At around 1.30 on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 12, it will surely be reasonable to think nobody will be feeling the pressure more than Nigel Twiston-Davies, trainer of Supreme Novices’ Hurdle favourite Al Dancer.
It is the first race of the four-day Cheltenham Festival, the atmosphere is at fever pitch and the horses going out to compete sense it, thereby being prone to become more excited than is ideal.
And for a horse with the free-going style of Al Dancer, the Prestbury Park cauldron is even more of an issue – as Twiston-Davies makes it abundantly clear his roan grey needs to consent to settle if he is to prevail.
His only previous winner of the race, Arctic Kinsman, prevailed in 1994, while his Betfair Hurdle winner Ballyandy failed to follow up in the Supreme three years ago despite running well.
Recalling the Dai Walters-owned Al Dancer’s recent victory in the Betfair Hurdle at Ascot, Twiston-Davies points out: “When we were watching the race at Ascot he was very free and it was a relief to see him finish off his race so strongly.
“My initial reaction was that he might not get away with it at Cheltenham.
“In the Supreme a truly-run race is essential, but it’s one in which they rarely hang about and the quicker they go, the better it will be for our horse.
“He’s in really good form, and after winning nicely at Ascot doesn’t appear to have taken anything out of himself at all. If he gets top of the ground or some cut, it won’t bother him.
“Furthermore he’s already been to Cheltenham this season and on that day he appeared to relish coming up the hill. He travelled and quickened, and never looked like stopping.
“If he gets the fast pace and a bit of cover he requires he should run very well. He certainly looks our best chance of a winner at the Festival.”
Bristol De Mai is something of the forgotten horse in the Magners Gold Cup, not having been seen since uncharacteristically falling in the King George VI Stakes at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
The ghostly grey’s preference for Haydock has manifested itself with two successes in the Betfair Chase, including in November, when interestingly the going did not contain the cut the bold-jumping gelding had seemed to prefer.
Twiston-Davies said: “He’s been a slightly fragile horse along the way, but happily we haven’t had a single problem with him this season. He definitely seems over-priced when you look at his form and take in that he’s the equal top-rated chaser in Britain and Ireland.
“In the Betfair Chase the ground was close to being good and you saw how much he enjoyed it, so it would be wrong to say he needs some cut…it’s a wide-open year with a lot of runners.”
The Grange Farm trainer said he would field a team of around a dozen at the meeting with Ballyandy given a fair each-way chance in the Coral Cup.
“He’s a Festival winner (Champion Bumper) and after reverting to hurdles has run well in his last couple of starts in handicaps. He wants that kind of trip and is in good form at home.
“I also think Mr Antolini would go well in the Martin Pipe, but he needs rain. It has to be on the soft side for him, if it’s good, fast ground that’s a problem.”
With that in mind it might be music to Twiston-Davies’ ears to hear clerk of the course Simon Claisse state that between 35 and 40 millimetres of rain could fall between now and the start of the meeting.