I must confess to being a fan of Leighton Aspell. Not an actual paid-up member of his official fan club, you understand, just an admirer of his abilities in the saddle.
Aspell’s profile has never quite matched his talents but this season, his 21st in Britain, he has the opportunity to break new ground and ride a winner at the Cheltenham Festival thanks to an impressive book of rides.
It was a prospect that looked unlikely in the extreme a few seasons back when the rider, tired of trying to win bad races on bad horses, decided enough was enough and quit, embarking on a new career as assistant to John Dunlop.
Perhaps inevitably, it was the words Cheltenham and Festival that convinced Aspell that his immediate future lay in riding horses, not training them
But the passion that had diminished soon reappeared and, after an 18-month break, he returned to his old job. The comeback has gone better than even Aspell could have imagined and he now sits on the verge of his best ever campaign numerically, with the promise of much more to come.
Perhaps inevitably, it was the words Cheltenham and Festival that convinced Aspell that his immediate future lay in riding horses, not training them.
“After 12 months I started to feel that I had some unfinished business and after watching the Festival, I realised how much I was missing it,” he tells Tim Richards.
“I have watched every Cheltenham since 1985, all the finishes, celebrations and post-race interviews with the owners, trainers and jockeys.
“They are all your friends and while you are happy for them, underneath it all you are jealous because you’d love to be in their position.
“I’ve spent my life craving a winner at the Festival and I’m still hoping for a piece of the action.”
At the other end of the experience spectrum, second-season trainer Harry Fry is also hoping for glory at jump racing’s biggest jamboree.
The 27-year-old actually prepared Rock On Ruby for his Champion Hurdle triumph in 2012 while assistant to former boss Paul Nicholls, so his name doesn’t appear on the roll of honour, but the ambitious young handler is hoping to put that right, with ‘Ruby’ set for a tilt at the Arkle Trophy.
Good fortune may have seen Fry start his career with a Grade 1 winner in the yard but that doesn’t guarantee success with any other horses. Yet his isolated Dorset stable is more than punching above its weight.
Fry’s season statistics make for remarkable reading. At the time of going to press, he had saddled 27 winners from 76 runners, operating at a remarkable 36% strike-rate, with a profit of almost £60 to a £1 stake. No other trainer in the top 50 comes close to matching those impressive figures.
Whether these numbers can be maintained is debatable but Fry, clearly mindful of the pitiful cost recovery for racehorse owners in Britain (which currently stands at £21 for every £100 spent), is determined not to make any entries for his string unless he thinks he can win.
“I see no point whatsoever in running horses if they have no chance,” he tells Alan Lee. “With all the costs up to the day, then the raceday expenses, owners will get disappointed. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
One mare with an outstanding chance at Cheltenham – whichever race she runs in – is Annie Power, the unbeaten Irish hurdler who her trainer Willie Mullins has compared to Dawn Run, the only horse ever to win the Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup. No pressure, then.
British racegoers have seen Annie Power three times already this year, supplementing seven victories in Ireland, and the ease with which she has dismissed her rivals lends credence to the view that she is something out of the ordinary.
Eamon Cleary explains to Joseph Burke how he came to breed Annie Power and details the woman who inspired the naming of this exceptional thoroughbred.