Nicky Richards has admitted that his relationship with Cheltenham, which many consider his sport's holy of holies, is ambivalent. It is, after all, a 500-mile round trip from his part of Cumbria to Gloucestershire, a long way to go just for the sake of it. The southbound M6 is definitely not one of the regular routes for the trainer's horseboxes.
His last winner there came more than two years ago, when Middleton Dene won a hurdle race in October 2007. The horses based at Greystoke, high above Penrith on the fringe of the Lake District, travel better north and east. In terms of numbers and percentages, Richards has an outstanding record at places like his local track Carlisle, Ayr, Kelso, Perth and over the Pennines at Catterick and Newcastle.
On Saturday, though, he is likely to send one of his most progressive chasers to Prestbury Park for a factfinding mission. Skippers Brig, a comfortable winner at Ayr last week, will face the toughest task of his upwardly-mobile career against a full field of battle-hardened rivals in the Boylesports.com Gold Cup.
The eight-year-old has tested the water at Cheltenham before, when outclassed behind Wichita Lineman in the long-distance novices hurdle at the 2007 Festival. But chasing was always going to be the gelding's game, as he has proved since with four wins from six outings on the northern circuit. Now it's time to head south again.
"He took his latest race very well, has never left a scrap of food since he ran," said Richards yesterday, "and I'm more than tempted to let him take his chance on Saturday as he's so fresh.
"I do think he's a very talented horse. Every jockey that's ever ridden him has always thought the world of him, but some mornings you see him on the gallops and think he's a big old slow devil, then you just give him a squeeze and he's suddenly working pretty impressive. "
The caveat for Saturday is the ground; Skippers Brig, who carries the colours of long-time Greystoke patron David Stevenson's Ashleybank Investments, revels in soft going and every drop of rain that falls this week will aid his cause. "The heavier the ground, the better for him," added Richards.
Skippers Brig, an ante-post 14-1 chance for the £150,000 two-and-a-half miler, will carry no more than 10st 11lb, for though the participation of one of the joint top-weights, Saturday's Warwick winner Our Vic, has yet to be decided the other, Gwanako, was confirmed yesterday as a starter. Gwanako, last seen unseating Christian Williams at Ascot last month, is the longest-priced of the three in the race from the Paul Nicholls stable. The other two, Poquelin and Chapoturgeon, second and a faller in last month's Paddy Power Gold Cup over the same course and distance, are challenging Atouchbetweenacara, trained by Tim Vaughan, for favouritism.
The Champion Hurdle is one of the few top-level blanks on Nicholls' CV and the champion trainer has never come closer to filling it than with Celestial Halo in March. The five-year-old was just pipped by Punjabi in a three-way photo and is favourite to take his revenge when the pair meet again on Saturday in the Boylesports International Hurdle.
This time Celestial Halo has race-fitness on his side; he warmed up with an impressive return to action at Wincanton last month, while Punjabi's trainer Nicky Henderson has already indicated that his charge will improve for the outing.
One of the Flat season's outstanding tees was crossed yesterday with the formal retrospective disqualification of Celebration Mile winner Delegator, robbing him and his Godolphin stable of a valuable Group 2 victory and reducing the blues' worldwide wins total for the year to 202. A prohibited substance was found in a routine sample taken from the three-year-old after the race at Goodwood in August and although no sinister motive was ascribed, his losing the race and runner-up Zacinto's promotion were inevitable.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Hector's House (2.20 Sedgefield) No world-beater but ran a well-regarded rival to a length in a better race two weeks ago.
Rebeccas Choice (12.50 Sedgefield) Too keen on his seasonal comeback but is on a handy mark if one of the most experienced of the young riders in today's field can keep him settled.
One to watch
Quartz de Thaix (V Williams), who showed himself a progressive novice chaser on Saturday, is one to keep on side in handicap company.
*Where the money's going
Planet of Sound, second at Ascot last month, is down to 8-1 from 14-1 for the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival with Stan James.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
Ballybach (2.40 Fontwell).