News Saint looks heaven-sent for Harry Whittington at Cheltenham

Saint looks heaven-sent for Harry Whittington at Cheltenham


As Cheltenham embarked on the onerous task of clearing 200 tons of snow from the track, one man not complaining was Harry Whittington, trainer of Arkle Challenge Trophy candidate Saint Calvados.

The five-year-old has stamped himself as one of the most exciting novices in Britain with his three-race unbeaten sequence over fences, but Whittington made it crystal clear at last week's Festival weights lunch he would not be risked on any going description from good upwards.

He need not have worried. In came the 'Beast from the East' and with it a spectacular level of precipitation that ensures soft-ground horses will enjoy a first-day edge when the Festival kicks off on Tuesday.

Saint Calvados has had favourably easy conditions in his visits to Newbury and latterly for the Kingmaker Novices' Chase at Warwick, on each occasion jumping with alacrity and making full use of his exaggerated knee action. Those triumphs have been attained by an aggregate of 41 lengths.

The Hill Barn Stables trainer explained: "I've watched the Kingmaker a hundred times and it looks like he's hacking.

"He has the ability to put horses under pressure with his extraordinary cruising speed. When he's still on the bridle, they seem to be flat out."

Whittington's assistant Joe Quintin rides Saint Calvados in work and had tasted a sample of what was coming in a visit to a well-known gallop between Whittington's yard high above Wantage and Nicky Henderson's Seven Barrows stable on the edge of Lambourn.

He recalled: "Joe let him have a nice blow over a mile on the back of the hill and said it felt like he was moving in slow motion, he got such a great feel from the horse."

Saint Calvados established himself as a jumper of immense promise with his three successes from four outings in France, where he had been picked out by his owner as a raw two-year-old.

Whittington, who tasted Grade One success with Arzal at Aintree in 2016 and is now in his sixth season with a licence, said: "He was among half a dozen being loose schooled and Andrew, who was nursing a Calvados-induced hangover, picked him out and renamed him accordingly.

"He has subsequently turned down big offers for him. He has no interest in selling."

Whittington is acutely aware of the three-pronged presence in the Arkle that consists of Footpad, Petit Mouchoir and Brain Power, and conceded: "He's up against horses that finished third, fourth and sixth in a Champion Hurdle, which demonstrates how big a step the Arkle is.

"I've asked myself whether after three races in fairly quick succession he could be vulnerable, but based on everything I am seeing in his demeanour, I'm convinced he's now at his peak."

The Arkle is not the only point of interest for Whittington at Cheltenham, with hopes high Bigmartre can be competitive in the JLT Novices' Chase.

Bigmartre has a similar amount of experience of fences as his more vaunted stablemate but after two clear-cut successes at Ludlow and Newbury, he lost out in a head bob on his latest start at Doncaster.

"That verdict was the difference in £22,000 of prize money, but that's not the way to look at it, as it was a great effort," said Whittington.

"Bigmartre is a soppy horse that is so sweet he loves a cuddle, but when he gets on to the racecourse he would die for you. He was well apart from Duke Of Navan at Doncaster and after pricking his ears round the bend, was clearly in front at the pull-up and thought he had won.

"He will be jumping up in trip in the JLT and will need to improve again, but I don't think there was any disgrace in failing by an inch or two to successfully give 8lb to Duke Of Navan."

Whittington's operation began with a small string of five horses but he has subsequently added two American-style barns at his base, which is next to the house in which he grew up.

He part-works his string on a two-and-a-half-furlong circular woodchip facility, and said: "They get a nice lob going both ways round, cantering and trotting so there is variety. It maintains their fitness levels."

His grandfather Colin Nash was a close friend of Tim Forster, who provided Richard Dunwoody with his first winner on the pointer/hunter Game Trust, while Nash's son Chris trained in his own right from the family estate at Kingston Lisle.

But Whittington's first taste of working with horses happened on the other side of the globe in Australia. He observed: "I worked with polo horses and stock horses and broke in wild horses on a cattle station.

"It was a wonderful experience and an integral part of the learning curve, and when I returned home in 2003 I assisted Malcolm Bastard in his bloodstock operation, which took me all round the world.

"Malcolm rode for Fred Winter and like Fred and Nicky Henderson, he has a way of doing things properly. With Malcolm there is no walking round with your hands in your pockets. He taught me how to handle myself with people. Working with him and listening to him has taught me a great deal of what I know to this day."

Whittington is quick to praise his staff, and it was his then partner and now wife Alice and assistant Quintin that helped him take the plunge into training, following a spell pre-training horses for clients that included Henderson.

He said: "Alice recognised the fact that I was ambitious and said I'd always regret it if I didn't, and I think buying a good horse called Johns Spirit was a key turning point, giving me confidence that I could buy the right type of animal.

"My assistant Joe was with me in the early days and he said all along I should give training a go.

"It's all about the team and I have to thank Adam Tucker for getting to know the opposition in races we go for inside out. He is invaluable in the race planning.

"Our head girl Gemma Quintin spent time at Ballydoyle, while Alice grew up around horses and rides out every day."