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HORSE RACING: Webber's chasing a Festival first
PAUL Webber reels off the names of his string as they limber up in the indoor school at his Mollington stables, near Banbury.
Having flexed their muscles, the second lot of 13 horses are led up the gallops by Alasi, who tomorrow will line up at the Cheltenham Festival for a fourth time.
Together with Cantlow, she is one of two genuine contenders Webber will field at jump racing’s showpiece fixture in his quest for a first Festival success.
Alasi’s target is again the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle in which Irish superstar Quevega will bid for a remarkable fifth successive win.
But Webber’s charge has been narrowing the gap to Willie Mullins’s wonder mare each year, and the master of Cropredy Lawn is not without hope that she can turn the tables.
After finishing eighth in her first crack at the race, the nine-year-old has taken fourth spot in the last two years.
As Alasi canters up the steady incline in the hands of Nettie Cowley, Webber drives his Land Rover alongside.
“She is getting closer and closer,” he says. “She has been beaten 16 lengths, eight lengths and four lengths, which according to my mathematical education means it should be quite close this time.”
And Alasi goes to the Festival on the back of a notable success, having claimed the scalp of Champion Court over fences at Kempton last month.
“She won well at Kempton, beating Champion Court off a steady pace. They said it didn’t suit Champion Court and it was a duff result,” reflects Webber.
“That is fine, but she did him for speed after the last.”
Alasi could be joined in her Cheltenham quest by Lady Kathleen as Webber feels she may benefit from a pacemaker.
Back in the yard, the focus of attention switches to Cantlow, who is likely to run in the Byrne Group Plate on Thursday.
The eight-year-old finished third to Cape Tribulation in the Pertemps Final at the meeting last year.
But with his then owners, Ron and Vee Shaw, living in Ireland and finding it increasingly difficult to go racing, they sold Cantlow to JP McManus to stay in the yard.
“When those colours arrive in the post it is like Christmas,” says Webber, reflecting on having the champion owner on board.
And Cantlow has done his new connections proud, winning twice over fences this term, including a victory at Plumpton to set up the chance of a £60,000 bonus if he scores at the Festival.
“It was the right race at the time and as it turned out he beat Oscara Dara, who won the Lanzarote Hurdle,” says Webber. “It was not the plan to win a bonus, but now it is.
“The cons are that he is still only a novice, but the pros are that he has done what he has done on heavy ground.
“He would prefer much better ground. AP (McCoy) has done a great job bringing him forward. His jumping was pretty good at Taunton on diabolical heavy ground.”
With Webber having experienced several near-misses at the Festival with the likes of Time For Rupert, Pressgang and De Soto, he’s hoping to break his duck.
“We have had two Royal Ascot winners and not had a Cheltenham Festival winner yet, which is the wrong way round for primarily a jumps yard,” he says.
“I keep telling my Flat race trainer friends that it is easier to train Royal Ascot winners, so I would like to put an end to that stupid remark!”