Tuesday 12 December 2017

Festival winner is Elliott's top priority

Regal Heights and jockey Paddy Brennan (left) on their way to victory at
Newbury on Saturday. Photo: PA
Regal Heights and jockey Paddy Brennan (left) on their way to victory at Newbury on Saturday. Photo: PA

It was a busy weekend in terms of what won't be happening at next week's Cheltenham Festival.

Diamond Harry won't run in the Gold Cup, Riverside Theatre won't run in the Ryanair Chase, Paddy Power's Hollywood-style sign will be missing from Cleeve Hill, and Gordon Elliott will not now ride the charity race.

Diamond Harry and Riverside Theatre are injured, guerrilla marketing is unwelcome and Elliott is, at least by jockeys' standards, overweight. Initial reports that the former amateur rider would shed the required poundage to do 11st 7lb for Thursday week's contest proved premature, and Elliott has waved the white flag.

Jockeys always reckon the last few pounds are the hardest. Elliott said he was glad to have lost the couple of stone, but that time was running out and, with up to eight runners at the Festival, he "didn't want to go there in bad form".

In fairness, two stone is a bit more than any of the other candidates needed to lose, so it was a noble effort on Elliott's part. What's more, given that he has saddled all of the four Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham since last year's Festival, it's understandable that he wants to concentrate his focus on a debut Festival success.

The main thrust of the action over the weekend, of course, was Aintree Grand National related, and Elliott had an interest here too, with Backstage completing his preparations by winning a point-to-point at The Pigeons.

And the Co Meath handler's Westmeath point-to-point forays are not to be sniffed at, as Silver Birch's Grand National-winning campaign began at none other than Castletown-Geoghegan.

In all, 14 Aintree hopefuls stretched their legs on Saturday and Sunday, Big Fella Thanks's effort to be fourth at Newbury causing the only ripple in the ante-post market. From a high of 20/1 on Saturday, that one is now as low as 12/1.

Of the 13 horses that ran on the track on Saturday and Sunday, just two, Skippers Brig and Regal Heights, won, and neither is likely to make the cut for the April 9 showpiece. At Kelso, Skippers Brig, which is 40/1 for the National and needs 19 to come out to get a run, beat Donald McCain's Ballabriggs, the strongly fancied second-favourite for Aintree.

At Newbury, Regal Heights ended a losing run that stretched back more than three years and 15 runs when landing the veterans' race under a power-packed Paddy Brennan drive. With no penalties implemented after the publication of the National weights, he remains rooted to the bottom of the list, needing 62 above him to forfeit. That's probably why he can still be backed at 150/1.

Irish Independent

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