In recent seasons the Cheltenham Festival has been anything but a happy hunting ground for jockey Harry Cobden. However, he is confident this year will be different after admitting he heads to the meeting with his ‘best team’ since joining forces with trainer Paul Nicholls.
It is four years since Cobden last tasted success at jump racing’s Olympics when guiding the now-retired Topofthegame to Grade One glory for 13-times champion Jump trainer Nicholls in what is now the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.
Since that momentous occasion in 2019 the 24 year old has had to make do with a supporting role and watch on as a number of his weighing room colleagues bask in the glory of winning at Jump racing’s most prestigious meeting.
With the likes of leading Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Bravemansgame and Hermes Allen, who is ante-post favourite for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle among his rides, it is easy to see why Cobden is so excited about this year’s Festival.
He said: “I think for the last few years there have not been too many stand out teams we have sent to Cheltenham.
“We’ve had good horses like Politologue and Silviniaco Conti, but they were not Denman, Big Buck’s or Kauto Star, and whether we will ever see horses like that again who knows.
“We have had a lot of near misses there, like Bell Ex One who was unlucky in the Boodles (Juvenile Handicap Hurdle) there last year. He didn’t come down the hill very well and he galloped into the second last and lost a bit of ground and finished third.
“I suppose the only good thing is I’ve got plenty of experience around there on a big day without winning!
“Certainly in the time I’ve been at Ditcheat we would be going to Cheltenham with our best team with the likes of Bravemansgame, Hermes Allen and Tahmuras. It is quite exciting and fingers crossed we have a bit of luck there this year.”
In such a high profile position, like the one Cobden finds himself privileged to be in, a lack of success at The Festival could easily have an adverse effect on confidence levels.
And while falling short at the Festival is frustrating, it has not caused Cobden any sleepless nights.
He added: “The last couple of seasons Paul has had 143 and 176 winners and we go to Cheltenham for four days and we end up having horses run well that put in career bests to finish third or fourth behind some Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott-trained hotpot.
“It can be frustrating, but I wouldn’t say it has ever got me down as you get off one and put your colours on and go back out for the next race. Racing is a great leveller as for 30 minutes you can be down then in your next ride you could have a winner.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of winners at the Cheltenham Festival with Kilbricken Storm and Topofthegame and they were amazing days. It would be lovely to walk away with just one winner from this year’s meeting.”
Quite often a jockey can point to a race that helped capture their imagination growing up and Cobden is no different after highlighting the victory of Denman in the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup as helping him to decide to pursue a career in the sport.
Cobden said: “I remember watching Denman’s Gold Cup win at school. I’m vaguely related to the Barber family (Paul Barber, was joint-owner of Denman) and our school let us watch the race in the main hall next to the headmaster's office.
“Although I had nothing to do with it at the time Paul trained locally and the Barbers were big owners locally so in that sense you almost felt a little bit part of it.
“It was quite exciting and it definitely helped capture my bug for racing.”
Cobden hopes he can emulate the success of Denman by securing Nicholls a record equalling fifth victory in the race aboard Bravemansgame, who was last sighted securing Grade One glory in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton Park.
Despite having his stamina to prove over the extended three and a quarter mile trip, along with his ability to perform on an undulating track Cobden believes the eight year old has been overlooked in his pursuit of claiming the fourth Grade One of his career.
He said: “I don’t think the extra quarter of a mile will be a problem. He is a good traveller and I think I’ve learnt to ride him a lot better now. He was very good at Kempton considering how wide he went.
“To my mind the only question would be the track because he has won on a lot of big galloping tracks and he has never really been tested on an undulating course. He is a well-balanced good jumper so I don’t think that will be an issue.
“The Irish horse (Galopin Des Champs) is the one they are going mad about, but I think he has been overlooked.
“When he has come up short before he has always had an excuse, whereas on Boxing Day he had no excuses.
“I thought it was his race to lose and I thought he showed how tough he was from the back of the fourth last to the line. I was at him a long way out. He put his head down and galloped all the way to the line. He jumped great and was very brave.
“I think the fact he has only had two runs and before going straight there will make a big difference this season as he has been specifically trained for this race.”
While excited about the prospects of Bravemansgame in the Gold Cup the betting would suggest that Hermes Allen, who is the general 9-4 favourite for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, represents Cobden’s most likely chance of celebrating a winner at the Festival.
He added: “Hermes Allen is probably our best chance of a winner there this year. The only thing he did well at home before going to Stratford first time out was jump as he never really galloped that fast but when he gets to the track he is a different animal.
“I thought he was very impressive at Newbury in the Challow Hurdle. He jumped well and went a very good gallop on soft ground.
“He turned in and absolutely scooted away, he barely came off the bridle. It was probably one of the easiest Grade One winners I will ever ride.
“You are not going to get an easy lead in a Ballymore. They might go quick in front and I will have to sit in third or fourth and he might run free and run no race at all, where as he might go to sleep and bolt up.
“He has got to raise his game again, but we haven’t got to the bottom of him so we don’t know how good he is. It will be a good race, but he jumps well, is quite relaxed and laid back. He is everything you want in a good horse.”
Like Bravemansgame and Hermes Allen stablemate Tahmuras, who is Cobden’s mount for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, enters the meeting on the back of a Grade One win after landing this year’s Unibet Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown Park.
While looking forward to being re-united with the gelded son of Falco, who he has partnered on all five of his starts under rules, Cobden hopes there is sufficient moisture in the ground to enable him to demonstrate his talents.
He said: “Tahmuras was very good in the Tolworth Hurdle and he showed he had a great attitude. He missed the last couple of hurdles which he is unlike him as he is usually a very good jumper.
“The experts say he has got a couple of pounds to find on the top ones, but Facile Vega bombed out on his last start so it has opened the race up a little bit.
“The only thing I would be a little bit conscious about is whether he is quick enough to travel all the way round.
“In a Supreme on soft ground I would fancy him. If it was a good ground Supreme I think he would be a bit on the backfoot.”
When it comes to his rides outside of his three major ones Cobden has selected Scottish Triumph Hurdle hero Afadil, who is on the borderline of making the final field for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, as a potentially interesting contender.
He said: “I hope Afadil runs in the Boodles. The reason why I think that Boodles would suit him is that they will go flat out.
“He could sit in behind and travel well and ultimately he might have a couple of pounds up his sleeve.
“All in all I have some nice chances and it would be great for the team if at least one of them can find their way back into the number one spot in the winner’s enclosure.”