Trainer Jessica Harrington is delighted with defending champion Sizing John and stablemate Our Duke as they gear up for the highlight of The Festival, the £625,000 G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup over three and a quarter miles on Gold Cup Day, Friday, March 16.
Sizing John could not have been more impressive on his reappearance in the G1 John Durkan Memorial Chase (2m 4f) at Punchestown on December 10, when he defeated Djakadam by seven lengths, but the eight-year-old chaser has a point to prove after finishing seventh in the G1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase (3m) 18 days later.
Runaway 2017 Irish Grand National hero Our Duke, also an eight-year-old, was treated for a kissing spine after being well beaten at Down Royal in November on his reappearance this season. Owned by the Cooper Family Syndicate, he was not disgraced on his return earlier this month in the G1 Irish Gold Cup (3m) at Leopardstown, staying on to finish fourth after a significant mistake, and looked right back to his best when repelling top novice Presenting Percy by a length under a 7lb penalty in the G2 Red Mills Chase (2m 4f) at Gowran Park on February 17.
Speaking today at a media visit organised by Cheltenham Racecourse, Harrington said: "We had a hiccup with Sizing John over Christmas, but since then we have been chugging along and haven't done anything very quickly.
"You saw him go up the gallop this morning. He tanked away and all he wanted to do was get past Supasundae. His weight is coming down towards the racing weight we like him at, especially this week as he did a bit more, and we have still got another two weeks to go on Friday.
"He may exercise at Leopardstown, all being well, either after racing on Monday or on Tuesday morning. He might jump a couple of fences there or we will gallop him on the Flat. We will see what the weather does as the reason we worked him yesterday is because we aren't sure what is happening for the rest of the week.
"All being well, we are on song with him and the only thing we can do is get him there in one piece and hope for the best. But he seems to be in good form - he is shaking his head and doing his little bits and pieces.
"He overheated a bit at Leopardstown. Was that a slight tying up episode? I don't know as they never really found a reason. He has been fine since. We let him right down afterwards and then built him back up again.
"The race probably came a bit soon after the John Durkan, while he and Djakadam maybe had a harder race than any of us realised. It is one of those things. We started off the season great and then this scuppered things, but if it was all plain sailing, it would be much too easy.
"Once that had happened at Christmas, we were never going to run him again before Cheltenham because it would have been very rushed to get him to Leopardstown for the Irish Gold Cup.
"We have not really put the gun to his head properly. He did a good breeze yesterday and did one there this morning. He will do one racecourse gallop and if he does it all on the bridle, I will be very happy. I am not going to put too much pressure on him because I want him on the day, not the day before. I do not want to be leaving anything behind.
"We have been thinking about the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup for Our Duke since he won the Grade One at Leopardstown last season. The owners said to me that they did not want to go to Cheltenham last season - they wanted to wait and go for the Gold Cup this year.
"He won the Irish Grand National and then had a bad start to the season, after which we discovered the problem of the kissing spine. He came back and looked very good in Gowran the other day.
"He would never have run in Gowran if he hadn't have made the mistake in Leopardstown because he would have finished out that race under pressure and might have ended up having a hard race. He made the mistake and Robert [Power] gave him a chance to recover, then he pinged the last and galloped all the way to the line. In a way, the decision to go to Gowran was easy really because I knew he hadn't had a hard race.
"I wanted him to run again because has not had a lot of chase starts. He had four last season and three this year. Most horses have that many races in one season - he has done it in two.
"He decided to hoof one fence out of the way in Gowran, but he jumped the last three very well. I think he lacks a bit of concentration when they are not going quickly enough. When they went a good gallop in the Irish Grand National, he never put a foot wrong. Robert says he has a cruising speed and when he is just below that, he doesn't concentrate.
"He has won around Leopardstown left-handed, the Irish Grand National right-handed and right-handed in Gowran, which is a bit like Cheltenham the other way round as you are going up and down, and he seemed to cope with that fine.
"He does like good ground. He is by Oscar and most of them do like a bit of nice ground. He hated the ground in Gowran which was the other extreme. Good horses are meant to go on all ground.
"Sizing John and Our Duke are two strong horses who stay very well. It is probably an open Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, as it was last year, but it will be a very competitive race if all the horses turn up. The one who has not blotted his copybook this year is Might Bite. He looks the young, improving horse. You have got Edwulf there, he put up a good performance at Leopardstown. There are a lot of horses in there with a chance and it will depend on who performs on the day."
Asked about Robbie Power's decision to ride Sizing John over Our Duke, who will be partnered by Noel Fehily, Harrington commented: "This is a complete non-story. Robbie is contracted by Alan and Ann Potts to ride their horses. Provided they both get there, he rides Sizing John. You all made a big story of it, but there was never a story there because he rides their horses, especially if they are trained by me."
Harrington's small but select team for The Festival also includes 2017 Coral Cup victorSupasundae, also owned by Ann & Alan Potts Limited. The eight-year-old took the scalp of Faugheen in the G1 Irish Champion Hurdle over two miles on February 3.
The trainer added: "Supasundae is very good ahead of the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle (3m). I would not complain about him. He is always very laidback and is a much better horse this season than he was last season.
"Last year, you used to have to kick him on to get him to go down towards the gallop. Everything was about making him do it, whereas this year he is doing everything easily and within himself. He is travelling much better in his races and is jumping much better.
"He is a horse who really wants good ground. The spring of the year does suit him as he hates pulling himself out of very soft ground. That is why he has not done much running this winter.
"Can he reverse form with Yanworth? I think so because when he went to Aintree last year he was a tired horse. He was off the bridle the whole way and he did well to stay on and put it up to Yanworth jumping the last.
"The great thing is that he won't have to make his own running like he did at Christmas. He was upsides Faugheen last time, but over three miles you can drop him in a bit and he will pick up.
"There is no temptation to supplement for the Unibet Champion Hurdle, especially with Buveur D'Air there who is a proper two-miler. Supasundae is probably not a proper two-miler. I am pretty certain he will stay in the Stayers' Hurdle. I don't think the three miles will be a problem."
Last year's winner, 10-year-old Rock The World, and eight-year-old Don't Touch It, both owned by J P McManus, are on target for the final race of the four-day meeting, the £110,000 G3 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase over two miles.
"Don't Touch It has more class than Rock The World. He has won a Grade One hurdle at Punchestown. He is a funny horse who needs good ground. He will have cheekpieces or maybe even blinkers on to help him concentrate.
"He is coming to himself and is better this week than he was last week. He doesn't like the cold weather.
"I could not predict anything with him. If he can get into a rhythm and get jumping, he will be grand. He is a good jumper, but can be a bit spooky at times.
"Rock The World is Rock The World and he is in great order. I know he will probably have top-weight, but he did it well last year. He is a big horse so the weight should not trouble him.
"I suppose Rock The World has been there and done it, while the other fella is younger and if he puts his best foot forward, he has a bit more class."
The trainer had her best time at The Festival last year, saddling three winners. Her total at The Festival, staged this year between Tuesday, March 13 and Friday, March 16, is 11 successes.
Jessica Harrington background information - Commonstown Racing Stables, Moone, Co Kildare
Synopsis - Jessica Harrington is one of a select group of trainers to have won a Grade One over jumps and a Group One on the Flat.
Harrington's 11 winners at The Festival include star two-miler Moscow Flyer, who took the Racing Post Arkle in 2002 and the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2003 & 2005, as well as 2014 Unibet Champion Hurdle victor Jezki and reigning Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Sizing John, one of three successes for the stable last year.
Born - February 25, 1947, London
Background - Daughter of Brigadier Bryan 'Friz' Fowler, who won a silver medal as part of the Great British team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Her late brother John was also a trainer, sending out Maid Of Money to win the 1989 Irish National, and only missed out on the 1968 Olympics with a broken collarbone.
Her equine career began in the eventing world and she rode at the prestigious Burghley horse trials at the age of 18. Jessica and John became the first brother and sister to ride at the European Eventing Championships at Punchestown in 1967.
She went on represent Ireland at three European championships and one World championships. Jessica was selected for the Olympics in 1980 and 1984 but missed out due to the boycott of the Moscow Games and her horse becoming lame at the Los Angeles Games - she did ride at the substitute Olympics in France in 1980.
Jessica took out a training licence at Commonstown Stables at Moone in County Kildare in 1989.
Cheltenham Festival Wins (11)
1999: 1 - Johnny Henderson Grand Annual (Space Trucker)
2002: 1 - Racing Post Arkle Trophy Chase (Moscow Flyer)
2003: 2 - Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Moscow Flyer), Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle (Spirit Leader)
2005: 1 - Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Moscow Flyer)
2007: 1 - Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Cork All Star)
2011: 1 - RSA Insurance Novices' Chase (Bostons Angel)
2014: 1 - Unibet Champion Hurdle (Jezki)
2017: 3 - Coral Cup (Supasundae), Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (Sizing John), Johnny Henderson Grand Annual (Rock The World)
Harrington's entries so far at The Festival
CHAMPION DAY - TUESDAY, MARCH 13 (OLD COURSE)
5.30pm £70,000 Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (0-145) (Listed) 2m 4½f
ST PATRICK'S THURSDAY - MARCH 15 (NEW COURSE)
3.30pm £325,000 Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1)
GOLD CUP DAY - FRIDAY, MARCH 16 (NEW COURSE)
2.50pm £125,000 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 3m
Not Many Left
3.50pm £625,000 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1) 3m 2½f
Our Duke, Sizing John
5.30pm £110,000 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 2m ½f
Don't Touch It, Rock The World