Jockey Jonjo O’Neill Jr is confident he can maintain his unbeaten partnership aboard Champ, who he believes is the “one to beat” in the Welsh Marches Stallions at Chapel Stud Cleeve Hurdle at Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham (Saturday 29th January).
The Nicky Henderson-trained 10 year old will make his first appearance at the track since pulling up in last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup at The Festival™ in the Grade Two contest, for which he currently heads the market at around 1-2.
Champ, who holds entries in both the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle and Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup at The Festival, provided the 23 year old rider with a breakthrough first Grade One success of his career in last month’s Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.
O’Neill is now confident the pair can emerge triumphant again at the weekend and provide Seven Barrows handler Henderson with his first success in the three mile contest.
The jockey said: “I’m glad to be back on Champ. He gave me a great thrill at Ascot and he is probably the one to beat on Saturday.
“It was only supposed to be a confidence-boosting run as he had a troubled preparation last season.
“He was a little bit gassy at Ascot but he was entitled to be as he had not had a proper run for a while. The horse that came second, Thyme Hill, is probably the one you wanted near you as it makes the form solid.
“He was very effective at Ascot but he likes three miles around Cheltenham, albeit that was over fences, but his course form will help.
“He is going to have to be 100 hundred per cent as there are some good horses in there but that last run will have really sharpened him up.”
O’Neill is able to reflect fondly on his Ascot victory aboard Champ, which he feels was a surprise in some ways for connections. It was Champ’s first success since he landed what is now the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at The Festival in March 2020.
The jockey added: “I don’t think he is a massively good work horse at home so I don’t think he is easy to predict that way. It sounded like he had done plenty of work but that he was entitled to come on for it.
“When you look at it he only had one proper run going into it since winning what was the RSA. I think the feeling was that if he ran a good race and hit the line well they would be happy but he did a bit more than that.
“It showed what a good engine he has and he jumped very well on the whole around Ascot.”
With his chances of eclipsing last season’s tally of 62 winners compromised by two shoulder injuries sustained earlier in the campaign, victory aboard Champ last time out was in a way mission complete for the current term in the eyes of O’Neill.
He said: “When I had those injuries, beating my best number of winners in a season wasn’t going to be attainable so I wanted to focus on quality and try to get on better horses.
“That was kind of my goal at the start of the season to win a Grade One. It is not easy to win a Grade One as you have got to find the right horse to be able to do it.
“To get a Grade One has made my season and it is nice that it has worked out as it is difficult getting on those types of horses.”
Riding a first Grade One winner is always a special moment, but O’Neill admits his victory aboard Champ, who is named in honour of now-retired 20 times champion jockey Sir AP McCoy, was made more unique given who he is owned by.
O’Neill added: “A big thank you goes out to Mr McManus and his family for letting me ride him. Winning the Grade One for him made it all the more special as he has been a very good family friend since long before I was born.
“I used to look up to AP riding when I was younger and to ride a Grade One on the horse named after him made it special as well. It would be nice if we could now win another race like this together.”