JIMMY BEADLE: Top trainers get ready for Cheltenham

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The spine-tingling cheer from the Anglo-Irish crowd as the starter raises his flag and lets the horses bound down Cleeve Hill is still more than four months away.

But with all roads leading to the Cheltenham Festival there are clues aplenty about and none more so than last weekend and this one coming.

The trainers have taken their stable stars from out of the summer paddocks and put them back into full training with the ultimate aim for the majority of the top class horses being those magic four days in March.

But the key to this part of the season is to find out which trainers have their horses ready to win first time out.

The National Hunt superpowers of Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson and Jonjo O’Neill will rarely have their horses in sparkling form at this time of year as they know that their success as trainers depends entirely on the spring time festivals.

They will instead have them peaking for those big days in the future, whereas the lesser known trainers cannot be picky with which races they aim to win.

Eight-times Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls must certainly be hoping his horses are due to improve with better fitness levels throughout the season as he has endured a torrid start in his search for back-to-back trainer titles.

His main Gold Cup contender Silviniaco Conti was a major disappointment on Saturday in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase in which he could only muster a one-paced fifth place, but despite his poor show Nicholls refused to temper his enthusiasm for the season ahead .

He said:“He is just getting a bit lazier, Noel said he got very tired.

“What he needs now is a real end-to-end gallop like he’ll get in the King George. He needed a race to tighten up and he should improve for the run.

“Basically, he has run okay. He’ll go for the Betfair, the King George and then the Gold Cup.”

Jonjo O’Neill begins the season with probably his strongest team of horses to date but again despite his resourceful firepower his main Gold Cup contender Holywell failed to produce the goods on his seasonal debut.

Beaten 15 lengths into third by the quirky but talented Menorah, Holywell must certainly step up on this form to justify his favourites slot for the Gold Cup but master trainer O’Neill certainly expects this to be the case.

He said: “He’s run very well and was certainly better than last year. He didn’t like the ground but you have to start somewhere.”

The final clue on offer for a genuine challenger to emerge for a crack at the Cheltenham Festival showpiece came over at Down Royal in Ireland where the Noel Meade-trained Road to Riches turned a competitive Grade 1 into a procession and in the process earning quotes ranging from 16/1 to 33/1 for the Gold Cup.

His immaculate jumping and relentless gallop from the front probably made him the most impressive performer of the weekend and with next month’s Lexus Chase nominated as the next test of his credentials by Gigginstown Studs Eddie O’Leary we could have a very exciting challenger on our hands.

On Saturday we will see the first genuine Champion Hurdle trial of the National Hunt Season as Wincanton hosts the Elite Hurdle in which all the big guns are represented.

With three winners from the last five runnings, Paul Nicholls is a man who must be feared, but a lot of his better horses are failing to fire first time out so it is probably best to bypass the likely favourite Irving.

Nicky Henderson is well represented as usual with three entries but none of Forgotten Voice, Kentucky Hyden and Vasco Du Ronceray look likely to be his Champion Hurdle candidates so he may come up short.

The Harry Fry-trained former Champion Hurdle winner Rock on Ruby would be my selection as the current good ground is ideal for him and reverting to hurdles on his final run has seemingly sparked him back to life after an unsuccessful chase campaign.

Trainer Fry will not make a decision about his participation till Saturday but if he takes his place Rock on Ruby is sure to run a good race .

He said: “The ground is the key factor. If it remains good he’s highly likely to run on Saturday.

“We were thrilled with his great run at Aintree because not all horses adjust so quickly on their return to hurdling after a spell chasing.

“He’ll be giving weight away to a lot of nice young prospects and it’ll not be easy, but he’s showing all his old enthusiasm at home and we’re very happy with him.”

Beadle’s Top Tip

Rock On Ruby

3.15 Wincanton Saturday