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My Golden Cheltenham opportunity

PROVIDED there are no last-minute mishaps over the next few days, I’ll be in the thick of the action at Cheltenham next week instead of watching it from a hospital bed.

That was the position I was in 12 months ago after breaking my ankle in a fall at Stratford the day before the Festival began. I missed out on some really good rides, including Midnight Chase, who went on to finish fifth in the Gold Cup, and Recession Proof, who was fifth in the Supreme Novices Hurdle.

I knew immediately after the fall that I was in trouble. Once I’d had a bit of a tantrum in the back of the ambulance, I realised fairly quickly that there was nothing I could do so I had to get over it. But when it really got to me was on the Wednesday as I watched the RSA Chase.

I had been due to ride Wayward Prince, who I fancied very strongly. AP McCoy went with him instead and he started to make up a lot of ground four out. I was convinced he was going to win and I was physically shaking in the bed as the race drew to a climax.

He eventually finished third but I was drained after watching it, so luckily there were another two days to go until the Gold Cup because I couldn’t have handled it any sooner. I think the morphine dosage needed to be increased that Wednesday.

Being ruled out of Cheltenham because of an injury is every jockey’s worst nightmare, but it’s also part and parcel of the sport so you have to deal with it when it happens. At this moment in time I’m feeling good and fresh so my fingers will be kept firmly crossed until Tuesday.

The four days of racing ahead of us next week at Cheltenham represent the pinnacle of our sport. It’s what every owner, trainer and jockey wants to be involved in, so to be going there with a decent book of rides is a privilege.

Next week’s Cheltenham Festival will be my third, having been involved – but with no significant success – in 2009 and 2010. In my previous experiences, I found that the pace never slackened. Your horse needs to be fresh and 110 per cent fit. There are no hiding places at Cheltenham.

For a jockey, the bar is raised significantly when you go to the Cheltenham Festival. It’s similar to a GAA team going from league matches into the championship; the level of competition and intensity goes up a few notches.

You can ride in some big handicaps wherever you are throughout the season and they’ll be at a serious pace, but at some stage during the race you’ll find that it will slow down. When you go to Cheltenham, however, the pace never drops. It’s absolutely relentless. Everything goes up another gear.

Sometimes in a big handicap you’ll try to sneak down the inside and ride a race, but there’s no such thing as doing that at Cheltenham, which is the one thing I’ve taken from the two years I rode there. You’ll get room wherever you can – and the majority of time it’ll be middle to outer – but a horse will seldom get a clean run down the inside bar going down to the third-last hurdle.

You’ll normally see the winners coming from middle to outer down the back over fences. But following a pre-determined plan won’t work. You run, you jump and you find room wherever you can.

It’s very difficult for a jockey to really enjoy Cheltenham. There’s just too much at stake. If the first day goes well, it can make it slightly easier and you can probably be a bit more relaxed, but if that first day is a disaster, you could be in for a long, unpleasant week.

I think the pressure is the same for every jockey in the weigh room, no matter who you are or who you’re riding for. It’s the biggest occasion for everyone involved in the sport, whether you’re at the top or bottom of the pecking order. Every jockey is in the same boat.

To be heading into a Cheltenham Gold Cup on a horse as good as Midnight Chase is definitely something that excites me. The main thing for me when it comes to Midnight Chase is that I know he likes Cheltenham and he’ll jump well there.

He’s won there five times so he knows the place well. I don’t have to worry about whether he’ll handle an undulating track. I know the track isn’t a big issue for him, so there’s no pressure involved from that perspective. It’ll be a big occasion but I’m relaxed. Midnight Chase knows how to handle Cheltenham.

At best he’ll be in the top three, but my heart and soul says he’ll be third. Having won the Argento on Midnight Chase in January – which was our main goal – finishing third in a Gold Cup would be the icing on the cake. I can honestly see him running a massive race.

Producing the goods at the Cheltenham festival can change a jockey’s career. If you can ride a winner there, I think owners and trainers will start to look at you differently. The only difference success at Cheltenham would make to me personally is financial, but for those on the outside looking in, it would probably make a big difference. It would certainly promote me more to some of the higher caliber yards.

As a jockey, if you were to retire in six months, it would be nice to be able to look back and say you rode a Cheltenham festival winner.

Looking beyond my own ride in the Gold Cup, Kauto Star is definitely the one to beat if he runs and it would be remarkable to see him win it again. For him to come back the way he has done is unbelievable. He’s an incredible horse.

Because of the tightness at Cheltenham and the gallop we’ll be going at, I think Long Run’s jumping will be found out. This year won’t be his year, in my opinion. I fancy Burton Port to travel well and finish second.

I’ve included my tips for each of the features races below, but the one I really fancy for this Cheltenham festival is Soll in the National Hunt Chase on Wednesday. I won on him at Newcastle over hurdles last year when he was only a frame of a horse. Now he’s a year older and a year stronger.

He won his last race by 20 lengths with Ruby Walsh on board at Down Royal six weeks ago. He stays incredibly well and he jumps brilliantly. If he handles Cheltenham – and I don’t see why he won’t – I think he’s a banker to win and I’d also fancy him for next year’s Grand National.

***

Dougie’s tips for the four feature races at Cheltenham

Champion Hurdle – Tuesday at 3.20: Binocular to win at 5/1, Rocky On Ruby each-way at 14/1

Queen Mother Champion Chase – Wednesday at 3.20: Sizing Europe to win at evens, Somersby each-way at 12/1

World Hurdle – Thursday at 3.20: Big Bucks to win at 4/7, Oscar Whisky each-way at 4/1

Gold Cup – Friday at 3.20: Kauto Star to win at 7/2, Midnight Chase each-way at 14/1

All odds from Paddy Power

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