Twist and shout with Sam's hottest fancies for the Cheltenham Festival
Sam Twiston-Davies is a four-time Cheltenham Festival winner, the retained jockey for Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls, and son of trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies. He’s also an absolute gent, and a week ahead of Cheltenham, Sam popped into Power Tower in Dublin to give us his thoughts on some of his best rides at the Festival.
A (Fred) Winter Wonderland
Diego Du Charmil arrived at Paul Nicholls’ yard in late January, but it hasn’t taken long for the four-year-old to make an impression on Sam. He’s the 7/1 favourite for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle (Wednesday, 4.50pm) and Sam is confident he’s his best chance of a winner all week.
‘From what we’ve seen of his racecourse gallops he’s been working really nicely. He’s got a big frame for a four-year-old and will probably be even better next season, but off a handicap mark of 133 he will be very competitive’, Sam told us. ‘The Fred Winter is the race Paul Nicholls has mapped Diego Du Charmil out for. There are a lot of horses in the race with excellent chances, but Diego Du Charmil has been doing racecourse gallops with horses rated a lot higher than him and if anything he’s worked to them. His jumping is solid and he’s got a fantastic chance.’
‘He would confidently be my best chance of a winner throughout the week.’
Opening Day Delights?
On the opening day all eyes will be on the feature race, the Champion Hurdle, where Sam will ride The New One for his father Nigel Twiston-Davies. But before that he’s eyeing up a winner in the Ultima Handicap Chase (Tuesday, 2.50pm) to kick-off the Cheltenham Festival in style.
‘Paul Nicholls has a good few in the 3m handicap chase and the one I want to be on is SouthfieldTheatre. It was only a year ago he was chasing home Don Poli in the RSA Chase at the Festival, so to see him in a handicap running off a mark of 150 is plenty fair. The one thing is that he needs the ground to come up a little better so I’m hoping for plenty of dry weather. If the sun does come out he could be an eye-catching one in the first handicap of the meeting.’
In the Champion Hurdle (Tuesday, 3.30pm) Sam rides The New One, a horse many people argue would have won the 2013 running of this race had he not been hampered by the fall of Our Conor. The New One is viewed by Sam as the flag-bearer for the Twiston-Davies yard and so he would be delighted with a win, in a race that has been blown wide open with the loss of Faugheen and Artic Fire due to injury.
‘The New One is in great nick back at home, so this could be his chance and it would be great for everyone involved if he were to win a Champion Hurdle. It’s still not going to be an easy race as there are lots of solid horses to beat, while The New One definitely doesn’t have as much boot in him that he used to. We can’t get him any better anyway, he’s ready to go.’
‘It’s a winnable Champion Hurdle for six or seven horses but having to give Annie Power seven pounds is always going to be tough. She’s a mightily impressive mare and although she’s had her problems, she seems to bounce back in good form.’
A Bullet and a 50/1 Poke
Sam won Wednesday’s feature race, the Champion Chase (3.30pm), on Paul Nicholl’s Dodging Bullets last year and he’s confident that he can be in the mix again, despite the presence of Willie Mullins’ superstar Un De Sceaux.
‘Dodging Bullets schooled well in the week before the Festival and he jumped really nicely. He showed plenty of his old enthusiasm which was great to see. He’ll look a totally different horse at Cheltenham, he’ll be a lot tighter and a lot fitter, and hopefully a lot sharper. The better ground will suit him, and you should never be afraid of one horse. Un De Sceaux looks very good, but we go there as reigning Champion Chaser and we have our fingers crossed that we’ll finish in the mix.’
Before that renewal however is the RSA Chase (Wednesday, 2.10pm) and although he’s on an outsider, Sam feels Le Mercurey is far too big a price.
‘He gave a penalty to Vyta Du Roc last time out, jumped the last slowly, and the race didn’t pan out to suit him at all. But he’s a six year old who is constantly getting bigger and stronger with every race and better ground will go in his favour. He certainly isn’t the worst 50/1 shot you’ll see this week.’
We Could Fly in the Ryanair
In Thursday’s Ryanair Chase (2.50pm) Sam takes the ride of Vibrato Valtat who was fourth in the Arkle at last year’s Festival behind Un De Sceaux. With Willie Mullins’ Vatour likely to head for the Gold Cup, this looks like another great chance for Sam to notch up a Festival winner.
‘Vibrato Valtat has been running well in all the top class 2m races, and he’s a horse who will benefit a little bit more at 2m 4f. He’ll spend more time in the race in his comfort zone. He sees his races out well, travels and jumps strongly. We’ll ride him a bit more patiently then last year, let him jump, let him travel, keep the sail down, turn for home, light him up and let him go. He’s rated 161, has some real solid form and is a very good horse on his day so we’re hopeful.’
The feature race on St Patrick’s Day is the World Hurdle (3.30pm) and Sam has had a difficult call to make picking a mount to try to oppose the red-hot favourite Thistlecrack with.
‘I’ll be riding Saphir Du Rheu instead of Aux Ptits Soins in the World Hurdle. Aux Ptits Soins won a Coral Cup off a mark of 139 at last year’s Festival but comes into this year’s event without a prep run. If any trainer is going to get him there with a winnable chance it is going to be Paul Nicholls, so I could look very clever or very silly with my pick.’
‘My theory is Saphir Du Rheu has been there and done it before. He was a tidy second in this race last year and we’ll be a bit more forward this year. Cole Harden had a nice time of it last year, kicked off the last bend and we couldn’t peg him back. This year we’ll ride Saphir Du Rheu a lot closer. He’ll jump and travel and do the right thing, we just have to hope he can come back from a disappointing run last time out.’
‘Thistlecrack is rated 168, has beaten a lot of good horses in an impressive manner on the way to Cheltenham, and has looked very good all the way. But the Cheltenham Festival is a different kettle of fish. Thistlecrack has got some very strong form and will be the one to beat, but I’m happy to be on Saphir Du Rheu.’
It’s All Yours on Friday
In the ultra-competitive County Hurdle on Friday (2.10pm) Sam takes the ride on All Yours at 11/1, another Paul Nicholls horse he feels has all the right attributes to get into the mix and make up for some misfortune at last year’s Festival.
‘All Yours completed a very tidy racecourse gallop at Kempton recently and quickened up really nicely. They’ve left him good and fresh which he likes to be. He met all kinds of trouble in running in the Fred Winter at Cheltenham last year and did well to finish fifth after he probably should have been closer. He went on to Aintree then and won the Grade 1. He’s ’a good traveller and a good jumper but he likes to be ridden patiently, so he needs luck in-running, particularly in the County Hurdle. He probably wouldn’t be the best handicapped horse in the race, but he’s got a great chance.’
Despite it looking unlikely that Sam will get the chance to ride in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he still doesn’t fancy trying to pick a winner in a red-hot main event.
‘Smad Place took apart the Argento Chase last time out, traveled and jumped well, and did the same in the Hennessey Gold Cup in November. Don Cossack didn’t come off the bridle when winning the Jnwine Champion Chase at Doncaster in October so you have to be taken by what he’s done. Don Poli has beaten everything that’s been put in front of him without ever being particularly flashy, and then you watch the King George between Cue Card and Vatour and it takes your breath away. I can’t pick a winner, but I also can’t wait to watch it!’