Cheltenham Festival: local star Lil Rockerfeller goes for gold in the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle
Neil King with Lil Rockerfeller
This week much of the focus at Neil King's Burderop yard is on Lil Rockerfeller's entry in the Cheltenham Festival's Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle (Thursday, March 16.)
He is a rare horse to enter this premier race: with an American pedigree that favours mile or shorter flat races, he has become what one Racing Post pundit has called a 'tough and talented' hurdler: "Lil Rockerfeller has continued to show a complete disregard for his pedigree since Neil King made the inspired move of snapping him up for £31,000."
To date his winnings stand at £143,843.
On a sunny morning on the northern edge of the Marlborough Downs, Lil Rockerfeller looked in really great condition - alert, keen to get some grass in the paddock and to take a closer look at my camera. He is ridden out every morning by Neil's wife Clare.
Neil King had spotted him at the Keeneland yearling sales. Why, I asked naively, has he turned into a horse that flourishes over a three miles of hurdles? "There's no strict science in pedigrees. More important is what they do on the track. He had won over a mile-and-a-half [at Newbury in August 2014] - he was an obvious one to go jumping."
Neil King says: "He is in great form now." But there have been a tricky few days. He was entered for the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell (February 26) - seen as a trial for Cheltenham. It was a race he won last year: "Trevor [Whelan] gave him a smashing ride and he won it nicely."
But Neil King had to announce that he would not run in this year's National Spirit: "Very disappointed to say Lil Rockerfeller is a non-runner today. Not eaten up and not quite his usual bullish self. Another day."
Over that weekend "He was lacklustre in himself - not as sparkly as he should be when he's racing. He's back in order now."
So what is his recent form? The current favourite for the Stayers' Hurdle is JP McManus' Younowhatimeanharry - usually ridden by Barry Geraghty who is missing Cheltenham after suffering a collapsed lung and six broken ribs in a fall from Charli Parcs at Kempton.
The Harry Fry trained horse beat Lil Rockerfeller by four-and-a-half lengths in the three miles JLT Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December. With Trevor Whelan unavailable, he was ridden by Noel Fehily. And by some quirk of fate, it is Fehily who will replace Geraghty to ride Lil Rockerfeller's rival Younowhatimeanharry at Cheltenham.
There was a little disappointment at the Ascot result. But as Neil King says: "Lil Rockerfeller has come closer to Younowhatimeanharry than most horses this season. He'll start as a likely outsider."
Another rival entered for the Stayers' Hurdle was Yanworth - trained just the other side of Barbury Castle at Alan King's yard. Yanworth beat Lil Rockerfeller at Ascot by a thrilling three-quarters of a length in November last year. Yanworth will now run in the Festival's Champion Hurdle instead of the Stayers' Hurdle.
Neil King has several horses at his yard to watch as the jump season turns to summer:
Minella Style is a seven year-old bay gelding - an Irish pointer who has been placed in both his starts under rules. At Taunton on March 2 he came second in a two-and-a-half mile hurdle. Neil King says he will need drier ground: "He had a very, very good run at Taunton."
Commanche Chieftain is a five year-old gelding with an American pedigree - is Neil King hoping he has found another Lil Rockerfeller? He has been consistent on the flat - being placed ten times.
Bought recently by Neil King at Tattersalls Horses in Training Sale, he came second in his first run for King. Trevor Whelan rode him in a maiden hurdle on heavy ground at Plumpton (February 27) into second place - three-and-a-half lengths behind the winner. King says: "He'll probably do better on better ground - it's a most encouraging start."
Canyon City is a four year-old who comes from Andre Fabre's yard in France. As a colt he was placed in five out of six races last year. He has now been gelded and will go on over hurdles this summer.
Regulation has been with Neil King since the summer of 2014. He is a seven-year-old gelding: "He's very much a fast ground horse. He had a trying season last year. But now he's in good order - and he's dropped a few pounds too."
On the day I went to see Lil Rockerfeller, as the build-up to Cheltenham was gathering pace, Neil King had a winner at Exeter. Fort Carson 'stayed on well' to come home one-and-a-quarter lengths clear of the five other runners. It was a conditional jockeys' handicap hurdle and Neil King's resident conditional jockey Richard Condon looked well pleased with his victory.