‘No doubt’ Newmill will defend crown

JOHN MURPHY has moved to reassure punters reigning Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Newmill’s entry in the Champion Hurdle is just a precaution.

The nine-year-old slammed Macs Joy by nine lengths in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran, but Murphy insists his stable star will be defending his two-mile Champion Chase crown, unless the ground is bottomless.

“He is going for the Champion Chase unless the ground came up very, very heavy - hopefully it will not be heavy,” said Murphy.

“He’s going for the Champion Chase though, there is no doubt.

“He’s very good at the moment. I’ve just seen him this morning and he looks very well.

“He was quiet earlier in the season because we’ve had a very bad three months in Ireland with very heavy ground and I don’t want to give him gruelling races as he doesn’t like it.

“He can go on soft or good to soft, but he is way better on better ground, and he’s better in the spring.

“Contrary to what a lot of people said when he ran at Leopardstown (in the Tied Cottage Chase), Andrew McNamara said he was absolutely cruising, he wasn’t getting tired when he fell, he just ran into the bottom of it and tipped up,” he told At The Races.

“I think he was running a big race that day and I was pleased he got up and walked away. He was also very good when he beat Macs Joy in the Red Mills.

“Hopefully he gets there in one piece, but I would say to those that have backed him for the Queen Mother, don’t worry.”

Newmill is 7-2 second-favourite for the Seasons Holidays Queen Mother Champion Chase behind 7-4 favourite Well Chief.

Meanwhile Spot Thedifference will have to defy a career-high mark if he is to regain the Sporting Index Handicap Chase at the Festival.

Enda Bolger’s brilliant 14-year-old has only been beaten twice in eight starts over the Cheltenham Cross Country course and won the Festival event in 2005.

The handicapper treats cross-country form seriously and ‘Spot’ finds himself given a mark of 150, with his highest winning rating being 144 in a similar race last December. Senior jumps handicapper Phil Smith said: “Spot Thedifference would be running off a mark of around 127 in an ordinary chase, but with his experience over the course, we decided he should run off 150.”

The veteran will have to shoulder 11st 12lb should he start, which is a marked turnaround at the weights with Royal Auclair (11st 5lb).

Smith added: “Royal Auclair has been rated 143, where normally he would be 147. He has experience over the obstacles, but we took the view he is not as good over cross-country as he is generally.”

Smith and his team have been compiling their own figures for Irish form to try and equate the form, with the handicapping of Irish horses in British races often a contentious issue.

The weights for the 10 Festival handicaps were announced at Cheltenham yesterday, two weeks before the big meeting.

Foreman, a possible for the Seasons Holidays Queen Mother Champion Chase, is also in as top weight for both the Racing Post Plate and the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup and gives the former a particularly lopsided look being rated 8lb above his rivals.

Paul Nicholls’ Desert Quest has a similar effect on the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle and the weights would rise 10lb if he were pulled out. Nicholls reiterated that Desert Quest would run in the race if the ground was soft, but tackle the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle if the going came up good.

Punjabi, who was an impressive winner at Kempton on Saturday, has been confirmed by trainer Nicky Henderson as an intended runner in the JCB Triumph Hurdle.

Owned by Raymond Tooth, Punjabi took the Racing Post Adonis Juvenile Novices’ Hurdle by 19 lengths after a clever piece of Mick Fitzgerald riding at the start saw him steal a huge lead.

In moving to two wins from two runs over hurdles, Punjabi, who used to be trained by Geraldine Rees on the Flat, is 12-1 with William Hill and Ladbrokes for the four-year-old crown.

“He definitely goes for the Triumph, unless anything happens with him between now and then of course,” said Henderson.

“After Saturday, I had said we would have a big summit meeting with the owner about the Triumph but in reality it was an easy decision.

“You have to say he is professional, he’s got speed and I think he will be better going the other way round.”

Henderson was also delighted with another of his stable stars, Juveigneur, who will attempt to improve on his second in last year’s William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase after a bloodless victory over hurdles at Plumpton on Monday.

“He has come back absolutely fine and flashing his tail,” said Henderson.

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