The action at Warwick was once again behind closed doors yesterday, but those watching from home were treated to some brilliant performances. Nick Seddon spoke to the winning connections to get their reaction and look ahead to some potential outings at The Festival at Cheltenham next month.
Trainer Jonjo O’Neill was surprised but delighted that Annie Mc was able to win the feature race, the Listed Lady Protectress Mares’ Chase, and said she would now go straight to The Festival for the Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase.
He said: “I thought the handicapper had got her this year to be honest. I thought she was going to have a tough year, but the soft ground has bailed her out a bit really. I thought she was in trouble a bit turning in. She fumbled a bit on the ground around the bend, but once she straightened up she jumped well and got home.
“She’ll probably go straight to Cheltenham now. I wasn’t really thinking of it for her before this, because I didn’t really think she was good enough to be honest, but she keeps proving me wrong and I like them like that.”
Annie Mc’s owners, the Coral Champions Club, include reality television star Chris Hughes, who said after the race: “I’m an emotional wreck - I’m shaking! Jump racing gets you like this – it’s the best sport in the world.
“She’s just so special. She jumped the best I’ve ever seen, and that’s her forte! Warwick was great prep. Going left-handed suits Annie best and the ground was ideal.
“I’ll pray for rain all of next month, but she fills our hearts with happiness, win, lose or draw, and she’s just such a special, genuine mare to be involved with.
“She’s one in a lifetime and all of us connected are so proud. Heart of a lion. Onto Cheltenham we go!”
Also heading to the Mares’ Chase is the 2019 BetVictor Gold Cup winner Happy Diva and Kerry Lee was pleased with the 10 year old’s effort to finish third. She said: “That was a very nice run. She’s done everything right, but she’s a 10 year old against the younger mares, so that’s it and we definitely won’t run again now before The Festival.
“You’d think she’d have a chance (in the Mares’ Chase). She loves Cheltenham and seems to be at her best there, so we’ll definitely be aiming at that.”
Meanwhile, Tom Ellis was delighted to see Latenightpass spring a 40-1 surprise in the Willoughby De Broke Open Hunters’ Chase, and confirmed that the St James's Place Festival Hunters' Chase at Cheltenham is now on his agenda.
He said: “That makes the early mornings worthwhile and he was good, wasn't he? He won at Cheltenham in 2019 and is a really unexposed horse. He's been a lot of fun and I wouldn't mind a few more like him.
“We half said that if we ran well and finished fourth or fifth we’d go to Cheltenham with him, but to be honest off the back of that I’d go straight there I’d say.
“He’s entitled to take his chance really. He’s qualified for his point-to-point wins, so this should have cemented it. If Gina (Andrews) can ride him she will, but it’s unclear at the moment. She’s been schooling well at home so it’s good to have her back.”
Another who impressed was the Dan Skelton-trained Cabot Cliffs, who benefited from an attacking ride by Harry Skelton to win the Join Racing TV Now Juvenile Hurdle.
The four-year-old could now head to The Festival, according to assistant trainer Tom Messenger. He said: “This is his second win over hurdles, but that was a lot more like it.
“I think Harry (Skelton) gave him a great ride from the front. He had plenty left turning in and just got to the front and dictated, which suited us.
“Looking ahead he’ll probably be in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap.”
Sheila Lewis has also earmarked Volcano for a run at Jumps HQ later this year after his victory in the Watch On Racing TV Handicap Chase – though she isn’t eyeing up a tilt at The Festival.
She explained: “Volcano stays further than three miles, but I was concerned about the weight as he's not the biggest, although he carried the weight fine.
“I don't know if he'd be good enough but the cross-country at Cheltenham in November is something he might love - he's a nimble and well-balanced horse. That would be a lovely aim.”