It's not often that a race winner from Stratford goes off favourite for a race at the Cheltenham Festival. Winners, by dint of race quality and summer time racing tend to be aimed at different targets. But that is exactly what has arisen today as Vaucelet stakes his claim to be the leading hunter chaser in Britain and Ireland.
Twice a winner at Stratford, first in 2021 of the John Corbett Cup for novice hunters, which is generally accepted as the championship for the upcoming aspirants of the hunter chase genre, then a 4l winner of the Pertemps Network Stratford Foxhunter last year, Vaucelet hails from the specialist Point-to-Point yard of David Christie in Ulster. For that reason, but perhaps that reason alone, he may count as a rare British winner at the festival in the glut of Irish tricolors flying this past week.
Fifty acres of pastureland near Derrylin in Co Fermanagh on the road between Cavan and Enniskillen finds a veritable powerhouse of Point-to-Point and hunter chase excellence, and Vaucelet is the apple of David's eye. Winner of a modest £51,200 in career earnings, this son of Derby winner Authorized has graced the amateur scene for 3 years, since transferring to Christie in March 2021, just in time for a maiden victory over fences in a geldings only maiden at Portrush in May '21. The rider that day was one Ben Harvey, who rode Seddon with such coolness this Wednesday at Cheltenham.
It's not a fait accompli however. Like every other race at the Festival, the competition is stiff and numerous. The Foxhunter is perhaps the only conditions race to generally reach maximum numbers at the annual championships, and other contenders are lined up alongside.
Prominent among these are last year's winner Billaway, from the dominant Mullins yard, Chris's Dream for Henry de Bromhead, and The Storyteller for Gordon Elliott, all bidding to take the festival's largest trophy back to Ireland. Billaway has yet to finish outside the first two in 3 runs in the race, but at 11, perhaps age may be his worst enemy. Chris's Dream has obvious claims on form and would continue a hot streak for the de Bromhead yard that has suffered such ghastly personal misfortune these past months. The Storyteller won't need directions around Cheltenham either.
But the biggest challenge may, for the first time in a while, come from British-based horses. Famous Clermont hails from Chris Barber's Somerset yard, which lives and breathes the amateur code. The eight year old hasn't put a foot wrong this winter, winning a Larkhill Open on New Year's Day, and prepping up with victory at Wincanton in February and a comprehensive 18l demolition of Envious Editor in Haydock's Walrus Hunters Chase last month also - a well recognized prep for this race.
Corinthian David Maxwell fields Cat Tiger and Bob & Co, who bids to give Alice Stephens a memorable ride on the biggest stage.
From East Anglia, Premier Magic has a second try in the Foxhunter after pulling up behind Billaway in 2022. His preparation has been faultless this season, with victories at the Harkaway and then Garthorpe in February, the last beating Law of Gold 14l. He is no slouch for Bradley Gibbs and worth an each-way bet at 50/1.
However, if you're looking to oppose the favourite, French-bred Le Malin might be the one. He ran to his best recent form in mid February when going down just a half length to Billaway in a hunters chase at Naas in February and has won since. Francois Nicolle doesn't let many go but this one has more to prove.
Reassuringly, there are a number of amateur-trained British entries, pushing back the invasive reach of professional trainers into the race these past few years. It's a race to savour, and there's every chance we may see many of the competitors back her in early June.
Oh, and by the way, the previous race that day looks mildly interesting too.
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