The Wantage trainer saddled stable star Saint Calvados to land the feature event on day one of the season at Prestbury Park 12 months ago, and Rouge Vif lines up with similarly strong claims on Friday.
The six-year-old kept good company as a novice over fences last season, enjoying big-race success in the Kingmaker at Warwick in February before finishing third in the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival on his most recent outing.
Rouge Vif was last seen running in the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival
Whittington said: “Rouge Vif has done very well during the summer. He’s only a six-year-old, so he was entitled to improve physically, and I think he has – he’s in really fantastic shape.
“I think he’s going into the race in great form. He’s rated 156 – so he has plenty of weight, and there are one or two unexposed horses in there, so it will take a very good performance to win.
“But I don’t think I could have him in better form, and we’re very much looking forward to running him.”
Rouge Vif is one of 13 runners declared for the £48,000 contest, with the weights headed by the Paul Nicholls-trained Dolos.
On The Slopes rounded off last season with successive wins at Kempton – and trainer Chris Gordon is looking forward to seeing him return to action in the Cotswolds, ground permitting.
He said: “I’m going to walk the track on Friday morning and just make sure the ground is on the easy side of good. If the ground isn’t suitable, we’ll wait for the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter.
“He seems very well at home. What I would say is he’s a horse who looks like a three-mile chaser at home, but on the track we’ve had to keep going back in trip – and I can’t really believe he’s ended up running over two miles.
“He’s a very different horse on the racetrack to what he is at home – it’s like he gets to the racecourse, spins round in a phone box and puts his ‘superhorse’ outfit on!
“Fingers crossed he runs a good race.”
Other contenders include Neil Mulholland’s Scardura, Dan Skelton’s pair of Hatcher and Azzuri and the Gary Moore-trained Beat The Judge.
Proceedings get under way with the Ballymore Novices Hurdle, for which Ask For Glory is likely to be the hot favourite – representing the formidable combination of Nicholls and Harry Cobden.
Solider Of Love bids for a fifth successive win for the same team in the Matchbook Better Way To Bet Novices’ Chase, but he is unlikely to have things all his own way, with two Irish raiders in the Charles Byrnes-trained Doctor Duffy and Gordon Elliott’s Galvin in opposition.
Mossy Fen, who was last seen finishing fifth behind Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival, makes his chasing debut in the same race for Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies.
Mossy Fen was not disgraced behind Envoi Allen at the Cheltenham Festival
Part owner Carl Hinchy said: “Mossy Fen is in fine form. He’s a point-to-point winner and he has schooled very well.
“We are excited about getting his season under way.”
Fergal O’Brien’s Ask Dillon and Ruth Jefferson’s mare Clondaw Caitlin complete a six-strong field.
Nicky Henderson’s pair of Fix Sun and Hijack and Dr Richard Newland’s Captain Tom Cat are among those worth considering in a fiercely competitive squareintheair.com Handicap Hurdle.
The Two Farmers Crisps Novices’ Chase sees Henderson’s Fusil Raffles lock horns with Nicholls’ Getaway Trump, while the card comes to a close with the Back And Lay At Matchbook Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
Racing returns to Cheltenham on Friday for the first time since the Festival meeting in March.
Exactly 32 weeks since an official crowd of 68,859 witnessed the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo successfully defend his crown in the Gold Cup, the scene at Prestbury Park will be altogether different.
The coronavirus pandemic was still very much in its infancy when the Festival began on March 10. Extra hygiene measures – including banks of hand sanitiser dispensers – were installed, and 251,684 people attended across the four days, although many of those were repeat visitors.
It was clear by midweek a change of approach from Government was imminent – and while the Festival did go ahead in its entirety, within a matter of days the sport was shut down completely until racing resumed behind closed doors on June 1.
Cheltenham received plenty of criticism in the weeks that followed the Festival, with images of the packed grandstands in the Cotswolds beamed around the world amid a steep rise in positive cases and deaths.
While a couple of crowd pilot events elsewhere in recent months raised brief hope that racegoers would be able to return to Cheltenham by the time this weekend’s Showcase Meeting came around, restrictions are being tightened once more – and just some owners and essential workers will be in attendance.
Simon Claisse, regional head of racing and clerk of the course, points out that all the way through the Festival, Cheltenham followed advice from the Government.
“Whenever the Festival was brought up in the early stages of the pandemic we just had to remind ourselves that we followed the Government’s advice the whole way through. That was all that we could do,” said Claisse.
“We’ve been very busy since March – of course we’ve been able to familiarise ourselves with the protocols needed for racing behind closed doors at other courses.
“We’ve been working with the BHA for the last two months to make sure we are set up appropriately to maintain social distancing and making sure people can do it here.
“Until you’ve been racing on a day with no crowd, it is hard to envisage it, but we’re looking forward to welcoming some owners. We’re not sure how many, because the team are still working on that, but we’re eager to get going again – it’s been a long seven months.”
For Claisse, the condition of the track now becomes his priority with racing set to return.
He said: “We couldn’t be happier with where the ground is. Good, good to soft in places is where we are – with little bits of rain around.
“To be starting on the slow side of good for the first meeting (of the season) is just where you’d want to be.”
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