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Owner sweet on Martello Tower: Barry Connell interview

You won’t hear him saying it himself, but Barry Connell deserves a fair chunk of luck at this year’s Cheltenham Festival. Last year the owner decided against sending over his leading novice hurdler, The Tullow Tank, with the horse’s then-trainer Philip Fenton facing legal proceedings over the discovery of unauthorised medicines at his yard. Connell’s star hurdler, Our Conor, did make it to Cheltenham only to be cruelly, and fatally, injured in the early stages of the Champion Hurdle. Unbowed by these events, Connell is preparing to see several runners carrying his yellow and blue silks next week headed by Foxrock, who the owner has elected to supplement into the Ryanair Chase on Thursday.

The seven-year-old had been under consideration for the Cheltenham Gold Cup after advertising his credentials for top honours with a narrow second to Carlingford Lough in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month. However, the shorter 2m5f Ryanair Chase is the choice and Connell says: “The reason we’re going for the Ryanair is the horse is still young and we see it as a stepping stone to the Gold Cup next year.

“He’s already won over the trip and has plenty of pace and it’s better than running him over the extra trip of the Gold Cup as that race can leave its mark on a young horse. Hopefully he has two or three more years at the top. He wasn’t far off being top class last year when he won two Grade 2s and was third in a Grade 1 not far behind Carlingford Lough. We started him off in handicaps this year and he ran well in the Paddy Power before winning the BoyleSports Chase at Leopardstown and running second in the Hennessy so he’s got good form and talent. He’s rated 164 and Don Cossack is top rated on 166 for the Ryanair so we’d like to think he’ll run well.”

Along with Foxrock, Connell will have a good squad of horses heading to Cheltenham including recent scorer Gwencily Berbas, who is set to line up in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle.

Trained by Alan Fleming, Gwencily Berbas beat just two rivals on his debut for connections but Connell has big hopes for the four-year-old and no concerns about the hurly burly nature of the racing at the festival.

“The handicapper has given him a fairly lenient mark of 139 and the Fred Winter looks the obvious race to go to,” Connell says. “We haven’t had him that long as we’d bought him in October from France and given him a break as most of those French horses need a break when they arrive. We’d only had him back in five weeks and he’d only done one bit of work on the grass before he ran.

“He’ll improve a lot for the run so I couldn’t be happier with him. You could put a bomb under him and it wouldn’t matter. He’s the most laid back horse we’ve ever had.”

The Tullow Tank may have been denied his chance to shine last year but will be in action this time around with a growing sense of optimism about his chances in the JLT Novices’ Chase emanating from the yard of trainer Sandra Hughes.

Connell added: “He won his beginners’ chase first time very well and then had a couple of disappointing runs but there were reasons for that.

“He jumped great the last day and we’re a lot happier with him now and I think he’ll acquit himself well at Cheltenham. He’s coming back to himself and could go well.”

However, none of Connell’s horses have a better chance than Martello Tower in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle with the owner expecting a bold showing from the Mags Mullins-trained runner.

“Martello Tower should be favourite as he has the best form in the race by a mile,” Connell continued. “He’ll love the hill and get every yard of the three miles because he’s tough. He’s my bet of the meeting.”