Charlie Johnston is preparing Qipco Champions Day winner The Gatekeeper and his stablemate Dutch Decoy for the Pertemps Network Lincoln at Doncaster.

The Gatekeeper carried the Middleham Park Racing colours to four victories last season, also scoring at Newcastle, Newmarket and Goodwood, as well as finishing a close second in the lucrative Golden Mile at the latter venue in high summer.

He rounded off his campaign with a surprise success in the Balmoral Handicap at Ascot in October and will soon bid to add the season’s first major handicap to his CV, with Dutch Decoy another likely for his yard in the March 23 highlight.

“The Gatekeeper and Dutch Decoy both did their first proper piece of work together on Thursday and they’re our two with the Lincoln as their target,” said Middleham-based Johnston.

“The Gatekeeper will definitely run, Dutch Decoy was a little bit later coming back in and he’ll need everything to go smoothly for the next three weeks to make it, but at the moment the plan is to get them both there.

“The Gatekeeper had an unbelievable year really when you consider he’d been off for 625 days before he came back. He actually won at Newcastle on this weekend last year as his comeback and rounded off the year with a career-best on Champions Day.

“He’s gone up to 100 now, so life is going to be more difficult for him this year, but he was a real top-class handicapper last year and I’ve go no concerns about him going to Doncaster first time out.

“We learnt as last year went on he actually quite likes a bit of dig in the ground, which it would seem fairly certain we’ll get for the Lincoln at this stage, so I’m looking forward to running him.”

Nicky Henderson admitted the results of a blood test on Constitution Hill were “probably not what we were hoping for” as the horse faces a race against time to be fit for the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

The reigning two-mile champion had been very skinny odds for a Festival defence until he posted a lacklustre workout at Kempton on Tuesday morning, when the seven-year-old was virtually pulled up by Nico de Boinville.

It transpired after he was scoped that he had mucus in his lungs but Henderson had been able to issue an upbeat bulletin on both Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.

However, the Seven Barrows handler was then less encouraged when later getting the results of a blood test on Constitution Hill, and the unbeaten runner will repeat the process on Monday in the hope of an improvement.

In an update posted on X (formerly Twitter), Henderson said: “The result of the blood test taken this morning goes quite a long way to explaining his disappointing performance at Kempton on Tuesday and confirms that he has a significant degree of inflammation.

“The figures themselves suggest he is definitely under the weather and we will need to repeat the test again on Monday in the hope that the situation improves.

“We intend to scope him again tomorrow morning, but it appears that the blood test is a more conclusive barometer and the one we need to concentrate on.

“This is probably not what we were hoping for, but at least it tells us exactly where we are.”

Connections of Eydon are retaining plenty of faith despite the five-year-old not reading the script on his return from a long layoff in the Winter Derby.

A one-time Derby hope when trained by Roger Varian, the son of Olden Times had been off the track for 665 days when making his stable debut for Andrew Balding in the Southwell Group Three last Saturday.

Sent off the 15-2 fourth favourite of six, he was always towards the rear of the field in the hands of Kevin Stott and trailed home seven and a half lengths adrift of the winner Military Order.

The post-race vets report stated that Eydon finished lame on his left hind, but he has since trotted up fine back home at Kingsclere, with his team now eyeing the turf season and Sandown’s Brigadier Gerard Stakes on May 23 mooted as a possible early objective.

“He was trotted up the next day and they said he was fine but scratchy behind, and then the day after he was at exercise,” explained Ted Voute, racing advisor to Eydon’s owner Prince Faisal.

“It said left hind in the vet report, so maybe he tied up, but I’ve talked to Andrew twice since and he said he’s been ridden and, as far as he is concerned, everything is fine. He may have tweaked something in the race after having so much time off.

“We’re not going to Dubai, but Andrew has talked about the Brigadier Gerard. I think the next week or two will tell us more, but so far there are more positives than the vet report.”

Constitution Hill was reported by Nicky Henderson to be looking “alert and bright” on Thursday morning – but until the champion hurdler is scoped again on Friday his participation at Cheltenham is no clearer.

The racing world was rocked on Tuesday, when the unbeaten seven-year-old went to Kempton for a routine pre-Cheltenham gallop but was effectively pulled up by Nico de Boinville.

It transpired after he was scoped that he had mucus in his lungs, and Henderson faces a race against time to get his stable star back to full health for a week on Tuesday.

“He can’t stay in his box, if we’ve got any pretentions of running in the Champion Hurdle, you can’t just knock it off and tuck him in bed,” Henderson told Sky Sports Racing.

“We’ve got to find the right balance between keeping him moving but not stressing him in any way at all. He is the most relaxed person you’ll ever come across and I actually think he looks quite bright.

“His coat looks bright and he’s the same as he is every day, he’s no different than he is on a normal morning because he’s just very laid back about life. But at least he’s got the brains to tell us when he’s wrong he is wrong and it is the first time he’s had to do that.

“He looks alert and bright, but he obviously wasn’t feeling well as the work was so sub-par it wasn’t true.

“The plan is to scope him again on Friday. His blood was taken this morning and it will be interesting to see what that says.

“It will be very interesting what comes out tomorrow to see what the mucus level is.

“Horses often get these problems, they are like kids in school. He hasn’t coughed at all. It’s exactly like a school, you can’t have 100 per cent of them right all of the time, it’s not possible. Normally we’d have time to get over it, it’s the timing that is wrong.

“If he was a normal horse you’d leave off him for a week and aim at something else but while there is something else to aim at, there’s only one Champion Hurdle.

“You’d have to be 100 per cent for a race like that. I’ve heard people say he’s got so much in hand it won’t matter but he hasn’t got anything in hand, we all know it’s going to be tough, Champion Hurdles are tough naturally.

“They have to put an enormous amount in and I think the thing with horses as good as him is they can put 110 per cent in, maybe a lot of horses can’t. You can’t go in half-cooked.

“Work-wise he’s done all his galloping, we’d do another piece of work next week to see where he is if everything is testing good. That would have to be him at his best.”

With the Diego Martin Sports Complex in Trinidad and Tobago being unavailable, Cricket West Indies (CWI) recently announced venue changes, which will result in Jamaica Scorpions playing their remaining West Indies Championship fixtures at Sabina Park.

The changes affect rounds 4, 5, 6, and 7 of the competition, with venues being shifted to ensure the tournament match schedule proceeds as planned.

According to CWI's Director of Cricket, Miles Bascombe, these adjustments are part of CWI's ongoing effort to provide the best possible conditions for competitive first class cricket and to showcase the talent within the region.

“We have witnessed three very exciting rounds of first-class cricket with thrilling team and individual performances. The stage is now set going into rounds four and five for some teams to try to build on their momentum and others to gather some having had the chance to regroup and rejuvenate. CWI will continue to work with WIPA, our host Boards and venues to ensure that conditions for play are the best on offer given the constraints and that in the end the championship will be decided by the contest between bat and ball," Bascombe said, adding that CWI looks forward to welcoming fans to the new venues and encourage their continued support for their teams throughout the championship.

Among those to benefit is Jamaica's Sabina Park, which up until recently, scarcely hosted any cricket event. After hosting games in the first three rounds of the tournament, the 'Cricket Mecca' as the venue is known, will host another four rounds of games involving the Scorpions.

The West Indies Championship games will be streamed live with ball-by-ball commentary on the Windies Cricket YouTube channel.

Updated Schedule:

Round 4 (March 13 - 16):

CCC vs Leeward Island Hurricanes will now be hosted at the Sir Frank Worrell Cricket Ground (UWISPEC) in Trinidad.

Trinidad &Tobago Red Force vs Windward Islands Volcanoes - Queen’s Park Oval (QPO), Trinidad.

Guyana Harpy Eagles vs Barbados Pride has been moved to the Coolidge Cricket Ground (CCG) in Antigua.

Jamaica Scorpions vs West Indies Academy will take place at Sabina Park in Jamaica.

Round 5 (March 20 – 23):

Jamaica Scorpions vs Leeward Island Hurricanes has been relocated to Sabina Park in Jamaica.

Guyana Harpy Eagles vs Windward Volcanoes has been relocated to CCG in Antigua.

CCC vs West Indies Academy will now be contested at UWI SPEC in Trinidad.

Trinidad &Tobago Red Force vs Barbados Pride – QPO in Trinidad.

Round 6 (April 10 - 13):

CCC vs Trinidad and Tobago Red Force is now scheduled for UWI SPEC in Trinidad.

Jamaica Scorpions vs Guyana Harpy Eagles - Sabina Park, Jamaica.

Leeward Hurricanes vs Barbados Pride - Sir Vivian Richards Stadium (SVRS), Antigua.

West Indies Academy vs Windward Islands Volcanoes - CCG, Antigua.

Round 7 (April 17 – 20):

CCC vs Guyana Harpy Eagles will take place at UWI SPEC in Trinidad.

Jamaica Scorpions vs Trinidad &Tobago Red Force - Sabina Park, Jamaica.

Leeward Islands Hurricanes vs Windward Islands Volcanoes - SVRS, Antigua.

West Indies Academy vs Barbados Pride - CCG, Antigua.

Jamaica's young Reggae Boyz booked their spot in this summer's Concacaf Men’s Under-20 Championship, after they clipped Bermuda 3-2 in their final Group F qualifying contest in St Kitts and Nevis, on Wednesday.

Robino Gordon (2nd), Fabian Reynolds (11th) and Ashton Gordon (83rd) got on the score sheet for the Jamaicans, while Bermuda's goals were courtesy of Xahvi Deroza (50th) and Hayden Dill (61st).

Grenada and Martinique played to 4-4 stalemate in the other Group F fixture at the SKNFA Technical Center in Basseterre.

Caleb Redhead (9th, 84th), Vijay Valcin (36th) and David Juba (70th) scored for Grenada, while Martinique got a hat-trick from Lenny Lamorandiere (14th, 35th, 80th), with Kerane Leria (4th), getting the other.

By virtue of topping the group with maximum nine points, the John Wall-coached young Reggae Boyz joined Group D and E winners Canada and Haiti in the Concacaf Championships round where they will meet top six teams –United States, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic - in Mexico in July to battle for four spots to the 2025 FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

Meanwhile, Cuba will continue their pursuit for Group A honours on Thursday, when they oppose Belize, while out-out-of-contention Anguilla and British Virgin Islands (BVI) will also do battle, at the Estadio Nacional in Managua, Nicaragua.

Cuba, currently second on six points, could overtake leaders Nicaragua (nine points) on goal difference, provided they defeat Belize by a healthy scoreline. Given the 6-1 result from their last meeting in the United States in 2018, Cuba might have very little issues doing so.

 

Over in Group B, second-placed Suriname (six points) and third-placed El Salvador (four points), will square off in the feature contest at the ABFA Technical Centre in Piggots, Antigua and Barbuda. Victory for either would see them overtake host nation Antigua and Barbuda (six points) at the top, heading into the final round of games.

Guyana, on a point, and the pointless Turks and Caicos Islands, will lock horns in the group curtain raiser, with both aiming for a confidence-boosting win.

Finally, in an evenly poised Group C, host nation Guatemala (six points) and Aruba (four points) will do battle at Estadio Doroteo Guamuch Flores in Guatemala City, where victory for either, would see them assume pole position from Curacao (seven points), who will be idled.

The opening game will see Barbados and St Martin, hunting their first point of the campaign.

Jamaica's Travis Williams, a sprinter attending the University of Southern California, triumphed at the 2024 Ken Shannon Last Chance Meet in Seattle, Washington, clinching victory in the 60m dash with a remarkable personal best of 6.52, a meet record.

He believes the performance sets him up for something special at the NCAA Indoor National Championships set for March 7-9 at The Track at New Balance in Boston.

Williams’ winning time ranks third on the NCAA descending order list this indoor season and moved him from seven to second on USC's all-time list.  He now sits just behind school record-holder Davonte Burnett's time of 6.50.  The time also makes him the second-fastest Jamaican over 60m this indoor season. Only Ackeem Blake, who has run 6.45, has gone faster.

This achievement was particularly noteworthy as Williams had battled through a toe injury that had sidelined him from training and competition for about two weeks.

Williams, who had transferred from the University of Albany, where he secured the 60m and 200m double at the 2023 America East Indoor Championships, revealed the challenges he faced leading up to the Ken Shannon Last Chance Meet.

Reflecting on his performance, Williams expressed his excitement, telling Sportsmax.tv, “Performance-wise, I was excited, ecstatic, full of energy and joy 'cause I started the season out rough with a toe injury; still nursing it back as we speak but it's to the point where I can compete on it. I am not at my full potential yet, but we still getting there.”

To recover from the injury, Williams adopted a comprehensive approach. He engaged in discussions with his coaches, adjusted his diet, and made strategic decisions for his recovery both on and off the track. He acknowledged the efforts invested in correcting and overcoming the challenges, saying, “We had to go back a few times to try and see what works for me on the track and off the track. A lot of dieting, a lot of sitting down with my coaches and going back on what we need to do, 'cause pre-season was probably one of the greatest pre-seasons I ever had running track and field.”

Despite the initial doubts caused by the toe injury, Williams found solace and determination in his accomplishments. Running the 6.52 not only silenced those doubts but also positioned him as a formidable contender in the upcoming NCAA Indoor Championships.

“I had doubts because of my toe. I set those doubts behind me this past weekend. I was happy about that, 'cause I know it was SEC, ACC, Big 12, and all those other conferences, so I just showed the people that I'm still here," Williams declared.

Expressing gratitude for the support and environment at USC, Williams highlighted the positive impact of his coach, John Bolton, in guiding him through the challenges of returning from an injury.

"Sitting out for two weeks, it was depressing at one point but then we had to bounce back and look behind us and say oh, I know what I can do," Williams revealed. "As far as my training and everything, it’s going well, I love USC's culture, the environment, the coaches. My coach John Bolton, he set me up at the right time, the right way based on how he handled the situation coming off an injury."

Looking ahead, Williams expressed confidence in his trajectory, saying, "So yeah, as far as all that, I would say my performance was great. We still have big goals for indoors. We're not done yet. We have two weeks to the NCAA National Championships. I have something in store, so you want to stay tuned for that.”

Jamaican athletes Lamara Distin, Brianna Lyston, and Ackelia Smith continue to make waves on the NCAA track and field scene, securing their spots on the prestigious 2024 Bowerman Watch List. The latest edition of the list was unveiled on Wednesday, following the conclusion of the regional conference championships this past weekend.

The Bowerman Award, named after Oregon track and field and cross country coach Bill Bowerman, stands as the highest honor bestowed upon the year's best student-athlete in American collegiate track and field. Administered by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA), the list showcases the most outstanding talents in the sport.

 Distin, hailing from Hanover, Jamaica, showcased her dominance at the SEC Indoor Championships by setting a collegiate record in the high jump, clearing an impressive 2.00m, which is also a national indoor record. This performance marked the first-ever two-metre jump indoors or outdoors in collegiate history. Undefeated in three meets this winter, Distin also notched a pair of clearances at 1.97m, solidifying her position with four of the top-11 collegiate indoor performances of all time. With nine career Watch List appearances, she stands as the active leader among women, eyeing a third-straight NCAA DI Indoor title.

Lyston, a talent from Portmore, Jamaica, has remained undefeated in three 60-metre finals this winter, delivering the year's two fastest performances. Running a swift 7.07 in January at the Razorback Invitational, she secured the No. 4 all-time collegiately spot. Lyston continued her stellar form with a 7.08 victory at the SEC Indoor on the same track. Additionally, she clocked an impressive 23.16 in her sole 200m event this year, earning her second appearance on the Watch List.

Smith, representing Clarendon, Jamaica, asserted her dominance in the long jump with ownership of the year's four best collegiate leaps. Her leading jump of 6.85m this winter showcases her undefeated streak in three meets. Holding a personal record of 6.88m from last year, Smith is a force to be reckoned with, securing her fifth career Watch List appearance. In the triple jump, where she ranks No. 3 all-time outdoors and No. 5 indoors, Smith continued her excellence with a fourth-place finish in the Big 12 Indoor at 13.37m. Her versatility extends to the 60m, where she boasts a personal record of 7.21, and she contributed a swift 53.25 leadoff split on the Longhorns' top 4×400 squad.

Joining these Jamaican sensations on the Bowerman Watch List are other outstanding athletes, including JaMeesia Ford – South Carolina, Jasmine Jones – Southern Carolina, Olivia Markezich – Notre Dame, Hannah Moll – Washington, Maia Ramsden – Harvard, Michaela Rose – LSU, and Parker Valby – Florida.

The anticipation for these remarkable athletes continues to grow, with the next women's Watch List scheduled for March 20. The Jamaican trio's stellar performances signal an exciting journey ahead in the world of collegiate track and field.

Paul Gilligan would not swap Buddy One for any other runner in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle field as his course winner prepares to take his shot at Cheltenham Festival glory.

The Irish raider finished third behind Iroko in the Martin Pipe last year before again hitting the crossbar at Aintree a month later.

The seven-year-old continued to perform well over the subsequent months and returned to the Cotswolds in November where a competitive handicap victory signalled a move into deeper waters in search of bigger honours.

Although faltering in his two starts to date in Grade One company, Gilligan believes Buddy One’s form at Prestbury Park makes him a player in the feature of Thursday’s Festival action and is relishing the chance to lock horns with some of the best in the staying hurdling division.

“It’s coming thick and fast and he’s in great shape. He’s been working really well lately and we’re looking forward to seeing him run,” said Gilligan.

“He did a great piece of work on Tuesday and I couldn’t be happier with him.

“He’s run twice around Cheltenham and won once and finished third in a race he could have won. It’s horses for courses as they say and he seems to like Cheltenham.

“I do think around Cheltenham and the fact that he handles the track will be a big plus. Whether he will beat them or not, I don’t know, but he’s going to be a hell of a lot closer to Gordon’s (Elliott) horses (than previously).

“I wouldn’t swap him for any other horse there. He’s a super horse to deal with and he travels well. When he gets to a new place, he just relaxes and eats. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Buddy One is as big as 66-1 for the Stayers’ Hurdle with some bookmakers but he is much shorter at 25-1 with Paddy Power, who report the gelding to be one of their five most popular picks since going non-runner money back on Festival races.

He was last seen being pulled up at Leopardstown in the Christmas Hurdle, but Gilligan is confident he is over the issues that troubled him that day and is firmly on track for his big-race assignment.

“I think he has the potential to be involved,” continued the trainer.

“I know it’s a big step up from the handicaps, but at the same time, I thought at Leopardstown he was running a really nice race until something went wrong on the home bend before the last.

“Jack (Gilligan, son and jockey) did the right thing and pulled him up and we got him checked out after. The result was he was very sore and there were a lot of excuses and reasons for it (the poor run).

“He seems perfectly fine now, he worked and schooled the other day and he was just electric.”

It was in 2010 when Gilligan registered the biggest success of his training career as Berties Dream caused a 33-1 shock in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

However, he believes that moment will be eclipsed if either Buddy One or stablemates Kings Hill (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle) and Sequestered (Coral Cup/Martin Pipe) are able to make their mark at the Festival in the hands of his son.

“We’re going out there with three horses and our own lad will be riding them,” continued the Athenry-based handler.

“It’s way different to Berties Dream and when your own lad rides, of course it is a lot more special. We can’t wait for it.”

With another window providing another pair of defeats to reflect on, interim Reggae Girlz Head coach Xavier Gilbert is hopeful that the rift between the World Cup players and the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) will be resolved soon, so the programme can regain its competitive edge before the start of any other major women’s competition.

This, as he bemoans the fact that the impasse had a hand in Jamaica’s failure to qualify for the ongoing inaugural Concacaf Women’s Gold Cup, and the possibility of the country’s current ranking taking a hit by virtue of the recent results, which could discourage potential opponents.  

Gilbert’s sentiments follow the new-look Reggae Girlz 0-1 defeat to Chile in the second of their two-match international friendly series in Santiago on Tuesday. Yessenia Lopez scored the lone goal in the 34th minute.

The Girlz lost the first game 1-5 on Friday.

While he welcomed the improved performance from the new-look team, coupled with the exposure to high level competition for most players in a now widened pool, Gilbert believes a mixture of the World Cup players and their younger counterparts is the best way to build going forward.

“Both games served us well because like I said a number of players were exposed to high level competition and it was good. So, I hope we can continue to use the FIFA windows, to not only widen the pool and look at as many players as possible, but also to ensure that we are in competitive mode ahead of the other competitions including the World Cup qualifiers,” Gilbert said.

“So, I am optimistic that the World Cup Girlz will be up for selection (for the April window), so hopefully all things can be sorted out by then because we want to continue to build,” he told SportsMax.TV.

Reflecting on the overall trip to Chile, pointed out that the improved performance speaks volumes of what can be achieved when players spend more time together, as he believes additional training sessions contributed to a more energetic and cohesive display.

“It was a way better performance and I honestly thought that we should have taken something out of the game. We created a few scoring opportunities and should have converted at least one, but overall, everything about the performance was much better in terms of our energy and all that,” Gilbert shared.

“I think we applied ourselves much better than the first, and I think having a few training sessions contributed to that because we sorted a few things out. So, we were better and more aggressive in terms of how we defend and applied pressure to the Chileans,” he added.

 Despite the low of dealing with numerous player injuries, Gilbert rated the overall trip a success where player development is concerned.

“We made six changes from the first game, and some were forced changes, so that was a major low for us. But the high point is the exposure that the younger players got and the way they performed, I think they acquitted themselves well which augurs well for the programme going forward,” he ended.

Jamaica’s local-based players and United States-born goalkeeper Jayden Hibbert will have the opportunity to impress Head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson and possibly break into the final squad for the upcoming Concacaf Nations League (CNL) semi-final assignment against United States on March 21.

This, as the 22 Jamaica Premier League (JPL) players and Hibbert, who was recently signed by Atlanta United 2, makes up Hallgrimsson’s 23-player squad down to contest a two-match friendly series against Caribbean neighbours Trinidad and Tobago on Friday and Sunday, in the twin island republic.

The games which are scheduled to be played at the Mannie Ramjohn Stadium in Marabella, and the Larry Gomes Stadium in Arima, are both set to be contested at 3:00pm Jamaica time.

Hibbert, 19, who was signed through the 2024 MLS NEXT Pro season, will become an Atlanta United First Team player effective next year, but until then, he will be hoping to secure a place in Hallgrimsson’s side for not only the CNL game, but also for the Copa America and World Cup qualifiers later this year.

The number 19 overall pick in the 2024 MLS SuperDraft played two years at the University of Connecticut, where he started in all 14 games for the Huskies in 2023. The sophomore made 41 saves and picked up three clean sheets. He collected a season-high fives saves in three matches last season while earning Big East Goalkeeper of the Week honours twice. Prior to joining UConn, Hibbert won a state and national title at St. Benedict’s Prep.

Meanwhile, along with assisting Hallgrimsson decide on which local-based players to include in the final Reggae Boyz squad for the CNL semi-final engagement, both games will also assist Angus Eve and his Soca Warriors in gauging their readiness for the upcoming Copa America qualifying encounter against Canada, scheduled for March 23.

This two-match friendly series is basically a return leg of sorts following Trinidad and Tobago’s visit to Jamaica for two games last year. The Soca Warriors won the second friendly in Montego Bay 1-0, after the first match ended goalless.

The two teams later met at the Concacaf Gold Cup in June where Jamaica came away comfortable 4-1 winners in the Gold Cup group stage meeting.

Squad: Kemar Foster (Waterhouse FC), Shaquan Davis (Mount Pleasant Academy), Jayden Hibbert (Atlanta United), Kyle Ming (Cavalier FC), Richard King (Cavalier FC), Garth Stewart (Harbour View FC), Ricardo Thomas (Dunbeholden FC), Sue-Lae McCalla (Mount Pleasant Academy), Stephen Young (Portmore United), Joel Cunningham (Arnett Gardens FC), Emelio Rousseau (Portmore United), Alex Marshall (Portmore United), Shamour Smith (Montego Bay United), Jahshaun Anglin (Harbour View FC), Romeo Guthrie (Mount Pleasant Academy), Jamone Shepherd (Arnett Gardens FC), Kaheim Dixon (Arnett Gardens FC), Fabian Reid (Arnett Gardens FC), Shaniel Thomas (Cavalier FC), Jason Wright (Moylnes United), Justin Dunn (Tivoli Gardens FC), Andre Fletcher (Waterhouse FC), Devante Campbell (Mount Pleasant Academy)

Ground conditions are set to have a major bearing on Libberty Hunter’s participation at the Cheltenham Festival next month.

Trained by Evan Williams, the eight-year-old has made a bright start to his chasing career and having recovered from a fall on his fences bow by winning with ease at Wincanton on his second outing over the larger obstacles, landed a blow in a highly-competitive event at Prestbury Park on New Year’s Day.

He claimed the scalp of Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Arkle-bound Matata on that occasion and is as short as 9-1 in places for the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual.

However, with the best of Libberty Hunter’s form coming with soft underfoot conditions, Williams is willing to delay confirming the gelding’s participation until the going at the track becomes clearer.

He said: “I couldn’t say we’re aiming at it (the Grand Annual), as that would be a lie, but he has an entry and we will see how the weather is and everything like that because he will want plenty of cut in the ground.

“We’ll keep an eye on the weather and the opposition and go from there. He’s certainly not been aimed for the race.

“I’m not sure if it’s an ideal opportunity for him, but it is always a plus when they have shown a bit of form around the track. I have always had the notion horses who run well round Cheltenham will run well again round Cheltenham.

“We will have a look at it and there will be plenty in there that won’t turn up. But the ground will have a massive impact on which way we think and I’ll speak with Mr and Mrs Rucker closer to the time and go from there.”

Williams has struck at the Cheltenham Festival with High Chimes (Kim Muir, 2008) and course specialist Coole Cody (Plate, 2022) in the past, but Libberty Hunter could be the only horse flying the flag for the Vale of Glamorgan handler this time around.

However, the Welshman has no issue with missing out on the action in the Cotswolds and will quite happily point his horse box in whatever direction necessity dictates during Festival week.

“The other fella (Minella Blueway, Pertemps) won’t get in and is not qualified so the only chance of a runner will be Libberty Hunter,” continued Williams.

“We won’t be watching from the sofa though, if we’re not there we’ll be watching runners at sunny Sedgefield.

“We don’t want to be idle and there’s plenty of races around the country for fellas like us, we don’t have to be concentrating on Cheltenham every year – there’s plenty of meat on the bones of British racing and we don’t have to be looking for a piece of that fancy stuff all the time.”

Hopes are high in the Jonjo O’Neill camp that Crebilly can provide the Jackdaws Castle yard with a first Cheltenham Festival winner since Sky Pirate in 2021.

O’Neill has trained 27 winners at the showpiece meeting in all and sits fifth on the list of current trainers bidding for more.

There was a time that O’Neill rarely left empty handed and as recently as 2014 he enjoyed a treble when Taquin Du Seuil, More Of That and Holywell were all victorious.

Crebilly is ante-post favourite for the TrustATrader Plate Handicap Chase having comfortably accounted for Tahmuras last time out, while he gained valuable Cheltenham experience with two runs at Prestbury Park earlier in the season. In the first of those he fell two out when upsides Ginny’s Destiny, who is a strong fancy for the Grade One Turners Novices’ Chase.

“We were very happy with the way he was running first time out this season but unfortunately he fell,” said O’Neill’s son and assistant, AJ.

“It wasn’t a reflection on his jumping, he’d actually jumped very well but he just crumpled on landing really.

“He wasn’t quite as fluent the next day (fourth) with his jumping, but when he won the other day he showed a bit more like we were hoping to see first and second time.

“Hopefully he’ll go well in the Plate and we’re happy with him.”

Another live chance for the yard is Springwell Bay in the Pertemps Final, having qualified when second at Musselburgh last time out.

“We were hoping for an indication of which way to go with him when he ran at Cheltenham when heavy ground and top-weight probably just got the better of him,” said O’Neill.

“We felt if he was good enough for the Stayers’ Hurdle he’d have been good enough to take on those conditions.

“Since stepping him up in trip he hasn’t won, but he was second the last day and probably showed a bit more of what we were looking for and it showed he probably does get the trip. Hopefully it doesn’t get too testing.”

Johnnywho has run two solid races in graded company since winning first time out over hurdles and holds each-way claims in the Albert Bartlett.

“Johnnywho stayed very well at Newbury, he hit a bit of a flat spot before staying on strongly in the Challow,” said O’Neill.

“We hoped he’d run well at Cheltenham the last day but he got a bit outpaced over that trip (fourth to Gidleigh Park) so stepping him up in trip looked the logical thing to do.

“He’s yet to prove it, but we were very happy as the ground was very testing at Newbury. Off the back of that we’d be hopeful.”

Annaf could be in line for more Middle Eastern riches after his lucrative success in the Saudi National Bank 1351 Turf Sprint.

The five-year-old had a busy and profitable season last year, consistently turning up in top sprints and holding his own when often starting at outsider’s odds.

He was fourth when beaten two and three-quarter lengths at 50-1 in the Duke of York Stakes, after which he was defeated by the same margin at the same price when third in the Group One King’s Stand at Royal Ascot.

Even when taking up the lower places in the Hackwood, the Hopeful Stakes and the Sprint Cup, he was never beaten more than three and a half lengths when stepping up to six furlongs.

At Doncaster, he moved back half a furlong in the Portland and under top weight he claimed his first win of the turf season, a success he then followed up when landing the Group Three Bengough Stakes at Ascot in October.

He made his seasonal debut at Lingfield at the start of February, placing second in the Listed Kachy Stakes behind Clive Cox’s Diligent Harry – who subsequently landed the Hever Sprint Stakes at Southwell on Saturday afternoon.

The Saudi Turf Sprint was Annaf’s next destination, edging up to just shy of seven furlongs in a deep race that included the reigning champion Bathrat Leon from Japan, Kieran Cotter’s speedy filly Matilda Picotte and Tim Easterby’s British Champions Sprint Stakes winner Art Power.

Under a canny ride from Rossa Ryan having started in stall 12, they found space on the inside rail and were gaining ground constantly.

As others faded Annaf began to advance and ultimately crossed the line three-quarters of a length ahead of Japan’s La La Christine to take home nearly £1million in prize-money.

Appleby said: “He’s all good, he’s come out of the race fine.

“He did it really well, we were quite surprised at the price of him to be honest.

“He ran really well in the Kachy Stakes, we gave him a prep run in that and he went very well.

“The winner of that (Diligent Harry) came out and won the Listed race at Southwell, so the form has really stacked up.

“He’s always run well in good quality races and he’s always been thereabouts.”

A visit to Japan was mentioned in the immediate aftermath of the Saudi success, but connections have decided that the meeting comes too soon and he will instead return to the Middle East for the Al Quoz Sprint on Dubai World Cup night.

“He’ll more than likely go out to Dubai on World Cup night, he was invited to Japan, but we’ve decided not to go there as the race might come too soon for him and there’s a lot of travelling as well,” Appleby said.

“He’ll come home and then probably about a week before the race, he’ll fly out to Dubai.

“Then I imagine then it’ll be Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood, all the big meetings.”

Appleby’s other sprint star is the rapid Big Evs, winner of the Windsor Castle, Molecomb, Flying Childers and then the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint last year.

The colt has returned to training after his winter break and is progressing well as connections ponder where to begin his three-year-old campaign.

“He’s good, he’s wintered really well and he’s in training,” Appleby said.

“We’ve not really made our plans yet with him, but he’s on the go so he’ll run early season, we just don’t know where yet.”

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