Jockey Tom Scudamore is confident Grands Crus is the “best horse in the race” as he bids to maintain his unbeaten record over fences in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham.
This time last year trainer David Pipe was preparing the dashing grey for a crack at the brilliant Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle.
While he ultimately came up slightly short, he gave the legendary stayer more to think about than most horses have done over the past few years and he has made an excellent start to his chasing career.
Following victories at Cheltenham and Newbury, the seven-year-old completed his hat-trick with an awesome performance in the Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton, leaving connections seriously considering a crack at Kauto Star and Long Run in Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Indeed, it was only on Monday that Grands Crus was ruled out of the blue riband and his rider feels it was the correct decision to keep the gelding against novices.
“David obviously asked me a couple of times what I thought, but ultimately it was David’s decision,” said Scudamore.
“There were all sorts of factors involved, but I’m fully behind the decision David has made and it’s the right decision for the horse.”
Given Grands Crus is considered one of the bankers of the week, Scudamore could be forgiven for feeling the nerves, but instead he is relishing the task and feels privileged to be in such a position.
“I’m not really feeling nervous, it’s more excitement than anything,” he continued.
“I’ve got rides beforehand and you’ve got to concentrate on those first, but obviously you look forward to riding a horse like Grands Crus – it’s a great ride to have.
“I wouldn’t swap him for any other horse all week, but I’m lucky enough to have some other good rides and I’m not just going there for him.
“I’ve got three rides on Tuesday first. They are all big prices and have a bit to find, but by the time you get down to the start, you’re convinced they’re going to win!”
There was a late scare for the French-bred star as Pipe revealed his pride and joy had suffered a schooling fall last week.
While a similar incident earlier this month threatened Kauto Star’s Gold Cup participation, Grands Crus was none the worse.
“You have you heart in your mouth a bit when something like that happens, but fortunately he was caught quickly and no damage was done,” Scudamore added.
“It was just one of things and just a hiccup. He’s schooled again since and we were all pleased with him, so it’s all systems go.
“He seems well and we just hope he’s in the same sort of form he was in at Kempton.
“I’d have no worries about the ground. It was very heavy when I won on him round Haydock over hurdles and was soft when I won the Cleeve (Hurdle) on him at Cheltenham.
“This season he has been running on better ground and it certainly hasn’t hindered him.
“I admire all the other horses and we won’t be thinking it’s easy, but on what he’s shown so far Grands Crus is the one they’re out to get.
“On what he’s shown this season he’s the best horse in the race and if he continues that way, he’s going to take an awful lot of beating.”
Pipe himself admits he would have liked to get one more run into Grands Crus in preparation for Cheltenham, but an intended appearance at Newbury last month was scuppered by the weather.
“I wanted to give him another run at Newbury but it was the only race that wasn’t put on again, but he’s got enough experience with three runs,” said the Pond House trainer.
“I wanted to get the runs in early as you never know what might happen with the weather.
“He’s made one mistake in three runs, but has jumped very well, he’s jumped round Kempton and Newbury.
“It has maybe taken him a couple of races to come to himself this season and I thought it was the real Grands Crus at Kempton.
“He was always very quick over his hurdles and is the same over fences.
“He showed how good he is when he was second to Big Buck’s over hurdles. He nearly pulled it off, but Big Buck’s had something to say about it.
“He was always going to be an exciting horse and it’s just been a matter of keeping him fit and well.
“He’s done nothing wrong this season, and nothing much wrong in his life.”
First Lieutenant is a previous Festival winner having beaten a top-class field including Rock On Ruby, So Young and Oscars Well in last season’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle.
Although he has won twice over fences, his chasing career has not taken off as anticipated, but his second to Last Instalment at Leopardstown over Christmas was a big improvement.
Trainer Mouse Morris is confident of a big run returning to a sounder surface.
He said: “He’s travelled over well and he’s A1 at the moment.
“We discovered he had a back problem early in the season, so we sorted that out and he ran much better and jumped much better at Christmas.
“Since then we’ve had no hiccups and he will absolutely love the ground, he’s a different horse on it.
“He was out on the course this morning and he was like a dressage horse, although I hope he can run a bit faster than one!
“He’s just a happier horse on better ground, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.
“We’re happy to take on Grands Crus – he has to jump them as well as we do. Our horse has a real shout.”
Jockey Davy Russell is also of the opinion that the better ground should turn the gelding’s fortunes around.
“His form wouldn’t be rock solid but there are genuine reasons for it and Cheltenham, drying ground and Mouse Morris have to be factored into it. Mouse is very confident,” Russell told Racing UK.
“As a young horse his jumping was always very good, but his chasing career so far has been just adequate.
“In Fairyhouse he pulled up and had loads of issues, but I felt the last day he ran in Leopardstown his jumping was very good.
“Drying ground should also help his jumping.”
Bobs Worth won the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival 12 months ago.
Nicky Henderson’s stayer has ground to make up on Grands Crus on their Feltham clash, but he has had a wind operation since.
“Bobs Worth was a very respectable second in the Feltham but had a difficult January when he had a little wind-op,” said Henderson.
“I hadn’t been happy with him but we had to have a run. He’s going to have to improve to find that extra bit with Grands Crus.
“He was jumping to the left at Ascot last time but was very good in the Albert Bartlett last year.
“Everything has got to go right, and if it does, he’s got a very good chance. He’s definitely good enough but will need the run of the race.”
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls is represented by dual course winner Join Together, although he admits he has plenty on his plate against Grands Crus.
“He has got to improve on what he has done but he loves to be fresh and on ratings they are all much of a muchness,” said Nicholls.
“It’s all about jumping and staying. Grands Crus is the one we’ve all got to beat.”
Irish champion Willie Mullins has both Call The Police and Lambro in the mix at bigger odds.
He said: “Call The Police lacks a bit of experience but he’s a horse who could improve an awful lot from his last run, which gives him a squeak.
“The key to his chance will be whether he settles into his jumping.
“Lambro ran a great race against Flemenstar, who hasn’t let the form down by winning again on Sunday.
“He was a little bit disappointing last time out but he jumps well and we know he stays well from winning his three-mile novice hurdle last year.
“He’s earned a lot of experience running against the faster types at shorter trips and I hope that will come into play tomorrow.”