After a breakthrough Cheltenham Festival in March, Harry Whittington is set to return to Prestbury Park at the weekend with two of the horses that provided him with the most memorable week of his career.
Simply The Betts secured Whittington his first winner at the showpiece meeting when holding off Kerry Lee’s Happy Diva to claim the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase.
The seven-year-old has not been seen since and is due to make his seasonal reappearance in the Paddy Power Gold Cup on Saturday.
Whittington expects the historic handicap to be an acid test of whether his gelding is cut out for even bigger things, with only Venetia Williams’ Aso required to carry more weight.
“It’s going to be tough for him, 157 is a big mark to be winning off in a handicap,” Whittington said.
“We’ll find out whether he’s a Grade One horse. I think he’s going to have to perform like a Grade One horse to win on Saturday, but he’s confident around the track, he’s a dual handicap winner around there, a course and distance winner.”
The seven-year-old will make his usual detour to the yard of three-day eventer Laura Collett, who schools him over showjumps before he is loaded back onto the horsebox to set sail for Cheltenham.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s the winning formula,” Whittington said, speaking on a press call hosted by Great British Racing.
“I had the idea because when he ran at Kempton he just didn’t jump well enough, it was as simple as that.
“The showjumping at Laura’s taught him where to put his feet when he was coming in to a jump, he went there once a week from Kempton to Trials Day and he got better and better. It used to freshen him up, he’d come back from Laura’s squealing and bucking.
“We recognised that he really enjoys that day out at Laura’s so I said to my assistant ‘is it the maddest idea in the world to stop in there and just give him a pop to get his blood up and get him revved for the day?’. He said he thought it was a great idea, so we did it and obviously he won.
“Going into the Festival I said ‘we can’t take him this time, this is the Cheltenham Festival. How can we take him to do some showjumping a few hours before his actual race?’. My assistant said ‘you cannot change the plan, it’s an edge, it worked last time!’. So we stuck to our guns.”
Whittington will also use the race to gauge where to target the horse next, with the trainer still to discover what his optimum trip is.
“Gavin (Sheehan, jockey) has always said he’s got the speed for two miles, he’s very good over two and a half but he’ll stay three,” he said.
“I suppose if he wins we’ll keep him over two and a half, but if he gets beaten we might be thinking it’s the speed or it’s because he wants further.
“I think with him we’ll probably learn about the trip, at the moment we’re thinking he’s extremely versatile, we’re thinking that he could actually drop back to two miles.
“I don’t think we’ll step him up to three, but he’s in the King George. Andrew (Brooks, owner) wants to have the entry in the King George just to keep all bases covered. We’re keeping an open mind, but I think we’ll learn a lot about the trip.”
Sheehan, who was given the all-clear to return to action on Monday after an absence caused by a broken wrist, is also the regular pilot of Whittington’s second weekend runner, Rouge Vif.
Another to run in the silks of Kate and Andrew Brooks, Rouge Vif finished third at the Festival in the Arkle Trophy.
He returned to action at the same track in October, winning a handicap by a facile seven and a half lengths under stand-in jockey Daryl Jacob.
The French-bred bay will contest the Shloer Chase on Sunday, a Grade Two race, among a high-quality field that includes his Arkle conqueror Put The Kettle On and seven-time Grade One winner Defi Du Seuil.
Whittington highlighted how impressive the six-year-old’s jumping is, with any doubts about his ability to performance on Cheltenham’s rolling turf dispelled by his earlier victory at the track.
“This is a horse that ever since we’ve jumped a fence with him, he has just been electric,” he said.
“When he lands he just has this ability to accelerate away from a fence and I think that’s what makes him so lethal, especially on good ground. His ability to get away from a fence is very impressive so we’re really looking forward to the Shloer with him.
“There have been so many question marks about the undulations of Cheltenham, but he put that to bed in his run three weeks ago.
“We had the Haldon Gold Cup as our Plan A, but we thought we’d put the Cheltenham entry in, just to look at it. We then thought we’d be mad not to run because of the good ground and because we wanted to learn about the track anyway.
“Thank goodness we did, because he’s gone there and he’s obliterated them and he’s given himself a lot of confidence to go back there on Sunday.”