Harry Derham previews the Cheltenham Festival

After a fantastic season, with already 144 winners on the board and leading the Trainers Championship, Team Ditcheat are heading into Cheltenham with the horses in top form and with plenty of exciting chances. Harry Derham, Assistant Trainer to Paul Nicholls gives us the low down on the Nicholls Team and shares with us his top tips for the week.

How many horses do you take to Cheltenham this year?

We will actually be taking a much smaller team this year. The main reason being many owners love to go to The Festival and have a runner there but with the coronavirus restrictions and the racing being run behind closed doors there will be no owners going this year. So, horses who would have perhaps gone there with an outside each way chance, owners are happy this season to run them elsewhere where they can likely be more competitive. So, we’re taking a smaller, but a more select team of horses this year.

Bravemansgame looks to have a standout chance in the Ballymore Novice’s Hurdle. What’s your thoughts on his chances?

I totally agree with you. Challow Hurdle winners don’t have a great record in The Ballymore but I’m of the opinion that stats are there to be broken. He is a very high-class horse and he jumps very well. We’ve had to make our own running the last couple of times, which although he can do I think he’ll be a better horse with a lead. I think a better race will suit him better. The Irish contingent in the race with Bob Olinger and Gaillard Du Mesnil do look good, but Bravemansgame is a very good horse and I wouldn’t swap him in the race, I think he’s got a leading chance. The faster they go in the race the better he will be, he loves a stamina test. I think there is plenty more to come from him yet. I hope it’s a true run race and if it is the best horse will win and I think it will be him.

Politologue returns to defend his crown in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. Is he in good form ahead of his sixth festival?

He had a hard race at Ascot and that run probably took quite a lot out of him. He took a couple of weeks to come back to himself, but he is in really good form at home now. He had a racecourse gallop at Wincanton the other day and looked on top form. Realistically it’s going to be incredibly hard to defend his crown. He obviously won the race last year in what was a slightly depleted field, which albeit was an excellent performance but I think this season’s race is considerably hotter with some young improving horses in the field. He will no doubt run a very honest and genuine race like he always does and the most remarkable thing to remember is that this will be his sixth consecutive festival. He’s been an absolutely fabulous horse and I’m sure that he will give his all again.

Frodon’s front running performance in winning the King George at Christmas was so impressive. What do you think of his chance in The Gold Cup?

I think the dry forecast definitely helps his chance. If it became a slog, I don’t think that plays to his strengths at all. It looks to me like a strong but open race. There’s a lot of high-quality horses in it as there would be in a Gold Cup but there are a few different question marks over each horse. With Al Boum Photo, the form of the race last year hasn’t worked out that well. Champ is coming into the race off a very good return to action but that was only over 2 miles. So there’s reasons to believe that Frodon has got a very good chance. If the ground is dry and he gets into a good rhythm I can see him running a huge race. He has enough speed to get into the position he wants to be in, he should travel very well and he’s very good around the new course at Cheltenham. It’s a bold call to say he’ll win the Gold Cup, but he’s got a knack of surprising people and it wouldn’t surprise me if he did it again!

What about Next Destination? He’s been impressive this season. Where do you go with him?

Next Destination has been good this season. He came back from really long layoff and he’s a fragile horse and hasn’t been the easiest to get right, but he finished second over hurdles at Wetherby which was a good performance and he’s taken to chasing very well. He’s a good jumper and he stays very well. A decision still has to be made whether he runs in The National Hunt Novices Chase on Tuesday or the Grade 1 3-mile Novices Chase on Wednesday. He’s a high-class horse – whether or not he can beat Monkfish is a totally different question, he’s looked a cut above the Novices’ this season but Next Destination is a quality horse in his own right. To me he’s won both of his races this season with a bit up his sleeve and I’m sure he’ll run well in whichever race he runs in.

The racing at Cheltenham is so competitive. What are your best chances for the handicaps?

I think our best chance in the handicaps is a horse called Houx Gris. He runs in the Boodles Juvenile Hurdle on Wednesday which is a race for 4-year-olds. He came to us from France with some decent form winning at Auteuil, then finished third in the Grade 1 Finale Hurdle at Chepstow. He got stuck in the mud a bit that day, he was still weak and we hadn’t had him that long at the time. He’s improved a lot since then and I think 128 is a fair mark. If you’re going to win a handicap at Cheltenham you need to have a little bit up your sleeve with the handicapper which I think because he’s unexposed hopefully he does. He travels well, he’s got enough speed to keep up in a race like that, touch wood he’s a really good jumper and so I’d like to think he’s got a really strong chance.

What horse are you personally most looking forward to running?

I’m most looking forward to watching Bravemansgame. I think if we’ve got a superstar, or potential superstar in our yard at the moment then he is it. He’s been brilliant this season. The only time he has been beaten was in a falsely run race behind Soaring Glory, who’s gone on and won the Betfair Hurdle. He’s a very very high-class horse and I think he’ll take all the beating.

With the team having won at least one race at the Cheltenham Festival every year since 2003 do you feel the pressure going into the week and do you set yourself targets as a team of what you hope to achieve?

Yes, we do feel the pressure going into Cheltenham week most definitely. To be honest though all of the team feel the pressure any day of the week that we have runners. Every horse has targets throughout the season which can be just as important for their career and as a team we’re always striving to do our best for all of the horses and their owners. With the standards that Paul sets, there’s pressure on us all of the time for us to achieve what we want to achieve. Cheltenham week though, I always think that’s it’s been a good week if we can come away with a winner. It’s so so hard win there, I can give you countless examples since I’ve been Assistant Trainer of a horse running a brilliant race, often a career best and maybe finishing 5th or 6th. Its such a tough week, so I always think that if we can get a winner then that’s an amazing result.

Do you think the fact that there will be no crowds at The Festival will have an effect on how the horses run?

I think yes and no. To be honest with you for some of the young horses it could almost be an advantage. I’ve seen many many times a young horse just boil over because of the atmosphere. They walk into that paddock and there’s thousands of people what feels like on top of them. So some horses, particularly the youngsters that are perhaps having only their first or second run can get to the start and their race already be over so for those horses the lack of crowds could be advantage.

On the flip side to that for a horse like Frodon, who I’m absolutely convinced feeds off the crowd perhaps it’s a negative. Either way it will certainly be a very different Festival this year. The Festival is something we all look forward to all year, because of the atmosphere, and the cheer that goes up on the Tuesday at the start of the first race is one of those moments you hope you’re there for every season so its definitely going to be very different.

What is your favourite memory of The Cheltenham Festival?

I would say Dodging Bullets winning the Champion Chase in 2015. I was involved with him for a long time at home and he was a very special horse to me. Everything that season went right for him. He got on a roll and started believing in himself and he put in a couple of the best performances of his life.  I think it probably demonstrates how hard he tried to win at Cheltenham that day by the fact that he never won again after it. That shows you just how hard it is to win at the Festival but that day he won the Champion Chase was absolutely magic.

Give us your best tip for the week?

In an ordinary year my best tip for the week would be to go to the Guinness Village, have a couple of pints then keep your hand in your pocket and then enjoy the day!

This year Stay Home, Protect The NHS and Saves Lives.

And my best tip for whilst you’re watching at home… Houx Gris Each Way in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Wednesday). And another I haven’t yet mentioned, Barbados Bucks Each Way in The Albert Barlett Novices Hurdle (Friday).