Most racing fans dream of owning even of a share of a racehorse good enough to run at The Festival™.
As the voice of Owners, the ROA are consistently promoting the impact and benefits of ownership whilst working to make ownership more rewarding.
ROA are proud sponsors of the Cheltenham Festival Leading Owner Award as well as the daily ROA Owner of the Day award, both of which will be championing Owners’ successes and their contributions to the sport.
ROA Owner of the Day
Today’s (Friday 18 March) ROA Owner of the Day is Olly Harris from Leatherhead. He owns Porticello, who contests the JCB Triumph Hurdle (1.30pm), the opening race on Cheltenham Gold Cup day.
There were no British-trained horses at all in the first Festival contest on Thursday, the Turners Novices’ Chase, but despite the presence of Vauban, Pied Piper and Fil Dor in Friday’s opening race, a few owners and trainers are stepping up to the plate.
To say the Triumph Hurdle of two years ago could have been a luckier race for Gary and Jamie Moore is an understatement, with the jockey extremely unfortunate to be unseated at the last when ten lengths clear and favourite backers about to cheer them home.
The duo are back for more here with Olly’s Porticello, who will be joined in the Grade 1 line-up by stablemate Teddy Blue, the mount of Jamie’s brother Josh.
Porticello looks set to go off the shortest-priced of the British challengers, having proved a shrewd private purchase by Olly and his trainer after winning at Auteuil for David Cottin last April.
The son of Sholokhov has won three of his four starts, including the Grade 1 Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow, and was a close second to fellow Triumph challenger Knight Salute at Doncaster on the other occasion.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, his owner was unable to be at Chepstow for his top-flight success over Christmas, though was elated all the same, but there’s nothing like being there and, like all owners, Olly is hopeful we have seen the worst of the pandemic and its effects on everyday life and sport.
Olly, speaking from Cheltenham on Thursday lunchtime, where he has been enjoying the racing all week, says: “Porticello has been doing really well and to be doing what he’s doing at his age is phenomenal, as he is more of a long-term staying chaser prospect.
“To win first time out at Auteuil, when he was so big and weak, was incredible, and all he’s done all season is improve, as he fills out and grows, and Gary has done a great job with him.
“With the watering and the rain, I think he’s got a massive chance. The Mullins and Elliott horses [Vauban, and Pied Piper and Fil Dor] have got a bit more tactical flat speed, and realistically our horse’s future does lie over further - two miles will be a bit sharp for him - but it’s a stiff track and soft ground, and he’s not slow. If they go a right good clip, which they normally do in that race, I think he will be bang there.
“He’s my first runner at the Festival, we’ll be at the track nice and early and go and see him, and hopefully he runs a big race.”
Olly has had 13 individual horses run in Britain in his yellow and dark blue silks this season, while he had seven run on the Flat in 2021. Funding his racing passion is his job as a fund manager, as the owner of a private equity firm.
He has been an owner for six years, and an ROA member for three, and with business having gone well he has been able to enhance his hobby by improving the quality of horse he has had.
“I’ve got three trainers, Joseph Parr does all my Flat horses, and then there’s Neil Muholland and Gary over jumps, and the horses are all Tote-sponsored,” he says.
“Tomorrow will be Porticello’s last run of the season - we’d never run him on good ground - but In The Air, who won at Newbury, might go to Aintree.
“I’ve also got a couple more French horses I purchased who haven’t been out yet. One of them, Iskar D’Airy, is running at Kempton on Saturday, but I’m happy to give my horses plenty of time and be patient.”
The collection of four-year-olds gathering at Cheltenham on Friday for the Triumph will mainly have their best days ahead of them. Porticello is certainly one such, but a second Grade 1 win as a juvenile hurdler before he is put away to fill his frame would be celebrated like there is no tomorrow. And what a result that would be for an owner with his first Festival runner.
Today’s (Thursday 17 March) ROA Owner of the Day is Steve Wignall of Christchurch in Dorset. He jointly owns the redoubtable Ballyandy, who contests the fiendish Festival puzzle that is the Pertemps Final (2,10pm).
The red and white colours of the Options O Syndicate - Larry O’Rourke originally provided the ‘O’ but these days it is Steve and John Flannery - will be among the more familiar from the ranks of British runners this week at Cheltenham, a venue where the owners have been unusually successful.
Indeed, they have enjoyed more winners at Cheltenham than anywhere else, with nine victories down the years headed by Ballyandy’s triumph in the 2019 Weatherbys Champion Bumper, and with Redford Road, Foxtail Hill and Double Ross also chipping in with big-race wins at Prestbury Park.
They have a healthy level-stakes profit at the course too, it might be prudent to note, with the in-form Ballyandy back for more on Thursday, when he makes his fifth Festival appearance in the Pertemps Final,
The 11-year-old has been a genuine star for his owners from the moment he started carrying their silks.
The first such time, after a winning debut in trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies’s colours, resulted in a victory at Cheltenham - where else? - and, 36 runs and eight further wins later, Steve and John are hoping for the best when Ballyandy and Finn Lambert tackle their three-mile handicap hurdle mission.
For Lambert, who takes a handy 10lb off Ballyandy’s back, it will be just a third career ride at Cheltenham and his first experience of the Festival.
Steve says: “Finn has partnered him for the last four races, winning the last two, and Nigel felt it would be good to keep him aboard.
“He has been an absolute star for us, winning the Champion Bumper, which first fuelled our love for the game really, the Betfair Hurdle the following season, and his last two races, at Fakenham and Chepstow, after Nigel stepped him up in trip.
“He did drop down the handicap, but he has now gone back up 13lb for his two recent wins.”
As if the Pertemps Final was not enough of a race owners probably do not approach with masses of confidence, the traditional eve of Cheltenham Festival big handicap that is the Imperial Cup served only to implant further seeds of doubt into Steve’s mind.
“Watching the only Irish runner win at Sandown on Saturday very easily does make you think,” he says.
Ballyandy has just the 11 Irish-trained horses to contend with in the Pertemps, and it will certainly not be easy to notch a third win at the course, though nor is he that much of an outsider and is the second highest-weighted runner for a reason.
His trainer adds: “The old boy has been a revelation since taking on three miles. He’s not getting any younger, so I could not be confident that he’s as well-treated as some of his rivals in a race like this, but he’s in very good form and he’ll give it his best.”
Options O actually started out on the Flat, with William Haggas. They bought three horses to get going, including Dever Dream, who won first time out for them in a maiden at Leicester under Michael Hills. Three further wins in her next four starts resulted in the filly being sold to Pearl Bloodstock, presumably for a tidy profit.
It was Newmarket trainer Haggas who recommended Twston-Davies to the lads when they fancied extending their interest to year-round and having a jumper or two.
Horses, in fact, were not even the beginning of their four-legged ownership experience, as it was getting into greyhounds that first led Steve, John and Larry into forming a syndicate.
Dean Childs was their trainer and they enjoyed some success, with Lorrys Options voted Stayer of the Year in 2009.
Moving on, and back to the rather larger animals Steve and John own these days, and they have certainly not looked back since teaming up with Twiston-Davies, based near Cheltenham racecourse in Naunton.
They are closing in on a half-century of winners over jumps in Britain, and in addition to Ballyandy there was the excitement of having six-year-old Gowel Road - another previous Cheltenham winner - run on the Wednesday of the Festival in the Coral Cup.
He finished seventh in what was an equally competitive handicap hurdle to the one Ballyandy is set to tackle.
The day job for Steve and John is running Options Energy Services – a leading provider for the utilities, communications, highways and traffic management, and renewals sectors – but while that pays the bills, including for their horses of course, the Cheltenham Festival called this week, specifically their lucky spot.
Steve says: “We love this week and will try to last till the Friday evening! We’ll watch our runners on the big screen in the parade ring, like always, from what we call the Ballyandy spot.”
Today’s (Wednesday 16th March) ROA Owner of the Day is Steve Preston from Cheshire, the owner, along with his family and friends and Trevor Jacobs, of Editeur Du Gite, who tackles the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (4,50pm).
Speaking to the ROA a couple of hours before his beloved Crystal Palace hosted champions Manchester City on Monday night, owner Steve Preston found it hard to assess whether that was a tougher assignment than the one his horse was due to face at the Cheltenham Festival.
In the end, Palace held City to a goalless draw, so taking a total of four points off them this season without conceding a goal. Over to you, Editeur Du Gite.
It’s hard to believe it had been knocking on for nine years since Preston was interviewed for Owner Breeder, shortly after Sire De Grugy had won the-then Grade 2 Celebration Chase at Sandown.
Sire De Grugy was a coming force, known also for his colourful band of owners bedecked in the Palace colours of red and blue. Gary Moore’s stable star was to scale far greater heights in the seasons that followed, winning five Grade 1s including the 2014 Champion Chase by six lengths under the trainer’s son Jamie.
Although not in the first flush of youth at eight, it’s not possible to say for certain that Editeur Du Gite won't follow in Sire De Grugy’s hallowed hoofprints by dining at the top table one day. He is certainly on an upward curve having won his last four completed starts - he unseated at Ascot - and was under strong consideration for the other two-mile chase at the Festival on Wednesday, the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
“We bought him with Gary Moore and Trevor Jacobs,” says Steve. “He’s not stopped improving since the first year Gary had him, when he had a setback, a small injury which kept him out for the best part of that first year.
“We didn’t expect much at Sandown and Kempton in December 2019 as he was coming back from injury, and then, moving on to the beginning of last season, the ground was attritional and that does not suit him at all. He doesn’t like too much cut in the ground.
“Once we got to last spring, first, he’d been improving with every race and, second, the ground was coming in his favour, plus they’d learned how to ride him. With a combination of all those things he really did improve dramatically, and that hasn’t stopped through this season.”
He also, happily for connections, seems well suited by tracks that happen to stage pretty good racing.
“He seems to only like going left-handed, he never jumps as well at Ascot for example as he does Cheltenham or Aintree,” says Steve.
“Flat, left-handed tracks are ideal but as he’s gotten older he seems to last okay up the hill at Cheltenham. We’re lucky in that respect that Cheltenham and Aintree suit him!”
He continues: “We were literally spinning a coin still this morning about whether to go for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. In the end Gary thought that by leading in the Queen Mother he would likely just be setting it up for higher-rated horses, and we don’t know yet how good he is.
“He thought we would have more chance of being competitive at this stage in a handicap, even though he is just 3lb off the topweight. We’re still a bit unexposed and Niall Houlihan has taken 5lb off the last twice, but he likes the track, the ground should be about perfect and we’re quite hopeful.”
With the Grand Annual the second-last race on Wednesday, there will be quite a bit of build-up tension time at Cheltenham, though of course it is not Steve or his posse’s first Festival rodeo.
He says: “Unfortunately we’re in the 4,50, so we’ve got to stay sober, longer than usual anyway. No, I am joking. We’re going down on the Tuesday, staying in Stroud and we’ll watch the racing from there.
“We have a group of 16 of us, which Cheltenham has kindly allowed, so we’ll be mob-handed on the day, we have all kitted ourselves out in our red and blue. We’ve vowed to recreate the group shot of our owners that we took in 2014. We had something like 18 that day.
“We’ll be nervous and on tenterhooks, but we’ll get the race out of the way and hope everything goes well in it, and then celebrate, win, lose or draw. That will be no change from 2014!”
Talking of those halcyon days, how is the now 18-year-old?
“We went to see Sire De Grugy last Sunday, we were down there for a wedding,” reports Steve. “He’s as happy as anything, looks as good as ever, and he still gets ridden out every day. It’s a lovely story. We basically gave him to Gary Moore, and it’s been brilliant all the way through with the family, I couldn’t ask for more.”
Today’s (Tuesday 15 March) ROA Owner of the Day is Ian Hamilton of Claywalls Farm, Capheaton in Northumberland. He is the owner of Tommy’s Oscar, who goes in search of a famous victory at The Festival in the Unibet Champion Hurdle (3.30pm).
Ian was an understandable mix of emotions as he spoke to the ROA just half an hour before setting off with trainer wife Ann and Champion Hurdle challenger Tommy’s Oscar, bound for Cheltenham from their Northumberland farm on what could just be the trip of their lifetimes.
Defending champion Honeysuckle will be nigh on the toughest nut to crack at the Festival this week, and while the mount of Rachael Blackmore would be the most popular winner of the race, it’s very arguable that the next most popular would be seven-year-old Tommy’s Oscar.
The Hamiltons’ farm has 1,000 sheep, 300 cattle and stretches across 500 acres. Their racing empire is rather smaller with just the six runners, all owned by Ian, so far in 2021-22.
However, as owner and trainer, the Hamiltons have been enjoying the best season of their careers, with a dozen victories on the board already and Tommy’s Oscar having won his last four starts, notably the Grade 2 Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock in January.
Asked if he was excited about Tuesday’s big race, Ian said on Monday morning: “Yes and no. We’re excited but also apprehensive. It’s a big thing for hill farmers from Northumberland to have a runner in the Champion Hurdle, though we are trying to treat it as just another race.”
The journey of five to six hours to Cheltenham was not being undertaken the day before through choice, rather necessity, with the couple unwilling to risk leaving it until raceday to go, with the vagaries of travel on their mind.
It will be a first for Tommy’s Oscar, as he hasn’t previously stayed overnight at a track before a race, so let’s hope board and lodgings are to his satisfaction.
There was also another reason why Ian and Ann needed to be on hand at Cheltenham early on Tuesday, as Ian said: “We’ve both been asked to go on The Opening Show by ITV Racing. We are just going to try to enjoy it all.”
Nowhere has the interest been keener than locally, with Ian continuing: “There are local people going to Cheltenham who have never been racing in their lives before, they’re going to cheer on Tommy’s. A lot of people have backed him at 50-1.”
What price Tommy's Oscar goes off remains to be seen, but you can imagine each-way punters being interested in a tough, in-form hurdler who has no more question marks against him than any other Champion Hurdle challenger bar Honeysuckle. If anything, fewer than most.
Coming from the renown point-to-point academy of Colin Bowe’s is a head start for any horse, and the Hamiltons have had three off the County Wexford man, led by Tommy’s Oscar.
“The former trainer Howard Johnson is a pal of mine and put us in touch with Colin about this horse, and it’s been a successful link,” says Ian.
The link that resulted in the Loughrea point-to-point winner being sold privately to the Hamiltons in autumn 2020 has now led to the biggest National Hunt stage of them all.
It’s one the couple have graced only once before in a professional capacity, in 2014, when Runswick Royal contested the County Hurdle but was pulled up before the last.
They do not, then, have anything remotely resembling a Festival routine. Asked if they had formulated a plan as to how to spend the big day, Ian said: “Our plan is the bar! No, we’d best keep a clear head, but we do have two lots of friends who will have a bar going in the car parks so we’ll see how it goes.”
Just one more victory this campaign would ensure a career-high tally of winners for a training operation that started in the 1980s, and the Hamiltons are already thinking beyond Cheltenham for stable stars Tommy’s Oscar and Nuts Well, who this month won the Listed Premier Chase at Kelso and is now on a rating of 157 as a result, 1lb higher than Tommy’s Oscar.
“Nuts Well has been put up and we’re probably looking at Aintree for him, and it’s the same with Tommy’s Oscar - he would stay two and a half miles on a flat track and decent ground,” said Ian. “When you get to these sorts of marks, handicaps are just about out.”
The Hamiltons have enjoyed big-race success at Aintree before, winning the 2003 Fox Hunters’ with Divet Hill, who they also bred and who was named after a hill behind their farm.
While Tommy’s Oscar is excelling over hurdles - he has never run over fences under rules despite running in eight point-to-points - you get the impression that the Hamiltons primarily source their horses with a chasing career in mind, and asked which other horse running at the Festival this week he’d love to own, Ian doesn’t need to think twice about his answer.
“Bravemansgame,” he says. “We ran Pay The Piper against him at Haydock in November, and he was beaten onty seven or so lengths actually in third, but what a lovely horse Paul Nicholls has got there.
“He’s beautiful, a great jumper, and he’s the one I’d want to own. I’ll bid for him!”
Ian is no doubt an expert at cattle and sheep auctions and trades, but whether Bryan Drew and John Dance would allow themselves to be sweet-talked out of Bravesmansgame has got to be a longshot.
In any case, he’s not running until Wednesday. More immediately, the Hamiltons, jockey Danny McMenamin and Tommy’s Oscar - hopefully after a good night’s sleep - have other business to attend to. They, and he, might just be a story to roll around the hills of Northumberland for years to come.