Five Cheltenham Festival contenders from the North

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Midnight Shadow took advantage of Champ's late fall to win the Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham.
Midnight Shadow took advantage of Champ's late fall to win the Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham.

With the build-up to the Cheltenham Festival beginning to step up a notch, Adam Morgan takes a look at the less talked about northern yards, and picks out five horses who could make an impact on the Cotswolds next month...

The north has a long and distinguished record at the Cheltenham Festival. Greats of the training ranks such as Peter Easterby, Michael W Dickinson and the late Arthur Stephenson possessed a stranglehold on the Gold Cup in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s as well as saddling some of the sport’s most recognisable equine stars. In more recent times the names Murphy, Jefferson and McCain have been synonymous with Festival success.

However, no Festival trophy has been lifted by a handler from the north since Tim Easterby saddled Hawk High to land the Fred Winter back in 2014. 

Hopes now rest upon the next raiding cast that will make the journey south and assemble at the gates to Prestbury Park, looking to add their name to the Cheltenham Festival roll of honour. 

Here are five who could be flying the flag for the north this time around and attempt to end that long, arduous six-year drought....

Midnight Shadow, Sue Smith - Marsh Novices Chase

The son of Midnight Legend announced himself as a top-class operator when downing a useful cast to land the Relkeel Hurdle over two and a half miles at Cheltenham on New Year's Day 2019. Things didn't go to plan when upped in trip for his return to Prestbury Park later that month, however, failing to figure in a stamina-sapping renewal of the Cleeve Hurdle won by Paisley Park. 

Having been shrewdly put away for the rest of 2018/19 campaign following that disappointment, he has been expertly brought to the boil over the larger obstacles this season, getting better with every fence sighted. 

New Year's Day and two and a half miles proved fruitful once again when he took advantage of Champ's late fall in the Dipper Novices' Chase to land that valuable Grade 2 prize, and it's over the same course and distance that the seven-year-old will be next sighted following a respectable effort in defeat at Sandown recently. 

The extended 2m 4f trip looks far enough for now, and connections must fancy the Scilly Isles silver medallist to reverse the form of that encounter at the Esher track with Itchy Feet, in a contest where jumping experience could be paramount. He is more than worthy of his place in this Grade 1 contest and makes plenty of each-way appeal in what could be the weaker of the graded novice chase events taking place during Festival week. 

Vintage Clouds, Sue Smith - Ultima Handicap Chase

Another Craiglands Farm in-mate who could figure at Prestbury Park is Vintage Clouds, who finally produced the performance many have been waiting a long time for when landing Haydock's Peter Marsh Chase by an emphatic seven lengths last month. 

Sue Smith's gallant grey will likely head back to the Ultima Handicap Chase next - a race in which he was a fine second in last year - though he will face a much stiffer task this time around having been raised 11 lb by the handicapper for that Haydock success. However, with confidence restored during that Merseyside romp, the 10-year-old arrives in top form and will be attempting to make the frame in this competitive handicap for a third successive season.

Tavus, Jedd O’Keeffe - Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap

Middleham maestro Jedd O’Keeffe is no stranger to saddling a fancied runner at the Festival, and stable-star Sam Spinner spearheaded the northern challenge when favourite for the Stayers’ Hurdle in 2018, before returning to chase home Paisley Park for a silver medal in the Thursday feature 12 months ago.

The handler may be without the popular eight-year-old this time around, but he could feasibly break his Festival duck with the thrice-raced Tavus, who's a live outsider for the juvenile handicap run on the Wednesday of the four-day meeting. 

Tavus is a 130-rated hurdler who has won two of his three engagements to date, with the sole blot on the four-year-old’s copybook coming in Grade 1 company at Chepstow. 

That disappointment in south Wales sandwiched a pair of taking victories. Firstly, when hunting down subsequent Grade 2 winner Navajo Pass to land a trappy heat on debut at Newcastle, and most recently, winning comfortably under a penalty at Wetherby. His class took him to the front plenty soon on that occasion and he saw out the task well from the back of the last. 

The three-time Flat winner should sneak into the field with a favourable racing weight and with the only slight doubt relating to the suitability of the Cheltenham undulations, he could be one doing his best work late on at an even better price. 

Lady Buttons, Philip Kirby - Mares' Hurdle or the Champion Chase

The First Lady of the north has been virtually flawless this season, looking as good as ever at her beloved Doncaster the last twice; downing a smart pair of rivals in Happy Diva and La Bague Au Roi in a mares' chase for the ages over Christmas, before defending her Yorkshire Rose Hurdle crown in bloodless fashion last time. 

Fourth in the Mares' Hurdle 12 months ago and officially rated 5 lb better this time around, it would be no surprise to see her capitalise on an off day from the market leaders, despite it looking a red-hot renewal of the females only Grade 1. However, connections appear tempted by the tantalising prospect of pitching their star mare into the deep waters of the Champion Chase.

A strongly run two miles is arguably when the 10-year-old is at her best, and her sure-footed jumping could allow her to be still in contention turning for home. Whether she is good enough to get the better of some of the best chasers around up the unforgiving Cheltenham hill - only time will tell. 

Navajo Pass, Donald McCain, Triumph Hurdle or the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap 

Donald McCain's four-year-old has only once tasted defeat in his hurdling career to date, at the hands of the aforementioned Tavus. He landed Grade 2 glory when last seen, knuckling down well to fend off all-comers in the Summit Juvenile Hurdle at Doncaster, and that race has provided Festival winners in the past, most recently Peace And Co. 

The Fred Winter is also an option for the son of Nathaniel, but a rating of 140 would mean he would be near enough the top-weight for that handicap contest, and he is more than worth taking his chance in the Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle in a season in which the four-year-olds are still to sort themselves truly out. 

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