By Jon Lees
The Cheltenham Festival ambitions for top Australian jumper Big Blue remain alive with the eight-year-old set to be targeted at one of the meeting’s handicaps after one more start.
The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle has become the most likely option for the horse trained by Ciaron Maher in partnership with David Eustace after he was this week issued with a handicap mark of 140.
Big Blue, Group One-placed on the Flat when he raced for Andre Fabre, has won three of his four hurdle starts in Australia and was sent to Britain in November to fulfil the wishes of owners Halo Racing Services and Partners to have a runner at the Festival.
He was pulled up two out On his first British start in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in December and finished sixth of seven in the Limestone Lad Hurdle at Naas at the end of last month.
His programme is being planned 10,000 miles away in Sydney by assistant trainer Annabel Neasham.
“Because he hadn’t been given a handicap mark we only had the options of running him in conditions races,” said Neasham. “The hurdle race at Kempton was not ideal and we probably learned that fairly quickly.
“We were much happier with his run at Naas where he looked like he tired a little bit late on. He was conceding a little bit of weight as well. Ciaron was much happier and Rachael Blackmore said he would come on a lot for the run.
“He goes on wet ground out here, but that was pretty tacky that day and Rachael thought he would probably be better with less give in the track. We should have time for another run between now and Cheltenham.
“They have given us a mark of 140, which sounds quite high. We were looking for around the 135 mark, but that should enable us to get in a handicap at Cheltenham.
“At this stage we are thinking about the Martin Pipe or possibly the County Hurdle or Coral Cup. We would have tried a Pertemps qualifier which might have opened up another option, but I think the ones left are 0-135.
“I would say the next time you see him will probably be over two and a half miles. There is possibly a race at Chepstow on February 22.”
Maher is a former jump jockey who as a trainer produced Bashboy to win the 2015 Australian Grand National under Ruby Walsh.
Neasham said: “Initially Ciaron was thinking Big Blue would be good enough for a Stayers’ Hurdle, but he is probably more suited to a handicap. He is still relatively inexperienced, but he was a very high-quality horse on the Flat and was Group One-placed in France.
“He won a half-million dollar race on the Flat here as well as the big feature hurdle race.”
She continued: “Ciaron is very bold. It’s telling that he has taken a horse to England to have a crack. He is never afraid to travel and try and Big Blue has really sporting owners. We took them over to Cheltenham two years ago and they loved it so much they wanted to have a runner there.
“He is the best hurdler Ciaron has had possibly ever so we thought we would try it with him. It’s a bit of an experiment and if you don’t try, you don’t know,
“You can have the best hurdler in Australia thinking he might measure up in England, but until you take him there you don’t know. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t, but at least we will have tried and if we can get him into a race and take the owners over and have fun, that’s all it’s about.”