Time for Rupert can prove to be Cheltenham Gold Cup contender

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Time for Rupert
Time for Rupert should be a contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup

More bets went down when Time For Rupert was beaten at the Cheltenham Festival than on any other loser at the 2011 fixture, but trainer Paul Webber believes the money is only lent.

After initial bafflement at the RSA Chase defeat, a first over steeplechase fences for that day's 7-4 favourite, a small but significant lung problem was detected.

Now Webber believes 'Rupert' is back to his very best and will demonstrate in Wetherby's Bet365 Charlie Hall Chase that he is a genuine Cheltenham Gold Cup contender.

"An ultrasound test found a little, wrinkled patch in the wall of his lung," said the trainer. "Just the same as you'd find if you looked at the lungs of a smoker.

"It was probably the residue of an infection that stopped him running at Cheltenham in January, so finishing fifth in the RSA, not beaten far, with his lungs not 100%, was a great effort."

After treatment in a specialist oxygen chamber at Ireland's Coolmore Stud and a lengthy rest, the chestnut-coloured gelding looks a picture of health again at Webber's HQ near Banbury.

However, near-drought conditions in north Oxfordshire have meant limited work-outs on the home gallops, and a series of away days to give regular jockey Will Kennedy the chance to put him through his paces on more suitable ground.

The easy-going, seven-year-old son of the increasingly-successful stallion Flemensfirth has taken the busy schedule in his impressive stride.

"If he was a human, he'd be Jonny Wilkinson at his prime," said Webber who has 58 jumpers under his care. "He's cool, calm and professional and is everybody's mate.

"Will rode 'Rupert' the other day, and he turned into the straight and seemed almost to shout up 'come on'; he loves competition and has a great will to win, and that's why he relishes the hill at Cheltenham so much."

In fact, all of Time For Rupert's recent races have been at the iconic home of national hunt racing, with its tricky contours, and those six races have produced three wins and two seconds, as well as the fifth place.

Although one of the favourites for the Charlie Hall Chase, it has to be said that the three-mile, one-furlong distance on the flat West Yorkshire track will not necessarily play to the horse's strengths.

And this year's running of, traditionally, the first prestige prize of the 'core' jumps season, has a vintage look to it, with 2010 winner Nacarat and another Gold Cup pretender, Diamond Harry, also in the line-up.

But that doesn't worry Paul Webber and his team at Cropredy Lawn stables.

He said: "This represents a step into the big, big league for all of us, for the owners, for Will, for everyone, but we know he's up to it.

"Of course, we're terrified of all of the others, but equally we can't wait to take them on."