An incredible day unfolded for Alan King at Cheltenham Racecourse where the Wiltshire-based trainer gained a high-profile treble with Smad Place, Annacotty and Yanworth on Saturday 30th January, Festival Trials Day, after racing was given the go-ahead at a 10am inspection following heavy overnight rain.
A record crowd of 20,785 for the day (previous highest 20,046 last year) saw the grey Smad Place make all the running under substitute jockey Richard Johnson in the feature £100,000 Grade Two BetBright Trial Chase to beat last year’s Crabbie’s Grand National winner Many Clouds (Oliver Sherwood/Leighton Aspell), reversing the placings in the race 12 months before.
The 9/2 chance Smad Place and Many Clouds (6/1) drew clear of the others after the hot 5/6 favourite, the Willie Mullins-trained Djakadam, ridden by Ruby Walsh and owned by the BetBright chairman Rich Ricci, fell at the 10th fence. Theatre Guide (Colin Tizzard/Aidan Coleman, 33/1) kept on to be third of the eight runners in this trial over three miles, one and a half furlongs for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, 24 lengths adrift of the runner-up.
The first two home disputed the running from three out but Smad Place was in command at the last and went 12 lengths clear on the long run-in after three obstacles, including the usual last fence, were not jumped because of the heavy conditions.
Nine-year-old Smad Place is likely to return to Cheltenham at The Festival for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, 18th March but King wasn’t making any decision on Trials Day.
The trainer commented: “It was very touching to be stood here when the horse was led into the winner’s enclosure. Smad Place is obviously very special to me and to a lot of people given the reception the Cheltenham crowd gave him.
“You know what it is with a grey horse. Smad Place got into a very good rhythm, jumped great and he handled this ground. Although he goes in good ground, he has won on very testing ground before and really pings off it which is difficult to do – not many horses can.
“He keeps up a relentless gallop. I was blown away when he won the Hennessy and I am slightly blown away again today.
“This is the first time that Smad Place has won at Cheltenham – people have said it is not his track but he has run some marvellous races here and it is nice to get a win into him around here.
“I am going to enjoy today and then think about whether he is good enough for the Gold Cup. I am not sure he has proven that today, with Djakadam having fallen, but we will see. It could be an exceptional Gold Cup this year. He is in that race and the Ryanair Chase and I am not going to commit to which one he will run in at The Festival yet.
“Peter Andrews (husband of the owner) did not want to run today – he rang me at 8am to say to take him out and I went absolutely ballistic and said the horse had already left for Cheltenham and we would discuss it later. Smad Place had not left but he was in very good form coming into today’s race.”
Johnson took over from Smad Place’s regular jockey Wayne Hutchinson who was injured in a fall yesterday. He said: “I was very fortunate to pick up the ride this morning after poor Wayne Hutchinson had a nasty fall yesterday.
“Smad Place jumped and travelled very well today, handling the conditions. He is uncomplicated and I think that is the way to ride him (from the front).”
King went on to have a 122.75/1 treble at Cheltenham, with Annacotty (Ian Popham, 13/2) gamely seeing off Tenor Nivernais (Venetia Williams/Aidan Coleman) in the £60,000 Grade Three freebets.com Trophy Handicap Chase over two miles and five furlongs and impressive Yanworth (Barry Geraghty, 2/1 favourite) cruising home by seven lengths in the £30,000 Grade Two Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle over a similar distance.
King said Yanworth, owned by JP McManus, could be very special and declared: “I don’t know how good he is – I don’t think I have trained anything like him really. Yanworth has never come off the bridle in four runs this season – he is frightening in a good way.”
King, who also had two winners at Doncaster on the day including Ziga Boy in the feature race there, added: “Wayne (Hutchinson) is having his foot x-rayed at some point today but we knew last night that he would not be riding – hopefully it is just bruising. It has been a tremendous day.”
There was another impressive performance in the £60,000 Grade Two galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle over three miles with Thistlecrack (Colin Tizzard/Tom Scudamore, 4/5 favourite) winning easily by 12 lengths from Ptit Zig (Paul Nicholls/Sam Twiston-Davies, 7/1).
Tizzard declared: “Thistlecrack really powered up that run-in against really top-class opposition – that’s brilliant. He has won on the bridle in a World Hurdle qualifier today and at home he works like that too.
“He is big strong boy and will make a chaser one day if he ever goes that way. He has won three times on the trot now and he is getting better and better. I don’t know how good he is.
“The Festival is six weeks away and so many things can go wrong with horses but if I can get him and Cue Card there in good form then I have a lot to look forward to. They are two good horses and I am chuffed to have them.”
Ian Renton, Regional Director of Jockey Club Racecourses South West, said at the end of an excellent day’s racing: “It was great that Festival Trials Day could go ahead and the day really lived up to its name with some fabulous performances.
“Considering we had an inspection this morning, to get a record crowd on the day just shows the great appetite for racing at Cheltenham.
“We now look forward to the four days of The Festival, from 15th to 18th March, with a lot of anticipation.”