Almost 10 years have passed since Welsh trainer Evan Williams walked into the winner’s enclosure for the first and, so far, only time at The Festival.
The Vale of Glamorgan handler teamed up with his assistant trainer James Tudor, who was Britain’s champion point-to-point rider at the time, to win the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase with High Chimes.
The afternoon of Thursday 13th March 2008, remains memorable for many racing enthusiasts, as Cheltenham staged a huge 10-race card following the abandonment of the previous day’s racing due to strong winds.
The performances on the track matched the occasion. Master Minded, then a five-year-old, defeated defending champion Voy Por Ustedes by a scarcely believable 19 lengths in the Queen Mother Champion Chase before Inglis Drever became the first three-time winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle.
High Chimes, running in the familiar colours of Angela and William Rucker, was sent off a 14/1 chance in a wide-open Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase for amateur riders.
The nine-year-old challenged going strongly coming down hill, despite jumping indifferently for much of the contest, and shot clear approaching the last.He tired on the run-in, but had four lengths in hand over the best of the opposition at the line.
“I cannot believe it has been 10 years,” reflected Williams. “A lot of people don’t think we have had a Cheltenham winner, so I am more than happy to reminisce!
“I remember High Chimes had run abysmally the time before at Warwick and yet he was in sparkling form in the run up to Cheltenham.
“He was a funny horse who had to have cut in the ground and obviously 2008 was the year that the wind played havoc.
“The only problem was that in the days leading up to The Festival, the ground had been drying out, and I did not think we would be able to run him.
“Then the Wednesday was abandoned and it started to rain and rain and rain. The rain came at the right time and everything just fell into place.
“It was brilliant that James and I were able to break our duck together because he was a big part of our team and had done so much work around the place.
“High Chimes was not an easy horse to ride and I suppose he was more of an amateur’s ride than a professional’s ride. He was a big brute of a horse and went well for any amateur.
“He would have been a very decent horse had his front wheels been a little bit kinder to him because he had a history of leg problems.
“Cheltenham was his big day in the sun and it was brilliant for James to be on him and brilliant for Mr and Mrs Rucker to own him.”
Williams, who took out a full training licence in 2003, has gone close to doubling his tally at The Festival, most agonisingly with front-runner Barizan who was caught after the last in the 2010 JCB Triumph Hurdle.
“I did not really appreciate the High Chimes win as much as I should have and did not appreciate how difficult it is to get a horse good enough to win at The Festival,” said Williams.
“We have had a good deal of placings there since in various races, but I don’t think any of ours have been unlucky.
“We try to be sensible with the horses we send to The Festival because if you take the wrong one, you don’t do them any favours further down the line.
“I suppose having a winner there so early in our career, although to some extent we didn’t appreciate it, meant in some ways that we have not gone there willy-nilly.
“We try to take horses that we think can finish in the money or at least run a very good race.”
G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle contender John Constable heads the trainer’s runners this year. The former Aidan O’Brien-trained son of Montjeu won twice over hurdles during the summer, including an impressive 14-length victory in the G3 Swinton Handicap Hurdle at Haydock Park in May, and has run creditably in two starts so far this winter.
He finished a close sixth in a tactical renewal of the G2 Unibet International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December before coming home second, beaten a length and three quarters, behind Buveur D’Air in the Listed Contenders Hurdle at Sandown Park on 3rd February.
Williams commented: “John Constable has come out of Sandown in fantastic shape.
“I have been so surprised with how well he has run the last twice because he hates the testing ground and the time of the year.
“He is a different horse on spring ground with the sun on his back and what the last twice has shown us is that, although he is a 33/1 shot, with conditions in his favour, I do think he can run into the money in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
“I was fully expecting to get blown out of the water by Buveur D’Air at Sandown, but he ran with credit and will be a different horse in four weeks’ time.
“The other possible runners for us at The Festival this year are De Dollar Man and Report To Base who may go for the novices’ handicap chase, and old Buywise could go for the Kim Muir.”
De Dollar Man is a lightly-raced seven-year-old by Vinnie Roe. Owned by Angela and William Rucker, he has won three times in seven starts under Rules plus a point-to-point.
He has succeeded in a bumper, a hurdle and a chase, the latter being an Exeter handicap chase over two miles and three furlongs, one of three outings over fences. De Dollar Man finished ninth of the 15 runners in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at The Festival last year when a 50/1 shot.
Report To Base, a six-year-old by Westerner and also owned by Angela and William Rucker, should have won two rather than one chases.
He was disqualified after being the easy first past the post in an Exeter novices’ chase over an extended two miles and one furlong on January 1 as his rider missed out one of the obstacles. Report To Base won a Hereford beginners’ chase impressively later in the month.
Buywise, a popular horse, is now 11 and has run 10 times at Cheltenham, winning once, being placed in the top four a further four times and come home fifth a couple of times.
He has run three times at The Festival, finishing fifth in the 2014 Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, fourth in the 2015 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate and fourth in the 2017 Ultima Handicap Chase.
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