Dan Skelton will choose between the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and the International Hurdle as a first early-season target for his Cheltenham Festival hero Ch’tibello.
The eight-year-old ran out an authoritative winner of the fiercely competitive County Hurdle at Prestbury Park in March, before rounding off his season with an excellent effort to finish third behind Supasundae and Buveur D’Air at Aintree.
Skelton is under no illusions about the task facing his charge in top Graded company this term, but hopes he can enjoy another profitable campaign – starting in either Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth or back to Cheltenham.
He said: “Ch’tibello has got to step up again this season, but he looks the best he has ever looked – and he doesn’t owe us anything.
“He could go to the Fighting Fifth or the International. He is good around Cheltenham – and although the International is only a Grade Two, it is worth a lot of money, so we could go have a look at that.
“The handicapper allowed him to win a handicap last year – and he will pay for that.”
The Alcester trainer acknowledges the tough challenges that lie ahead for Ch’tibello.
He added: “I’ve got it at the back of my mind that during the season before last we knocked heads with a lot of the star two milers and we were second a lot. He is a bit stronger and older, but we know it will be harder this season.
“It was a fantastic run at Aintree. I think it showed the Cheltenham run had left a mark on him a little bit in the last 10 strides of the Aintree Hurdle – but you don’t want to take the win at Cheltenham away, because it was very important.”
Ch’tibello was completing a Festival double for the Skelton team, with brothers Dan and Harry having combined to land the Mares’ Hurdle with Roksana three days earlier – albeit in fortunate circumstances.
The seven-year-old looked booked for minor honours until hot favourite Benie Des Dieux dramatically crashed out at the final flight, but Roksana proved her fine performance was no fluke when pushing If The Cap Fits all the way in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree.
“She will go to Aintree at the start of November for a conditions hurdle, and then she will go down the mares route,” said Skelton.
“She will go to Kempton at the end of November for a Listed race. I probably won’t run her in December, and then she will go to the Warfield at Ascot, then on to Cheltenham to try and defend her title – that’s in an ideal world.
“She ran a hell of a race at Aintree. I just feel there is unfinished business there, because it comes straight after Cheltenham – and Cheltenham leaves a mark on any horse.
“She is much easier to train this autumn compared to last year, when she was a handful. At home she is quite a fierce mare and she can do too much – you almost have to protect her from herself during the early part of the season.
“I hope we can get a clearer run this year and have a race in the locker before we turn up at Cheltenham, but she has one race at Cheltenham in the bag – and we are never going to forget that.”
Two other horses Skelton has high hopes for this season are Beakstown and Ardlethen – who are both set to test the water in the novice-chasing division.
Beakstown was a Grade Two winner as a novice hurdler earlier in the year, before being pulled up at Cheltenham.
Ardlethen won a couple of low-key novice hurdles at Uttoxeter, before finishing eighth behind Champ in a Grade One at Aintree.
Skelton said: “If it kept raining Beakstown would go to Wetherby in a fortnight, and Ardlethen worked beautifully the other morning – and is ready to go as well.
“Beakstown is very good, in that two-and-a-half to three-mile division, and he is one that does light up my eyes – but don’t under-estimate Ardlethen as well.”