Morris reveals grounds for optimism over Lieutenant
Mouse Morris, a trainer with a reputation for having his horses primed for the big occasion, is adamant that First Lieutenant can return to peak form at Cheltenham provided the ground is right.
In 2011, Morris' classy son of Presenting won a second Grade One on the spin when collaring Rock On Ruby in the very last stride of what was a memorable renewal of the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle.
An old-fashioned chasing type, First Lieutenant was widely expected to improve for the switch to fences, but could finish only second to fellow Gigginstown Stud-owned Last Instalment on his last outing at Leopardstown over Christmas, and has won just two of his five starts over the bigger obstacles to date.
With Last Instalment now sidelined through injury, Gigginstown's retained rider Davy Russell looks to have been spared a difficult choice in the RSA Chase, a race the Cork pilot won on Weapon's Amnesty in the same maroon and white silks two years ago.
First Lieutenant is currently a best-priced 7/1 third-favourite for the three-mile-one-furlong Grade One and Morris feels that trip will suit him even better than the two-mile-five of the Neptune.
"Everything is good with him and if he is sound he'll be running in the RSA," the Fethard handler said. "I think he has always been a horse who has looked like he wants three miles on good ground over fences -- last year he was only just getting going after the last.
"If you look at the form book, it usually says about him, 'doing best work at the finish', and I hope it's the same. I just wish they'd ease off with the watering."
With good to firm patches in the official Prestbury Park going, track officials felt compelled to begin watering a week ago in an effort to ensure that safe jumping ground prevails at the Festival. While Morris may prefer if nature took its course, his Ratoath colleague Robbie Hennessy will be glad of the intervention.
Hennessy is set to saddle the soft ground-loving Rubi Light -- a facile winner of the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park 11 days ago -- in the Ryanair Chase. The exciting seven-year-old finished third in the Grade One 12 months ago, and is as low as 9/2 market leader to go two places better this time.
Speaking after watching Rubi Light work at The Curragh yesterday, Hennessy declared his delight with the French import, and suggested he could take in a gallop at Leopardstown this weekend. Traditionally, racegoers stay on after Sunday's fixture at the Foxrock venue to watch Cheltenham-bound horses work, though Hennessy may opt for a lower profile outing.
"He couldn't be any better," he said. "He was at The Curragh this morning and did a bit of work up the Old Vic gallop, and we couldn't be any happier with him.
"He might go to Leopardstown on Monday morning. I prefer going then rather than the Sunday after racing, as there's not much of a crowd there or the cameras. The ground is good there at the moment, but if it comes up too good he might go to Dundalk for a spin instead."
Jessica Harrington also expressed her satisfaction with Steps To Freedom and Oscars Well after they were put through their paces on The Curragh, though John 'Shark' Hanlon revealed at a Festival preview in Kildare on Monday night that he's unlikely to have a runner at next month's gala. Hanlon's horses have been under a cloud of late, his last winner being Hidden Cyclone -- which has since been beaten -- at Leopardstown on December 29.
Ferdy Murphy, who rarely leaves Cheltenham empty-handed, is turning to leading female jump jockey Lucy Alexander to replace injured stable jockey Graham Lee on at least two of his horses.
The Wexford native has booked Alexander, who recently broke Lorna Vincent's seasonal record of 23 winners for a woman, for Charingworth in the Byrne Group Plate and De Boitron in the Grand Annual.
Murphy has saddled 10 winners at the Festival in his own name, but when he trained for Geoff Hubbard he teamed up with Gee Armytage to win the Mildmay of Flete with Gee-A in 1987.
Meanwhile, Donald McCain could let Peddlers Cross join some of his stable companions for a gallop after racing at Bangor today. Last season's Champion Hurdle runner-up won his first two starts over fences at the circuit before being beaten by Sprinter Sacre, which is set to reoppose in the Arkle at Cheltenham, at Kempton over Christmas.
"Overturn and Weird Al will definitely go to Bangor, along with a few others," said McCain. "I'm still not sure whether Peddlers will or not. I just need to talk it over with Jason (Maguire, jockey) and we'll decide in the morning."
McCain did confirm, however, that Grand National winner Ballabriggs will run at Kelso on Saturday, rather than Newbury or Doncaster.