Russell Wilman, who saddled his first winner just eight months ago, has some windmill-tilting lined up for Kempton on Saturday. Ground permitting, he will be taking on a clutch of 2,000 Guineas entries from the major yards in the Easter Stakes with Elheba, a gelding bought out of a seller last month for 8,000 guineas as a prospective juvenile hurdles prospect.
On the face of it, Quixote might be the rookie trainer's middle name, as Eleheba is rated more than two stone inferior to Redback, the best horse in the Listed mile contest that is the domestic season's earliest Classic trial. But there is more method involved here than the good Don's madness. Since joining Wilman, whose string of 22 are split between a barn at Southwell racecourse and Melton Spinney Farm in Leicestershire, early in February, Elheba's record is three from three and on his latest run 12 days ago impressed against his elders in a handicap at Wolverhampton.
The reason for his improvement will be appreciated by anyone who has suffered from similar debilitating effects. "When he came to me," said Wilman, "he had a bad back, simple as that. I treat my horses myself and when I first put my hands on on him he nearly hit the floor, he was that uncomfortable. He was muscularly sore all along his back, particularly in the sacroiliac and lumbar regions, and spent a week having ultrasound."
Nature did not really design horses to carry man and most suffer problems in their backs at one time or another. Elheba clearly appreciates his being a pain-free zone and his progress is a matter of some satisfaction to his owner-trainer, for whom the physiological side of training equine athletes is the main attraction.
Wilman, 45, who formerly managed a coach company in Cambridge and ran a pub in Wales, came to racing via farming and pointing and worked variously for Libby Heath, John Jenkins, Jim Old, Michael Chapman and Kevin Morgan. "Elheba is a big, scopey horse, about 16.2 hands, and when I bought him I thought he'd make a nice hurdler for the autumn," he said.
"I know there is a gulf between what he's done and a Listed race, and I put him in just to have a look. The proviso is that he must have soft ground. The forecast is fine but if the rain did come I wouldn't be overawed, in fact I'd relish having a go.
"The horse he beat last time out, Champagne Rider, came out and nearly won the Spring Mile at Doncaster. I was going to give Elheba some time off, as I don't want to over-race a tough, genuine horse who is still developing. But he is so full of himself, bucking and squealing, that he could do with a run. He is a very happy horse at the moment and we're a long way from the bottom of him yet."
Five Easter Stakes entries – Redback, winner of the Solario Stakes and third in the Racing Post Trophy last term, his Richard Hannon stablemate Nysaean, Halawellfin Hala (Clive Brittain), Anna Walhaan (Mick Channon) and unbeaten Legal Approach (Mark Johnston) – all hold an entry in the 2,000 Guineas, but the race has proved an unreliable Classic trial. It is 10 years since a winner, Lucky Lindy, was subsequently even placed at Newmarket.
But if the Flat battalions at home are as yet only skirmishing, the jumping brigades are still heading for the cannon's mouth, with two Grand Nationals in the next 10 days. Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Commanche Court has been installed 11-2 favourite for the Irish version at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday, a race the nine-year-old won two years ago as a novice. His participation will depend on underfoot conditions – he eschews a bog – and trainer Ted Walsh will inspect the track tomorrow.
Sir Robert Ogden, going for his fourth owners' title in six years, is set to run all three of his entries in the real thing at Aintree a week on Saturday: Gold Cup fourth and topweight Marlborough, Ad Hoc, who is second favourite to Blowing Wind, and Kingsmark.Reuse content