Cheltenham Festival News
Sunday 16th November 2014
Fever the rising star could have Gold Cup target this season

Following his superb seasonal reappearance in the Grade 2 Clonmel Oil Chase on November 13, it looks increasingly likely that the Willie Mullins-trained Champagne Fever could represent Ireland’s biggest hope for Gold Cup glory at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival, writes Elliot Slater.

Champagne Fever
© Caroline Norris
Champagne Fever

The imposing grey has been a high quality racehorse from the start, landing the Cheltenham Festival Bumper in his first season in training, then quickly establishing himself as a top novice hurdler the following term when winning Leopardstown’s Grade 1 Deloitte Novices Hurdle before going on to beat My Tent or Yours in a tremendous race for the 2013 Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Last season was the gelded son of Stowaway’s first over fences and he quickly proved himself equally adept over the larger obstacles, making a wining chasing bow at Punchestown before proving a little disappointing when only third in Leopardstown’s Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at their Christmas meeting. The very testing ground that day may well have played a big part in that defeat, and Mullins has been keen since then not to run the seven-year-old in very soft ground.

After a break he appeared at the Cheltenham Festival for the third year in succession and went down with all guns blazing when caught in the very last stride by David Pipe’s Western Warhorse in a breathtaking race for the two-mile Grade 1 Arkle Trophy, only to disappoint six weeks later at Punchestown in May when probably ‘over the top’ for the season.

Champagne Fever is one of the most consistently noted Cheltenham Festival tips and is now a general 10/1 joint-favourite for the blue riband event on the final day of the showcase meeting in mid-March. There’s a lot of water to flow under the bridge before he reaches the starting tapes for the Gold Cup, and while he has so far given every indication he will stay three miles, the Gold Cup is over an extra two furlongs, has a stiff uphill finish, and is sometimes run on soft ground, all of which would put the second-season chaser’s stamina very much to the test.

Re-appearing recently at Clonmel and with the grand old campaigner Sizing Europe amongst quality opposition, jockey Paul Townend simply oozed confidence all the way round in the two-and-a-half mile contest. Leading before halfway, Champagne Fever jumped very well and was already in control of the race before the second last before being pushed out hands and heels to beat Alderwood by six lengths and looks more than capable of staying further.

The King George VI chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day looks the obvious next major target for a horse who stays but also has a serious change of gear. The ground at the Sunbury track is usually decent, so that would be a big factor in him crossing the sea to the London circuit instead of staying home and running on what is usually very easy ground in Ireland in mid-winter.

Mullins will undoubtedly plan Champagne Fever’s path to Cheltenham with care, and if he feels the Gold Cup trip is too much for his charge there is always the option of dropping back to take on the challenge of the Ryanair Chase, also a Grade 1 contest.

So far the Cheltenham Gold Cup is one of the few major races to elude the Country Carlow-based handler, his Florida Pearl, strongly fancied for the race in 2002, only finished 10th behind the great Best Mate, and last season Mullins’ luck was out again as he failed by an agonising short-head when his gallant On His Own was just edged out by shock scorer Lord Windermere.