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Cheltenham News 15th - 18th March 2005

Cheltenham 2005

Cheltenham 2005 / news/

Howard Johnson on the Cheltenham trail 25/01/2005

It's twelve years since Howard Johnson's solitary Cheltenham Festival winner, and that came in that most antediluvian of races, the four-mile novice chase. Since then, however, the resources at Johnson's disposal make it unthinkable that he should arrive at the end of this year's Festival trail empty-handed.

On Saturday, Grey Abbey, not seen in public since winning the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in October, will be bidding for a fifth consecutive victory — and a place in the Gold Cup field — when he contests the Pillar Property Chase. Earlier on a stellar card, Royal Rosa, one of few credible dangers to Baracouda among the staying hurdlers, makes a belated seasonal reappearance in the Byrne Bros Cleeve Hurdle.

Johnson landed the two big races last Saturday but that was on more fertile territory at Haydock. Yesterday, pausing from the hectic expansion at his Crook stables, he said: “We need to do the same again this week, that would really help the job. We’re just putting up 33 more boxes to cope with all the new horses and I’ll have 50 for the Flat this summer, but it’s all about getting winners.”

“Grey Abbey and Royal Rosa are two of our big guns and I hope it’s soft enough for them to show their best. I hear they have had snow round Cheltenham and that suits me fine — in fact it’s high time we had a soft-ground Festival for these proper National Hunt horses.”

Royal Rosa, the most expensive of many high-profile purchases by Graham Wylie, bypassed Cheltenham last year but gave Iris’s Gift a stern examination at Aintree. He had been set to go novice chasing this season but his return has been delayed by sickness and he is likely to remain over hurdles.

“I’m glad Baracouda’s not running on Saturday but with 18 entered it’s still very competitive,” Johnson said of a race that has also attracted Crystal D’Ainay, Monet’s Garden and Westender for its first running over three miles.

The Pillar Chase, traditional feature race of this meeting, was reopened yesterday but among those inked in already are Murphy’s Cardinal, Royal Auclair, One Knight and Therealbandit. None, though, will create greater interest than Grey Abbey, a wide-margin winner of the Scottish Grand National last April and now having his sights raised at the age of 11.

Johnson said: “I want to run him in the Gold Cup but it will only happen if there’s enough give in the ground. He’ll be put in the National this week and Valley Henry, who is ready to roll again when the ground is quick, will also have an entry.”

The shape of Saturday’s richest race, the Victor Chandler Chase, is in the hands of Martin Pipe. Fourteen horses remain but if the champion trainer confirms Well Chief, as seems likely, no more than five of them will run off their correct handicap mark.

Paul Nicholls has covered all contingencies by leaving five in the race but he is prepared to reluctantly exclude Great Travel. “I certainly won’t run him from out of the handicap, so he’ll be saved for Sandown the following week,” he said.

His leading fancy is Thisthatandtother, runner-up in two valuable handicaps over the course before Christmas but now dropping back in trip. “Well Chief beat him at Aintree but we’ll have a big pull in the weights this time. I think he’s equally good at two miles,” Nicholls said.

He added that his Gold Cup candidate, Strong Flow, has “improved enormously” for his comeback run at Warwick ten days ago and remains on target for the Aon Chase on February 12, while Kauto Star, favourite for the Arkle Chase, will have his second run over fences at Exeter next Monday.

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