struggling to find three-mile races for him, that’s why he ran over two and a half at Chepstow. I wanted a staying track to drop him back, but it is at three miles that he showed his best.
“I didn’t think Haydock would suit him as a track because it’s more about speed. Although he shows a really good turn of foot, he wouldn’t be the quickest on the gallops.
“I thought he was a good horse, but he’s gone beyond expectations. He is tough as nails, a real hardy horse.”
Curtis bought point-to-point winner Lisnagar Oscar, who is out of a sister to Whisper, for £105,000 at the Goffs UK Sale at Aintree last April.
“I bought him on spec,” she said.
“I went into last season thinking if I didn’t buy in the spring I wouldn’t have anything for this year. It is a gamble at that level, but unless you do it you stay stagnant.
“He and Drovers Lane are the two most expensive ones and the main reason for buying them was they were both Oscars. I’ve done really well with Oscars. Three out of my four Cheltenham Festival winners were Oscars and I have always got on well with them.”
She continued: “Lisnagar Oscar has what it takes. You need a hardy horse to win at Cheltenham. This horse is tough, he won’t give up. He has a really good cruising speed, jumps really well and he quickens off it as well.
“At Fishers Cross won the Albert Bartlett, but Lisnagar is a good jumper. At Fishers Cross was an awful jumper, purely because of all of his problems, but he just had the class that he got away with jumping bad.”
Drovers Lane has won three out of four over fences and was expected to line up in the JLT after defying a penalty to win at Cheltenham in December over two and a half miles, his last racecourse appearance.
Curtis said: “We were going to run him at Wetherby and that got called off and the only other race was the Reynoldstown and for me three weeks in between then and the Festival wasn’t going to be enough.
“We gave his wind a little tweak as well in the last week. We had his palate cauterised. He runs well fresh and as a light horse he is easy to keep fit.”
Drovers Lane is a best-priced 33-1 for the RSA, which the stable captured with O’Faolains Boy in 2014.
“I think he will run very well,” Curtis said.
“A lot of people think he is going to run in the JLT Novices’ Chase, but he is probably going to run in the RSA now.
“I couldn’t see him winning a Grade One over two miles three. He trains like a three-miler and Sean Bowen said he runs like a three-miler and that’s why at the top of the hill at Cheltenham he did pick it up and go early because he felt like a galloper.
“I’ve 90 per cent made my mind up. I think the RSA will give him more time to stay in the race.”