Cheltenham Festival 2015: The Coneygree conundrum

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Coneygree sprinting away to win at Newbury
Coneygree is about 12-1 for the Gold Cup. and 5-1 for the RSA Chase
Cheltenham Festival 2015
Dates: 10-13 March. Big races: Tue - Champion Hurdle, Wed - Champion Chase, Thur - World Hurdle, Fri - Gold Cup. Coverage: Every race on BBC Radio 5 live or 5 Live Sports extra.

Tradition has it that the Grand National at Aintree has something of a monopoly on racing fairytales.

True, in the modern era, the winning stories of Aldaniti and Bob Champion, Corbiere and Jenny Pitman and Don't Push It, ridden by AP McCoy, became some of sport's, let alone racing's, great headline-grabbers.

Yet a month earlier, national hunt's principal Festival at Cheltenham hasn't done so badly itself.

Think Norton's Coin and his emergence from rural west Wales at odds of 100-1 to win the Gold Cup of 1990; think of Danoli and his trainer Tom Foley established as Irish national heroes after the 1994 Sun Alliance Hurdle; or think the noughties' showdowns between Gold Cup rivals, and stablemates, Kauto Star and Denman.

And at the 2015 Festival we should perhaps be prepared for another chapter dripping with romance to be added to Cheltenham's rich history.

The horse in question is Coneygree, a brilliant but crazy, front-running eight-year-old, unbeaten in all of his three steeplechase starts, and said to growl when wishing to make a point.

Bred by the late, much-loved journalist (Lord) John Oaksey from his cheaply-bought mare, Plaid Maid, the horse is part of the small-time training operation run by Oaksey's daughter Sara Bradstock and her husband Mark near Wantage, Oxfordshire.

Latest Cheltenham Gold Cup odds
3-1 Silviniaco Conti; 8-1 Many Clouds; 9-1 Road To Riches; 10-1 Djakadam, Carlingford Lough, Holywell; 12-1 Coneygree, Lord Windermere; 14-1 Bar (Sponsors Betfred).

It only adds to the sense of romance that Coneygree's older half-brother Carruthers, the 2011 Hennessy Gold Cup winner, and younger sibling Flintham are also being prepared for Festival races.

But while the targets for Carruthers (Glenfarclas Handicap Chase) and Flintham (Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle) have been determined, the Bradstocks have a dilemma over their star turn.

Should the sometimes-fragile gelding stick to racing against rivals of his own level of experience and contest the RSA Chase for novices, or attempt to become the first novice since Captain Christy (1974) to win a Gold Cup.

"The score is that if the ground is genuinely good to soft or soft, yes we're going to be tempted by the Gold Cup because he's eight, and not a youngster," said Sara.

"Touching wood, he is a very good jumper. He's only had three runs [in steeplechases], but looks like he knows what he's doing, and he's not won over fences here [at Cheltenham] but has won twice over hurdles.

Coneygree ridden by Richard Johnson
Coneygree is 12-1 for the Gold Cup and 5-1 for the RSA Chase

"You'd feel a little bit silly if he won the RSA by the same sort of [wide-margin] distance he's been winning by this season, and next year he was lame before the Gold Cup.

"We won't be rushed into anything because, obviously, it's important to make the right decision."

Coneygree has landed his races this season, at Newbury twice and at Kempton, by an imperious total of 48-and-a-half lengths, 40 of which came under regular jockey Nico de Boinville in the supposedly hard-to-win Feltham Novices Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

The second Newbury success was achieved in a record time in the Denman Chase, a significant Gold Cup dress rehearsal, although because of the announcement of AP McCoy's retirement on the same day, it went somewhat unheralded.

What has not gone unnoticed, however, is what a remarkable job all concerned have done to get the bay-coloured horse with "long spidery legs" to this kind of stage at all.

The words 'crazy' and 'lack of self-preservation' are regularly banded about by Sara who, with champion showjumper son Alfie, usually takes on the riding duties on the gallops.

Already, Coneygree's had to bounce back from two serious injuries to the same hind leg, and on his first planned run of this season, the vets at Plumpton weren't satisfied with his condition, and barred him from lining up.

Coneygree facts
Age: 8 (Foaled 23 February 2007)Trainer: Mark Bradstock
Sex: Bay GeldingOwner: The Max Partnership
Breeding: Karinga Bay - Plaid Maid (Executive Perk)Dam: Plaid Maid

"He's a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde: he can be a sweet, calm horse, but he wants to get on with life and he bites everybody, and he means business," said Sara.

"Coming home from the gallops, he'll be walking one moment and then leaping, off all four feet, 10 foot in the air, and just turning somersaults, just with the joy of life I suppose.

"One injury was because he was being an absolute idiot like that.

"Me or Alfie are both ready for him. He gathers up under you, and he makes a noise like a dog growling, and that means some built-up frustration is coming, and he may be about to start to throw himself sideways."

On the racecourse however, Coneygree operates in a highly-effective, almost ruthless style.

Whatever some say - and many have offered opinions - the choice of race to be made by the Bradstocks and members of The Max Partnership, the horse's owners, will need maximum effort.

On the one hand, he has shown a telling degree of superiority against the type of rival he's set to meet in the RSA Chase; on the other, although the Gold Cup is clearly a big jump up, take out favourite Silviniaco Conti, and it's definitely on the open side.

Personally, I'd go down the novices' route, but that took me long enough to come up with, and I don't own or train the horse, so good luck with the head scratching to those that do.


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