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Lieutenant on the front line


First Lieutenant will be a star attraction at Down Royal

First Lieutenant will be a star attraction at Down Royal

©INPHO/James Crombie

Jockey Ruby Walsh

Jockey Ruby Walsh

©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

First Lieutenant will be a star attraction at Down Royal

First Lieutenant has been re-routed from Wetherby while big-name jockeys like Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty will also grace the two-day extravaganza that is the Down Royal Festival, which starts tomorrow.

First Lieutenant will sidestep Saturday's big Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby and instead line up in the featured JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal.

Trainer Mouse Morris had suggested last week that a trip to West Yorkshire was the favoured option, but with the ground likely to be on the quick side at Wetherby, the handler has had a change of heart.

Morris said: "I've spoken to the Gigginstown team and we've decided to run First Lieutenant in the JNwine.com Champion Chase rather than in the Charlie Hall Chase. Bryan Cooper will ride him.

"They're giving the ground as good to yielding in Down Royal, so hopefully it stays the same.

"I see they're watering in Wetherby and you just wouldn't want to run him on ground that's too quick at this stage of his career.

"The ground is perfect in Down Royal at the moment, so we'll go there and see what we can do."

The nine-year-old - second to Cue Card in last year's Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival - will attempt to build on his second and fourth-placed finishes in the Down Royal race.

First Lieutenant is a 3-1 chance for the £140,000 JNwine.com Champion Chase - the first Grade One of the season - with Nicky Henderson's Ma Filleule the 5-2 favourite.

Henderson had been debating whether to let Ma Filleule carry top weight in the United House Gold Cup at Ascot, or step into Grade One company at Down Royal.

Henderson, champion trainer in 2013, said: "She's in good form and she's got to start somewhere. She might as well start in a Grade One as opposed to carrying top weight in a handicap."

Ulsterman Tony McCoy will not make the trip this year with Mark Walsh stepping in to ride, among others, Carlingford Lough in the Powers Irish Whiskey Chase on Saturday for leading Irish owner JP McManus, McCoy's boss.

McCoy - closing in on a 20th successive champion jockey title and chasing the 300 winner milestone this season - thrilled punters at last year's Down Royal Festival when he rode hot favourite Jezki to victory in Friday's feature race, the £50,000 WKD Hurdle.

He then famously chose to ride My Tent Or Yours rather then Jezki in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival - only to be beaten into second place by the Down Royal Festival hero.

McCoy was replaced on Jezki by a grateful Geraghty, who many punters are sure to follow at Down Royal, along with Walsh who will have a strong book of rides for Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins.

"The standard of entries over the two days of the Festival is phenomenal," said Down Royal general manager Mike Todd.

"When you look at some of the entries it is clear this is the best meeting in the UK this side of Christmas.

"We have had horses that have gone on to Gold Cup success, Champion Hurdle success, you name it. That says it all really.

"This is the reality, this sort of high standard is becoming the norm for us.

"The going is officially yielding, which makes it perfect for National Hunt racing."

Two of Britain's powerhouse trainers, Paul Nicholls and Henderson, will go head to head in the big race with Rocky Creek and Ma Filleule respectively.

But they face very tough competition, particularly from Irish champion trainer Mullins who currently has On His Own and Boston Bob in the big race.

As usual, the Channel 4 cameras will be at Down Royal to beam live coverage far and wide.

"It's great to have Channel 4 on board," said Todd.

"They take Down Royal to a British Isles-wide audience and even further afield nowadays.

"So many people across Europe are now aware of Down Royal.

"We have a party of 30 members from Kelso racecourse joining us over the weekend. I've no doubt they will have a ball.

"We've had parties from Cheltenham and Newbury in the past and people always want to come back," said Todd.

Meanwhile, Cue Card will start his season in Exeter's Haldon Gold Cup on Tuesday, with Daryl Jacob taking the ride on the eight-year-old for the first time.

Third last year to Somersby and winner of the Grade Two in 2012, Cue Card will be having his first start since last December, having been out of action with a minor stress fracture to the pelvis.

The dual Cheltenham Festival winner is now fit and well, and Tizzard is mapping the same route as last season before injury struck.

The trainer said: "He's been to the Haldon Gold Cup for the last two years, two miles two is probably a bit short of his optimum nowadays but we need a race before the Betfair Chase.

"It worked lovely last year so we're doing the same again."

Tizzard's son Joe partnered Cue Card on all 20 of his previous starts, but as he is now retired, Jacob, who was snapped up as retained rider for owners Bob and Jean Bishop over the summer, takes the ride.

Last year's winner Somersby also features among the 11 entries for the Haldon Gold Cup, with Balder Succes and God's Own other possible runners.

Belfast Telegraph