Why hunting and fun rides are proving the perfect (if unusual) prep for this Cheltenham Gold Cup contender

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  • At racing yards up and down the country, preparations are stepping up as the Cheltenham Festival beckons. But Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Santini, is undergoing a rather unusual regime ahead of his tilt at the showcase race, enjoying some hunting, team chasing, hunter trials and fun rides under new trainer Polly Gundry.

    “He works harder and better if he has a few trips out, so that’s why we try to do it,” Polly says.

    The imposing 10-year-old by Milan has been a high calibre chaser during an exceptional career and he’s no stranger to the Cheltenham Festival, having finished just a neck behind winner Al Boum Photo in the 2020 Gold Cup, with placings in the RSA Novices’ Chase in 2019 and the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle in 2018 when trained by Nicky Henderson.

    But, after a lacklustre year in which he was pulled up in his second attempt at the Gold Cup, connections decided to give him a change of scenery and he was sent to Devon-based trainer Polly Gundry, who actually broke in Richard and Lizzie Kelvin-Hughes’s home-bred and did all his pre-training. Santini also won a point-to-point for Polly’s husband Ed Walker before joining Nicky Henderson at his Seven Barrows stables in Lambourn.

    The eight-time champion lady point-to-point jockey admits to feeling daunted at the prospect of taking on such a high-calibre chaser back in April. But so far this season, he’s put in two encouraging performances on the track and is now all systems go for the Cheltenham Festival.

    “He’s been hunting three times – once with the Berkeley and twice with the Cotley Harriers – we’ve done bits of flatwork and he did the Cotley Hunt fun ride too,” says Polly. “He’s usually an absolute gentleman out hunting.

    “He hasn’t been hunter trialling this year because it’s been a bit too firm, but he has in previous years. He’s just used to being chucked in the lorry and dragged off with me to do lots of odd things!” says Polly, who rides him herself nearly every day.

    A star in their midst

    While this legendary chaser can hack round the Ottery St Mary countryside anonymously, he did get recognised by some surprised competitors at the Stevenstone Hunt team chase in September.

    Polly will now also be focussing on some weight management for this “good doer”.

    “He definitely needs to be a bit leaner before the Gold Cup!” she says. “It’s the sign of a healthy, happy horse but he’s just a really good doer. He goes out in the field to keep him marching around too.”

    Polly has also been using “lots of old-fashioned roadwork” to help keep his feet right as Santini has been prone to getting corns in the past.

    “We’ve just worked on trying to get him confident in his feet again as I think that was part of the root of his problems last year,” explains Polly.

    Polly is thoroughly enjoying having Santini back in her stables.

    “He’s always been a gent but he’s much more professional nowadays,” she says. “As a baby he was really spooky and silly, we couldn’t go out the back drive if it was dustbin day. He’s still spooky and fun, but he does it in an arrogant way now. You could do a dressage test on him today or you could showjump him, he’d have made the most beautiful eventer. He’s a proper all-rounder.”

    The road to the Cheltenham Festival for Santini

    Santini’s first run for Polly came at Cheltenham in December under Harry Skelton, where the gelding just tired in the closing stages. Nick Scholfield received the leg up when Polly sent Santini back to Cheltenham on Saturday (29 January) where they finished second, just over two lengths behind Santini’s former stable-mate, Nicky Henderson’s Gold Cup hope Chantry House.

    “The ride Nick Scholfield has given him was amazing,” says Polly. “As Harry [Skelton] couldn’t ride him this time and as he will probably ride Protektorat in the Gold Cup, Nick has come in and got to know him over the past month to six weeks and he will probably ride him in the Gold Cup.

    “It was just poetry to me. That reception will make the world of difference to him as it will do his confidence good. He is a showman.”

    Jockey Nick Scholfield describes Santini as jumping “like a stag”.

    “He’s everyone’s dream – he doesn’t pull but he does still have a little bit about him,” says Nick. “I’ve ridden lots for Polly over the years and often sit on some Kelvin-Hughes horses there. I first rode Santini when he was four and at Polly’s when she trained him to win his first point-to-point. I jumped a few jumps on him back then and he stood out – it was no real surprise to see him go on and do great things and almost win a Gold Cup with Nicky Henderson. I’ve followed Santini’s career all the way through.

    “It’s very exciting to have the ride on him in the Gold Cup.”

    Santini will be making a few more appearances on the hunting field in the run-up to the Cheltenham Festival.

    “The Gold Cup is the aim now and he’ll hopefully go hunting again this week. He’ll also be doing his long, steady canters every week – it’s four miles on our soft sand,” says Polly. “People ask what it’s like to have a Gold Cup horse but I try to compartmentalise it slightly, because actually I’ve got plenty to worry about and all I want to do is not let him get the snots – he’s not a Gold Cup horse if he’s not healthy. He will be treated very similarly to the rest but I’ll probably just watch him a bit more often.”

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