Slad-based Gloucestershire trainer Tom George heads to Cheltenham next month with plenty in hand as he bids to improve on last season’s impressive haul of three Grade 1 victories. However, in the competitive cauldron that is Cheltenham in March, winning is never easy.
“In the yard, they call me Mr 50%,” laughs Tom, referring to his consistent record in delivering a win and place performance of over 50% in all races every year. It’s that sort of bell-weather performance record year in year out that has earned Down House a reputation among the top 10 yards in the UK.
Yet this is no betting yard. In a list of all betting offers for the Cheltenham Festival, Tom George rarely figures among the talking horses. His are a group of sporting owners rather than punters in the main.
Stayers Summerville Boy and The World’s End are both entered for the Stayers Hurdle, having been kept apart through the winter. Summerville Boy, twice a winner of a Grade 1 hurdle in the Tolworth and Supreme Novices in 2018, has been running over progressively longer distances since the outset of the season, and was only beaten 1 3/4 l by red hot favourite Paisley Park last month at Cheltenham. Whilst there is no reason to suggest a reversal of form is likely, Tom is prosaic, “Anything can happen; at Cheltenham, it doesn’t pay to run scared of one horse. Bad luck in running, or even interrupted training can all affect any horse. We stand as good a chance as any.” The World’s End is offered at odds of only 16/1 to win th Stayers Hurdle, race 4 on March 12th. However Summerville Boy looks a stronger selection at 8/1, but despite Tom being hopeful there’s no doubt that some greater effort will be needed in order for these horses to return champion of ther stayers division.
The World’s End has been a great ambassador for the yard, overlooking the village made famous by author Laurie Lee. A winner of 9 of his 21 starts, he is back hurdling after a season in Novice chases. He notched up the stable’s 11th Grade 1 scalp in Paisley Park’s absence in Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle before Christmas, and runs for ebullient owner Max McNeill. Tom reports, “He owes us nothing, trying his heart out every time. He’s an owner’s dream of a horse, and we’ll take our chance.”
Two other great servants of the yard add firepower to the team for Cheltenham’s championship races. Bun Doran came back to winning ways over Christmas when winning the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase – his first win since a valuable handicap at Cheltenham in November 2018. In a race seemingly dominated by the peerless Altior, he represents excellent value at 25-1 in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Another graded winner graduating to the larger obstacles is Black Op, who has been competing at the highest level for three years. Since beating Lost In Translation in Aintree’s Mersey Hurdle in April 2018, he’s been up against the toughest competition, beaten ion Novice chases by Defi du Seuil, then in the staying hurdle division by Paisley Park again. Following a wind operation, he’s been knocking ion the door in top novice chases at Newbury and Kempton. It can only be a matter of time before he wins again, and why shouldn’t it be at his home course?
Tom is no sentimental fool when it comes to his horses. In a stable limited to little more than 70, he regularly clears out handicappers that have peaked and horses running consistently below their best. A fresh set of novices is working their way up the ladder to supply the next string of graded winners, and a particular look out is for Enemy Coast Ahead in the Supreme Novices, the crowd pleaser that launches the Festival at 1.30 on Tuesday March 10.
Despite just two runs at the time of writing, the last a 4l runner-up in a Maiden Hurdle at Newbury in December, he’s no write-off for major honours.
Look out for Tom’s horses though in the 10 Festival handicaps. Last season, the yard ran 228 horses in handicaps, and 114 came home winners or in the frame.
And look out too for young Noel George, assistant trainer to his father and stable amateur rider. For a lad that cut his teeth in Point-to-Points around Barbury and Andoversford, where his mother Sophie is the Judge, he has a strike rate most amateurs would die for. There’s surely a ride in the Foxhunters with his name on it.