Britain’s richest handicap hurdle takes place on Saturday and jockey Will Kennedy has high hopes of capturing the prize with the progressive Waterlord.
Kennedy is enjoying another excellent season, as is Waterlord’s trainer and Kennedy’s main supporter Donald McCain, and there is plenty of confidence behind the northern raider.
We spoke to Kennedy about his big weekend ride, plans for the progressive pair Testify and Dear Sire, and how he thinks northern jump racing is getting on generally.
Waterlord looks a strong contender for the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. What do you make of his prospects?
I’m very excited about him and about riding him. It was a very good performance at Haydock two runs ago and I felt we got away with the heavy ground that day. The last day I think the ground, and possibly the two races coming reasonably quick, just caught him out. I don’t think the ground will be as bad at Newbury and I think he’s in there with a strong chance.
Waterlord’s win this season have come in small fields. How do you think he’ll get on is a 24-runner race?
He’s a big, strapping horse and has some good bumper form in big fields. You need a little bit of luck in a race like this anyway, but he’ll certainly not be intimidated by it.
Stepping into a big handicap such as this is a new situation for Waterlord. Do you feel he has had enough experience to cope with it to the best of his ability?
The way you have to look at it is hopefully by not having raced in something like this before means he’s still got at least a couple of pounds in hand – that’s what we think anyway. If he’d had lot of experience in these kind of races then he’d already be more exposed and it’d just be the case of which horse got the best luck on the day. There’s more to come from us.
Testify is another exciting horse you are associated with. What have you made of his progress this season?
He won over a trip that was insufficient for him the first two times over fences, jumping well from the front and putting it to them over two miles. It was a messy race last time at Haydock over two-and-a-half miles, but it was another good performance and he won readily in the end. He’s such an exciting horse for the future.
Testify holds entries in the JLT Novices’ Chase and the RSA Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. Which one would you prefer to see him in?
I’ll leave that up to Donald and Mr [Trevor] Hemmings. He does love loads of cut in the ground so you’d have to wonder if he’d run there if there wasn’t a good bit of ease underfoot. If it did look like it was going to be soft then I’m sure he’d go there as it’d really play to his advantage being able to race on that kind of ground.
Dear Sire was a good winner for you in the Scottish County Hurdle last weekend. What are the plans for him now?
He’s a really tough little horse and one I’ve always had a soft spot for. He’s really going the right way. There was some talk after his win last week about going for the County Hurdle with him, but he’s not exactly been mapped out for the race and you can sometimes run into something that’s been plotted for it all year. It might be the case he bypasses Cheltenham for Aintree and takes on the horses from Cheltenham when he is fresher. If he did go to Cheltenham I could see him running well, though, as he’s tough, hardy and really tries. He stays further than two miles as well, which I think you need for those Cheltenham handicaps.
It has been a good season so far for you and trainer Donald McCain. What is he like to ride for?
Donald has a way he likes his horses ridden because he knows he has them super fit and really well schooled. We keep it straightforward and if something wants to come and beat us we make them come and beat us – we don’t ever make it easy for them. I enjoy riding horses that way and I go out with loads of confidence that my horse is going to jump well, is going to stay all the way to the line and I can ride them aggressively.
Northern Britain has lagged behind in terms of successes in jump racing in recent seasons. Do you think that is changing now?
Donald had his troubles a few years ago and has pushed hard to get back up to where he is now. He’s already surpassed last year’s total of winners and looks like he’ll have over 100 winners this season. That’s credit to him and to his owners, who are prepared to back northern racing. It’s getting stronger and you have to remember the likes of Ferdy Murphy, Howard Johnson and others all left the sport at the same time, which reduced the big yards up there. But you look at Brian Ellison, Nicky Richards and Ruth Jefferson, as well as Donald, and they’ve got some real quality horses.
And, finally, what aims do you have for the rest of the season?
Last year was my best and was the first time I’d ridden over 50 winners. I started this season wanting to beat last season’s total of 63 winners and that’s still the aim. If I can stay injury-free and continue to ride with the confidence I feel I have at the moment, then hopefully I can pass that total this time around.