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Festival fever hits Ferguson yet again

By Frank Brownlow

Ballymena trainer Ian Ferguson watched with delight as Leighinmohr won the opener at Downpatrick yesterday — and memories of a race 12 months ago came flooding back.

That’s because Ferguson had his first Cheltenham Festival winner last March, Zemsky triumphing in the Christie’s Foxhunter Chase.

Ferguson is about to make his annual pilgrimage to Cheltenham, although Zemsky will not be defending his title due to injury.

But Leighinmohr’s success yesterday in the Martinstown Opportunity Maiden Hurdle left the the trainer with a huge smile on his face.

“You are always pleased with a winner,” said Ferguson.

“The ground was just on the softer side of what he would want but he battled well and won.

“He has won three out of three and is one for the future.

“He might race at Perth in a month or so on better ground — he’s more of a summer-type horse for better ground.

“He might even go to the Scottish National meeting at Ayr,” he added.

And although Zemsky will not compete at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, which starts on Tuesday, Ferguson will be a very keen observer of Simonsig, a horse he trained last year.

“Hopefully he will run well in the Neptune on the second day,” he said.

“(Trainer) Nicky Henderson seems to be very happy with him.

“You would have to think that Simonsig has a big chance.” And Ferguson has every confidence in Ulster-owned Hurricane Fly making a successful defence of the Champion Hurdle title.

“Unless the real Hurricane Fly doesn’t turn up, you couldn’t see him being beaten,” he said.

But nothing will match last year’s Festival for the Ballymena man.

“It was always my ambition to have a winner at Cheltenham,” he said. “I had a couple of third places with Joe Blake so it was great to finally achieve my ambition.

“Zemsky is back in full work after a growth on his leg which just came at the wrong time, immediately after Christmas,” Ferguson explained.

“It meant we couldn’t do any fast work with him and he wouldn't have been ready for Cheltenham.

“But he will probably go to either Fairyhouse at Easter or the Punchestown Festival after that.”

It was a good day for Ulster trainers at Downpatrick.

After Ferguson hit the target in the opener, there were also wins for Draperstown’s Noel Kelly and Larne’s Stuart Crawford.

Charlie’s Vic justified the red hot 1-4 favourite’s tag to triumph in the EBF Mares Novice Hurdle for Kelly, while Call Box won the Square One Handicap Hurdle for Crawford, whose brother Ben was in the saddle.

Meath trainer Gordon Elliott, who usually heads to Cheltenham with plenty of firepower, had a double courtesy of Oscar Hill and Spring Lane.

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