Every year the Cheltenham Festival throws up a heart-warming story – and trainer Jonjo O’Neill hopes Minella Rocco can provide this season’s fairytale by continuing his recent revival in the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase.
Since capturing the National Hunt Chase at the 2016 Festival and filling the runner-up spot in the Gold Cup on his return to the meeting 12 months, the JP McManus-owned 10-year-old’s career had been on a steady decline until a switch to hunter chasing in January.
Though Minella Rocco may not be the force of old, he has demonstrated with wins at Warwick and most recently at Wetherby – where he beat last year’s Foxhunter winner Hazel Hill – he has the potential for one more big effort at the meeting where he made his name.
O’Neill said: “We were hoping he would run well in handicaps at the start of the season, but he didn’t, and there was always the option to give him the chance to hunter chasing if Plan A didn’t work out, so that is what we have gone with, Plan B, and it seems to have worked.
“They are going a gear or two slower for him in these races and he is jumping brilliantly. He is in a great old form and his wind problems seem fine at the moment.
“You go to the races with him and you are going on a wing and a prayer, thinking how is he going to run, as he has seemed fine at home before in his races and has not performed, but to see him win and get back into the winner’s enclosure at Warwick was great.
“Hopefully we can continue to keep him together for the Foxhunter, just get him running there is fantastic as it is back where he belongs.”
While O’Neill reports Minella Rocco to be thriving at home ahead of his fourth Festival outing, he is now praying the weather will not curtail his chances of another moment centre stage.
He said: “I hope the ground wouldn’t be too sticky or testing as that wouldn’t help him. It’s OK when you are beating one at Warwick and when your main rival doesn’t turn up at Wetherby, but you have got to have everything go right at Cheltenham.
“If you saw him at home you would be delighted. He loves being in training, especially the way he is looked after as he gets preferential treatment – he is a real yard favourite.
“The old monkey knows he has won two races and he thinks he is quite clever now, but he is an intelligent old horse.”
During a stellar career as both a jockey and now as a trainer, O’Neill has enjoyed much bigger Festival winners than the one Minella Rocco stands on the cusp of, but in his eyes it would be a win that ranks alongside his Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup successes.
He said: “Winners at Cheltenham are great, whether it is a Gold Cup or a seller, as it’s what every trainer and jockey is after. He will be flying if he won again and it would do me fine.
“I think there would be a few tears shed by people and I would probably be the first one – it would be a win that stacks right up there with those in the Gold Cup.”