Chelthenham preview: Cork favourite Gavin Sheehan has Festival firepower

Chelthenham preview: Cork favourite Gavin Sheehan has Festival firepower
Simply The Betts and Gavin Sheehan winning The Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase. Picture: Healy Racing

TO say that Gavin Sheehan has a number of chances at the Cheltenham Festival would be an understatement.

The Corkman, already a Festival-winning jockey courtesy of his triumph aboard Cole Harden in the 2015 Stayers’ Hurdle, holds an enviable book of rides for this year’s four-day extravaganza.

Winning at Cheltenham is hard; it’s arguably the most difficult of racecourses at which to get a winner.

But Sheehan looks to have the ammunition to add to his Festival tally this season. At the moment, he’d be more than happy to bag one victory, across the meeting.

But, if things go his way, there could be another. Maybe even another.

The former champion conditional is set to partner horses such as Scilly Isles Chase winner, Itchy Feet, in the Marsh Novices’ Chase, Kingmaker scorer, Rouge Vif, in the Arkle, Rendlesham Hurdle victor, Emitom, in the Stayers’ Hurdle, the ever-improving Simply The Betts, in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, and Saint Calvados, a runner with plenty of course form to his name, in the Ryanair Chase.

Assessing his chances of gaining a Festival winner next week, the Dunmanway rider said: "The ones in the top bracket would be Rouge Vif, Simply The Betts and Itchy Feet.

“I went around Huntingdon on Itchy Feet on Monday and jumped a few fences. I’m very happy with him and I think he’s probably improved again.

“Saint Calvados has been running well this year over two and a half miles but he needs to step up again. You need to find extra when you go to Cheltenham. Emitom, I think, would be the horse to run down (the Stayers’ Hurdle favourite) Paisley Park.

“But he needs to jump better. He’s coming into it a fresh horse, that’s the good thing about him. I am looking forward to it. The only problem is that Cheltenham is such a tough place, you can’t get too excited.

“But, realistically, I’ve got good chances. If everything worked out, we could be after a good week. It’s such a hard place to get winners. But I’ve the right sort of horses to get me winners, hopefully."

The prestige of the Festival brings with it an increased sense of expectation and all-round razzmatazz.

Is this a hindrance? Or, does Sheehan thrive on it?

‘‘I would (thrive on it) yeah. I wouldn’t feel too much pressure. There is pressure there, but I wouldn’t let anything get to me. I treat it like another day.

“But, obviously, the whole day itself; you can’t treat it like another day. It’s still going to be in the back of your head to get pumped about it. But I love the whole thing.

“You have to up your game a small bit. I love all that."

Itchy Feet and Gavin Sheehan (right) win from Vision Des Flos and Jonjo O’Neill Jr. Picture: Healy Racing.
Itchy Feet and Gavin Sheehan (right) win from Vision Des Flos and Jonjo O’Neill Jr. Picture: Healy Racing.

Most of Sheehan’s big-race winners this term have carried the colours of Kate and Andrew Brooks.

It’s an association that started through his ride aboard their Arkle hope, Rouge Vif.

"They got on to me about two years ago. I rode Rouge Vif in a bumper and won. That was like my trial in a sense. But I was home in Cork and Andrew Brooks gave me a phone call.

“He asked me if I would be interested in being his (retained) jockey.

“But I still wanted to ride for plenty of other owners, such as the lady who owns Emitom (Vicky Reeve). He totally understood it from day one and we get on great.

“He’s got my 110% backing, and he’s a real confidence booster, which is brilliant. This year, I know that he was keen on getting a grade one winner. Itchy Feet came out and did it at Sandown.

“It was massive for Andrew. He is buzzing about Cheltenham. He has got his own scarf which says; ‘Go On Sheehan!’

“He’s put a lot of money into the game and it’s great to see him reap the rewards.

“I try speaking to him at least once a week, he’s a busy man, but he’s very good on the WhatsApp.

“I’ll send him a message, telling him how his horses are or how they have schooled.’’

With the backing of the Brooks’, along with the support of trainers such as Warren Greatrex, Olly Murphy, Jamie Snowden, Paul Webber and Harry Whittington, Sheehan is on course to break his highest tally for a National Hunt season.

With 67 winners, at the time of writing, the 27 year old is moving ever closer to his previous best of 73.

Having had a strong start to the season, he built on that early momentum and has ridden winners aplenty.

‘‘Jamie Snowden was the main man who started everything off, through the summer. For me, his horses were flying. I thought they might have dipped down a small bit, but they kept on upping the ante.

“Harry Whittington and a few other trainers then just came in and it was great to ride a lot of winners for all of them.

“It kept on going. The last couple of Saturdays, I’ve had a grade one winner, and then the next weekend I had a grade two winner, the weekend after I had a grade two winner again.

“It’s nice. I’m riding bigger winners and better horses as well. It’s all good."

With the book of mounts he holds at the Festival next week, it could be about to get even better.

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