Having only joined the full-time training ranks less than three years ago, it’s been some going for Ben Pauling to have the hot favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on National Hunt racing’s biggest stage.
Barters Hill will arrive at the Cheltenham Festival with seven ‘1’s next to his name, and if his trainer’s infectious belief in his horse is anything to go by, that unbeaten record could well hold firm next month.
Ladbrokes News caught up with Pauling, who has been thriving since leaving his role as assistant to Nicky Henderson, to get the exclusive lowdown on his gelding and find out how his preparation is coming along.
“I couldn’t be happier with him,” Pauling told us.
“He did his first really nice bit of work on Tuesday and will now work twice a week from now on leading up to the Festival, with some tough bits in the middle of next week that will hopefully leave him spot on for Cheltenham.”
The most recent of Barters Hill’s victories came at Doncaster in the River Don Stakes where the six-year-old had to show true guts and determination to grind out a result.
And despite it appearing hard work for his charge, Pauling was happy enough on reflection.
“On face value you might have thought he would have done it easier than he did, but when you analyse the race you’d be very happy with it.
“They’ve gone hard from the drop of the flag, two nice horses going from the front. As far as Willie Mullins was concerned, [Up For Review] was his best three mile hurdler. They’ve taken each other on the whole way round and it’s perhaps the first time that my lad has jumped under that sort of pressure and he’s made a few mistakes which he’ll learn from.
“Once Willie’s horse dropped away he was left as a sitting duck for the others that have got a perfect toe into the race but he’s duly fought them off as well. So in hindsight I was very pleased with it. He wasn’t particularly tired after it and had stopped blowing quickly.”
With thoughts now firmly on the Festival, Pauling was in no doubt as to who Barters Hill’s biggest danger was.
The Bourton-on-the-Water based handler also made it clear that he felt his charge was yet to get as much praise as he deserves.
“I think Shantou Village has got to be the one that we are aiming to beat. I think he will stay three miles, wants good ground which we should get, and is a nice horse,” he added.
“But if Barters Hill wins at Cheltenham he’ll get a lot more recognition for what he’s done than he is currently getting.
“There are still people out there who think he hasn’t achieved all that much, he’s not very quick and all the rest of it. But he’s beaten Buveur D’Air. He’s beaten Altior. He’s beaten Bellshill. I mean, Jesus Nora, he can’t do much better than that. His form is as solid as any horse going to Cheltenham.
“He doesn’t allow them to use any kick or turn of foot at the end [of races] because he’s taken it out of them through the middle of the race. That’s how I think he wins his races, he draws the sting out of horses and they haven’t got what they would have against other rivals. So if Shantou Village can quicken up off the pace that we are going then good luck to him, he’d be a worthy winner.”
Despite his unbeaten record, Barters Hill’s odds of 11/4 make him a bigger priced favourite than the jollies in all but three of the non-handicap races at the Festival, and those odds looks extremely fair to his trainer.
“Any horse trained by Mullins these days has to win two or three races and he’s the next best thing, but he’s an exceptionally good trainer so I can understand why that happens,” Pauling explained.
“That being said I think 11/4 is a decent price. In my eyes, if you’ve got the rest of the field at 13/2 or bigger, then you’d have an even money or 6/4 favourite, yet he’s still 11/4 and I think that’s plenty of value to be honest.
“His least impressive performance visually might have been his last run but when you consider that everything that could go wrong, did, then I think it was actually one of his strongest races.”
Barters Hill will face his biggest test to date when the final day of the Cheltenham Festival comes round, but with his trainer speaking in glowing terms about his chances, you can’t help but think he will pass in flying colours.
Maybe then he will get the recognition and respect that Pauling says he deserves.
All odds and markets correct as of the date of publishing.