Kim Bailey believes Imperial Aura goes into the Ryanair Chase at The Festival™ supporting WellChild this month “with a very strong chance” as he bids to add to his glittering CV.
Bailey is part of a select group of trainers to have trained the winner of each of the Unibet Champion Hurdle, the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Randox Grand National and in Imperial Aura he has the current 6-1 joint second favourite for the Grade One contest.
The eight year old was a deeply impressive winner of the novices’ handicap chase at last year’s Festival and although he unseated David Bass when last seen in the Grade Two Siviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton Park in February, Bailey is confident that it will not leave a lasting effect on his charge.
He said: “We’ve done extensive schooling with him and he didn’t fall at Kempton – it’s the one thing I get rather bored of people saying – he unseated David and the horse is a good jumper.
“Something took his eye off the fence - I’m convinced that’s what happened and I’m very thankful it happened there and not at Cheltenham. He has worked well this morning and I’m delighted with how he’s progressing.
“We didn’t go to Ascot (for the Ascot Chase) the other day and we’re hopefully going to Cheltenham with a fresh horse. It’s a very competitive race, as they all are, but we go there with a very strong chance.”
Bailey has a small but select squad prepared for this year’s Festival and another of his leading hopes is First Flow, who is currently a 12-1 chance for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
The nine year old has won each of his last six starts and is in fine heart this season, recording a career best effort to defeat last year’s Champion Chase winner Politologue by seven lengths in the Grade One Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January.
Although Bailey stresses that soft ground is not a must, he does admit it would help his gelding’s cause. He said: “When I made the entry it was a little bit of a fairy-tale entry really, but what he achieved at Ascot was phenomenal and as good a race as I’ve ever watched in my life.
“It was the way he did it on ground we weren’t necessarily expecting him to be that good on, and it launched us very quickly into the fact that we’re going to have to go for the Champion Chase, whether we like it or not.”
The current favourite for the race is the Willie Mullins-trained Chacun Pour Soi, and Bailey added that he felt it was fitting to have a leading contender for the Champion Chase alongside another trainer who was searching for their first win in the race.
He said: “Both Willie Mullins and myself are vying for that race we want to win, and let’s hope one of us has the opportunity to do so.
“I would love to win it. I’ve never had a fancy runner – I think I’ve only had one in the race before – and it would be a huge thrill. I always love the race and love watching it, so what greater moment would there be than having a horse that goes past the post in front in a race like that.”
Also in Bailey’s squad for the Festival is Vinndication, who holds entries in both the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle and the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.
And he stated that he would wait until next week before making any final decisions about the eight year old, who unseated his rider on his most recent outing in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November.
He said: “I am sitting on the fence at the present time with Vinndication, we’ve got another few days to make a decision, but he’s been schooled over fences and hurdles and I really want to see where I am. My biggest problem with him is that he unseated the last time he ran at Newbury and it’s a bold shout to go straight to Cheltenham back over fences.
“It’ll be the end of next week when we make the call. I have the final say. I just want to see how the race pans out and where we are, and I’m not going to make a final decision until closer to the time.”
The going at Cheltenham will likely influence several key decisions at The Festival™ supporting WellChild, and the clerk of the course at Cheltenham, Simon Claisse, predicted that we would likely see “good to soft” conditions on the week of the meeting.
He said: “We really have had unprecedented rainfall over the winter, particularly that Christmas period which sadly saw us lose the New Year’s Day meeting and again at the end of the month when the course was flooded three times across less than 25 days – something I haven’t seen here in 20 years.
“Things are improving and the track is looking in great nick. I had a good walk round there yesterday with Ben, the head groundsman, and he and the staff have got all three courses now set up which is where we like to be with a fortnight before racing.
“The Old Course – which we use on Tuesday and Wednesday – and the Cross Country Course are currently good to soft, soft in places and the New Course is also good to soft, soft in places. This is where we’d like to be around 13-14 days before we start racing.
“The ground we use at the Festival is preserved behind rails between October to December, so basically no horses have set foot on it for 12 months.
“As things currently stand, I have a good stance that we’re going to start with good to soft and something in places – whether it’s good in places or soft in places - with the normal caveat based on the current forecast.”