This year, Johnson may go to Gloucestershire with a chance in up to half a dozen of the meeting's 20 races, most notably the two novice hurdles and the Arkle Trophy, a race he has won for the last two seasons, with Champleve and Or Royal. Johnson said yesterday that Gris D'Estruval, an easy winner at Newbury on Saturday, will be this year's contender for the two-mile novice chasers' championship, a race for which he is 10-1. "He's come out of the race in fine form, I couldn't have been more pleased with him and the Arkle is the logical choice," Johnson said.
Johnson had a good afternoon at Newbury, with Rash Remark winning a novice hurdle over two miles and five furlongs. Though his trainer hinted Cheltenham might come a little soon for him, Johnson said yesterday that he will now head for the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle over the same trip on Wednesday week.
"He seems a natural as he jumps so well," the owner said. "I was very pleased with him at Newbury and as long as it stays on the soft side he will go. He won by a distance at Haydock on his first outing for us the Saturday before, and yesterday he gave weight to some decent novices and beat them easily."
While Johnson and almost everyone else cannot wait for the drama to begin, it has sometimes seemed as if Mary Reveley would rather avoid the whole business. Though her string is one of the biggest in the country, she never sends many to the Festival and has never saddled a winner there.
But if there is still a gap in the trophy cabinet in a fortnight's time, for once it will not be for want of trying. Seven of her string could be running next week, which by her standards is a horde. Peter Niven will ride Wynyard Knight (Arkle), Brother Of Iris (Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Chase) and Marello (Stayers' Hurdle), while Alan Dempsey, the country's leading amateur rider, will be on Robbo in the Coral Cup and, if the ground is suitable, Cab On Target in the Kim Muir. Once More For Luck and Buddy Marvel are possible runners in the County Hurdle, with riding plans yet to be decided.
"Alan is a very good jockey," Mrs Reveley said yesterday, "but Peter is riding as well as ever and is not getting edged out as some say; there will always be rides for him here."
Of her festival runners, Reveley said Brother Of Iris "will jump round and is not a no-hoper," while Marello "is very good when she is right and seems in good form."
The field for the Gold Cup on Thursday week was reduced by one yesterday when Earthmover was re-routed to the National Hunt Handicap Chase, on the opening day, by Paul Nicholls, his trainer. Ruby Walsh will be Nicholls' preferred rider in the absence of the suspended Timmy Murphy. Escartefigue, though, remains on course for the Gold Cup, after David Nicholson, his trainer, dismissed suggestions over the weekend that he had suffered a setback.
Looking beyond Cheltenham to Aintree, Lord Gyllene, the 1997 Grand National winner, is struggling to recover from a pulled muscle in time to attempt a repeat successs. "He is still very sore and he is not coming along as well as we would like," Steve Brookshaw, his trainer, said yesterday. "We are doing some more tests so we should know more this week."
n Jamie Osborne will partner Ask Tom in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
n Tomorrow's hunter chase meeting at Leicester has been abandoned because of waterlogging.Reuse content