Sir Alex Ferguson heads to Cheltenham with another treble possible

Sir Alex Ferguson could land ANOTHER famous treble this week with all three of his Cheltenham runners in with a chance at the festival… as the legendary former Man United boss eyes the £625k Gold Cup prize with Protektorat

  • Ferguson has become heavily involved in horse racing throughout the years
  • He heads to Cheltenham this week with a real shot at success with three horses
  • Protektorat leads his assault on the Cotswolds this week in Friday’s showpiece 
  • Click here for the latest Cheltenham Festival news, schedule and race results

Gary Pallister, a lieutenant of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team in the 80s and 90s, made a surprising revelation ahead of this year’s Cheltenham Festival. 

‘My favourite memories of Fergie and horse racing is that if he found out you’ve been to Cheltenham Festival, he’d drop you!’ Pallister told Cheltenham Racing.

‘He wasn’t into Cheltenham racing then. He didn’t play golf and he didn’t like horse racing. Now he loves his golf and his horse racing and owns horses.

‘Back in the day, he wasn’t OK with the lads going off for a day at the races, but that’s all changed and he’s obviously been involved for quite a while now with his good friends from Manchester and had some good success there.’

As Pallister outlines, Ferguson harbours no such concerns over Cheltenham these days and it would not be unfair to speculate that, alongside Royal Ascot and the Guineas at Newmarket, it is up there with one of his favourite periods of the sporting calendar. 

Sir Alex Ferguson will head to Cheltenham this week with a brilliant chance of success

Cheltenham readied itself on Monday with the racing circus in store from Tuesday to Friday

Paul Nicholls trains two of Ferguson’s three runners – including Hermes Allen (pictured)

Anticipation is abound for those with connections to Ferguson, who many believe has a real shot of success at the Festival this time out.

The Scot has three runners, with Hermes Allen leading the betting for Wednesday’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle as the second favourite at 11/4. 

Hitman, trained by Paul Nicholls, is an outside shot in the Ryanair Chase. Patterns are discernible in that particular race, with Willie Mullins-trained horses winning five of the last seven.

In the showpiece, Protektorat comes in off a really strong performance in last year’s edition. It will go off at around 12/1 and has truly great jumpers to contend with in Galopin des Champs and A Plus Tard but could spring a surprise.

Ferguson matching his unprecedented 1999 treble achievement at United with all three horses romping home to victory is currently priced at 1200/1. 

Here, Sportsmail runs you through everything there is to know about Ferguson’s runners at this week’s Festival. 

Hermes Allen – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle: 11/4

Trained by Nicholls, Hermes Allen is a real shot at success in Wednesday’s opening race on day two. His form coming into the race is almost perfect, having been sent over hurdles three times, and having claimed victory in each of its last three races.

Bought by Ferguson and friends for £350,000, Hermes Allen was bred off Poliglote, a high-class flat runner. He has solid pedigree and will be a tough task for the other race entrants.

The six-year-old was foaled in March 2017 and run for the first time just last year under the guidance of Nicholls, a trainer who has worked closely with Ferguson for years.

Partnered by Harry Cobden, its second run came at Cheltenham itself last November in the Hyde Novices’ Hurdle, beating off competition from the likes of Music Drive and Weveallbeencaught to romp home.

Wednesday’s race will provide a much sterner test, however. It is perhaps the premium test for horses that are expected to go on to become world-class hurdlers. 

Hermes Allen is led out of the stables at Nicholls’ yard by one of his many stablehands 

The pedigree of the race suggests as such, with the likes of Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Faugheen all having previously won it. They all went on to claim victory in the Champion Hurdle the following year. 

Being sent over hurdles at Cheltenham again, the trip will be comfortable for Hermes Allen in that it is the same 2m5f that he won over in the mid-autumn. 

Hermes Allen’s latest run came on New Year’s Eve at Newbury, where it strolled to a very comfortable victory in the Challow Novices’ Hurdle to give the trainer a third successive triumph in the grade one feature. 

Having seen the horse win well at Cheltenham a month and a half prior, Nicholls had said that it continued to ‘surprise’. Little such language was used after victory at Newbury, with it immediately tipped up thereafter for an assault on one of the Festival’s most hotly-anticipated races.

‘I’m obviously thrilled with that. I was worried about the ground and the lads asked me what I wanted to do, and I just said we didn’t know that he didn’t go on it, so we had to kick on,’ Nicholls said afterwards, speaking from Ditcheat. 

‘As Harry said afterwards good horses go on any ground, he’s now won on quick ground and that ground. He’s not slow. He had been slow at home, but he’s waking up mentally and physically. He’s got it all really, he’s got everything you want in a good horse.’

Hermes Allen, ridden by jockey Harry Cobden, clears a jump on their way to winning the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in November last year 

‘I suspect we’ll go straight to Cheltenham now. There’s no real need to run him again, but the only option is the trial race in a month,’ he added.

The decision, then, was to head straight to Cheltenham and Hermes Allen represents a brilliant chance for Ferguson and his co-owners.

There are some things that could concern them, however. Challows Hurdle winners have a dreadful record in the race, while the trainer’s novice hurdlers’ record isn’t much better, either.

That said, 11 of the last 12 winners have been aged 5 or 6. Meanwhile, its OR at 150 means it avoids the baggage of a horse having not won the race with one below 146 since 2011.

Hitman – Ryanair Chase: 25/1

Priced out as far as 25/1 by Paddy Power, Hitman has a tough task on his hands if he is to overhaul the likes of Shishkin and Blue Lord. With most bookies offering each-way payouts up to five places, there could be value in backing him, however.

The bay gelding comes into the festival in slightly indifferent form. Its last run was at Newbury on February 11, where it finished second by seven lengths.

However, prior to that it was pulled up by jockey Cobden at Kempton on Boxing Day. Nicholls, who trains all three of Ferguson’s Cheltenham runners, said last month that was nothing to be concerned about and merely a mistake.

‘Hitman was fancied in the King George on soft ground, but made a bad mistake which took him out of the race. You can put a line through that. He’s very well and has a great chance,’ he said.

Hitman has enjoyed success in the past but heads to Cheltenham in an uncertain position

Ferguson and his co-owners will be hoping they can do so come Thursday. 

Having first run in 2019, Hitman showed promise almost immediately. In his first five races he recorded two first place finishes and two seconds. Having gone off at 11/2 in his maiden run, he was then slashed down to 4/6 for the two following that.

Nicholls spoke last year at the patience they had shown in regards to Hitman, in spite of his lofty 160 rating. 

He comes into Thursday’s Chase with an OR of 159, though there remains some uncertainty over who will onboard following a pre-Christmas issue as to whether Sam Twiston-Davies, Ferguson’s choice, or the yard’s main jockey Cobden, will partner him. 

Cobden had been faced with a dilemma ahead of the King George VI over whether to stick with Bravemansgame, the eventual winner, or opt for Hitman. In the end he stuck with the winner.

In a weaker-than-usual Ryanair Hitman could spring a surprise from back in the field

‘Hitman is progressing all the time physically and mentally… He is maturing,’ Nicholls said ahead of the disappointing King George run. The best time to show that improving maturity would seemingly be on Thursday.

Trends Ferguson and his co-owners might want to look out for concern a little known trainer called Willie Mullins, who has won five of the last seven of these races. Indeed, another worry for Hitman might be that eight of the previous 12 winners have won at Cheltenham before. Hitman has never run at Cheltenham before in any capacity. Eleven of the previous 12 winners had at least run twice at the track before.

A race that has previously been one of the real highlights of the week looks somewhat light this year. A surprise could be sprung.

Protektorat – Cheltenham Gold Cup: 12/1

One of the true highlights of the British sporting calendar, winning the Gold Cup can catapult a jockey – and indeed a trainer – into the wider sporting consciousness. Just ask Rachael Blackmore.

The eight-year-old Protektorat is trained by Dan Skelton and again co-owned by Ferguson and a few of his friends, including John and Lisa Hales as well as Ged Mason, who is also involved with the aforementioned horses. 

Trailing the likes of Galopin Des Champs and Bravemansgame in the betting, Protektorat ran brilliantly in last year’s Gold Cup, eventually finishing third behind A Plus Tard and Minella Indo, the irresistible Henry de Bromhead-trained one-two combination. 

Ridden by Harry Skelton, his form coming into the race is not exactly perfect, having finished fourth at the same track at the end of January. The ground then was good to soft in places and with rain expected every day between now and Friday. 

Ferguson has another runner in one of the most lucrative British races across the calendar

The French-bred horse won brilliantly, however, at Haydock last November and it is hoped that he will carry the same form into Friday’s race. 

The Gold Cup carries a prize winning pot of £625,000, only surpassed by the Grand National in terms of chases. 

Skelton remains optimistic over the chances of Protektorat, saying he feels him and his team are good enough to mount an assault on the race and try and go two better than last time out. 

‘In sport you are not entitled to anything and the second you think you are entitled to something, it will go wrong.

‘I hope to be able to train Gold Cup, Champion Chase, Champion Hurdle, Grand National contenders for many years to come and hopefully one or two of them are lucky enough to land them, but there is no entitlement to it all.

‘I think we’re good enough. Harry (Skelton) is a good enough rider without a doubt. But the biggest thing about it is you have got to have the right horse.’

On trials day, Protektorat lagged slightly and that is now reflected in his price heading into the week’s biggest race. Skelton admits as much, but added that he feels he can prove the doubters wrong.

Dan Skelton will be looking to build on Protektorat’s brilliant showing in coming third last year

‘He is one who will stay on the day and that will give us a big chance on the day,’ continued Skelton. ‘That is one of the bigger weapons in our arsenal – we are confirmed to like the track and trip.

‘It is very exciting to have this type of horse and the Gold Cup is definitely the pinnacle of our sport – there is no question about that. But I don’t negate the fact he has already won a Betfair Chase which is one of our grails.

‘I think he’s being overlooked because his trainer didn’t get him as fit as he could have (on Trials day). I would love to prove them wrong. He was third in it last year when he was only half the horse he is now.’

Patterns that might concern Skelton is the domination of the Irish in this race in recent years. Only one of the last seven winners (Native River, readied by Colin Tizzard) has been trained by a British trainer. 

Odds courtesy of Paddy Power

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