TOM SCUDAMORE would concede that he was a bit-player in his first 12 Cheltenham Festivals, managing just two handicap winners from 120 rides, but the lights turned to green last year when he was on the victory rostrum three times, twice with Grade One celebrations.
That change in fortune has prompted Scudamore to approach the biggest four days in jump racing with a level of expectancy this week rather than the customary wild optimism, with Wednesday’s RSA Chase second-favourite King’s Palace heading a fistful of quality rides for the 32-year-old son of eight-times champion jockey Peter Scudamore.
“My three winners from last year are all on the easy list, which just illustrates what an achievement it was by David (Pipe),” observed Scudamore. “It’s tough enough to keep your horse in one piece, let alone score back-to-back successes.”
Reflecting on that triple-decker, Tom added: “Realistically, we went for the Arkle with Western Warhorse hoping we might sneak a place. He was 33-1 and justifiably so, but we gradually crept into the race and going to the final fence it suddenly hit me that we might actually win it.
“That was a terrific thrill, but Dynaste made the week when winning the Ryanair Chase, because he had been a bridesmaid so many times and really deserved a big one, while the icing on the cake came courtesy of Ballynagour, who dotted up in the Byrne Group Plate. He is so fragile but a very good horse when he is right, and you won’t see many easier winners of a handicap.”
Scudamore suffered his biggest disappointment at the Festival three years ago when Grands Crus, having started 6-5 favourite for the RSA Chase, “hit the wall” up the home straight and finished out with the washing. And though the Irish won’t hear of defeat for Don Poli in this year’s race, Tom rates King’s Palace his best chance of the week.
“King’s Palace is 3-3 over fences, and, although he was a smart hurdler, he was always going to be a better chaser. He was a natural from day one and he’s very athletic. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him, but now he has to deliver on the main stage.”
I reminded Tom that King’s Palace had fluffed his lines here 12 months ago when second-favourite for the Albert Bartlett, but he was quick to defend his number one hope.
“We hope and think that the reason he did not finish his race was because he could not breathe. Normally you press the button at the second last and he goes again, but that day he fell in a heap. He had a wind operation last summer which seems to have done the trick.
“He was only entered in the Gold Cup to give us the option in case the race fell apart, but the RSA was always the target. People have made a lot about him having to make the running, but, though he races with plenty of enthusiasm, he is much more settled this year and I won’t be fussed if someone else wants to do the donkeywork.”
The Irish have won the Champion Bumper nine times in the last 11 years, and Pipe and Scudamore look to have Britain’s best chance of repelling the raiders this season with Moon Racer, who was hugely impressive when winning at Cheltenham in October but has not raced since.
“The bumper’s a complete lottery. Cue Card was 40-1 when he beat Al Ferof, and Briar Hill was a 25-1 winner, so punters are faced with a lot of unknown quantities. I can say that we like Moon Racer, but who knows what is lurking amongst the opposition.”
However, Scudamore did suggest that 33-1 was an insulting price in the Gold Cup about his mount, The Giant Bolster, who is running in the race for the fourth year running.
Smiling as he considered the chance of a horse whom he holds with great affection, the jockey said: ”He already has a second, third and fourth, so there is only one place left, isn’t there? ‘The Bolster’ may not have been firing of late, but it’s the same every year.
“He comes alive at Cheltenham, he feels to me that he is in the same form as he was last year, and I don’t think the race is any stronger, so, though he’s a year older, you ignore him at your peril.”
Tom was barely out of nappies before he was sitting on his first pony and he was still at school when his father won the Champion Hurdle on Celtic Shot in 1988.
Just two years later the boys enjoyed their Festival baptism, being down at the last flight as dad roared to victory on Regal Ambition in the Sun Alliance Hurdle.
Less intense these days – “put that down to marriage and having two young girls” – Tom still sorely misses his grandfather, Michael Scudamore, who won the Grand National on Oxo in 1958 and sadly passed away last November.
“If I’m lucky enough to ride a winner I will look for the spot where grandad stood every year - there is not a day goes by when I don’t think about him. I was so pleased he was at Cheltenham last year to see me ride those three winners, and when people praise me for being strong in a finish I tell them that it’s in the genes.”