'Mick Channon's team have notable spring in their step as they return to Cheltenham'

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Southampton striker Kevin Keegan (c) beats fellow saint Mick Channon and Birmingham City goalkeeper Jeff Wealands to head in the 3rd goal in a 3-1 First Divison win over Birmingham City at the Dell on August 30, 1980
Channon (top right) had two spells at Southampton, making 507 league appearances and scoring 185 goals

Mick Channon, footballer-turned-racehorse trainer, has made his mark on a string of leading sporting venues.

There's Wembley, of course, where Channon played such a significant role in Southampton's 1976 FA Cup final win over Manchester United; Hampden Park, where the striker's first goal for England came in a 5-0 defeat of Scotland in 1973; The Dell, Southampton's former home, so often the scene of his trademark 'windmill' arm-waving celebration.

Since switching to horse racing - taking a training licence principally for flat races from 1990 - wins at Royal Ascot and in Group One races, including a Classic victory with Samitar in the Irish 1000 Guineas of 2012, have followed.

However, 2018 has seen a new summit scaled when, from the handful of National Hunt horses under Channon's care, a coveted trophy at jumping's Cheltenham Festival was claimed by Mister Whitaker, in a fiercely competitive handicap chase.

Now the six-year-old returns to the scene of his greatest win as a leading contender for Cheltenham's autumn feature - the BetVictor Gold Cup, for which he's been allotted 11 stone three pounds.

After a recent win at Carlisle for the horse, to be ridden by jockey Adrian Heskin in the silks of businessman Tim Radford, there is a notable spring in the step of most of the team - though perhaps not quite so much where 69-year-old Channon is concerned.

"Dad's not here because he's been having a bad time with his back, but we're all delighted with Mister Whitaker," said Channon's assistant trainer and son Jack at the launch of the race.

"We were chuffed with Carlisle. Some people in hindsight will say: 'Why did you run there as you've now gone up seven pounds [in the weights]?' But we ran him mainly for rustiness, which you can't afford in one of these big handicaps.

"We had him about 90% for Carlisle and there should be a bit of improvement.

"I love the way he saves so much energy at his fences, leaving more for the finish - he never fails to deliver."

Mick Channon

Based at the historic West Ilsley stables near Newbury, Berkshire - formerly owned by the Queen - the Channons, aided by retired Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer Henrietta Knight, supervise Mister Whitaker and just three other jumpers alongside about 120 flat horses.

They've enjoyed a highly successful flat season, and are already looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, but not before taking on the big National Hunt names.

"The all-weather in the winter is important obviously, but it can be a bit mundane, and having a small but quality team of jumpers - a really lovely team - is good for everyone's morale," said Jack Channon.

"In the BetVictor we have to take on Rather Be, who we beat just a head at the Festival, again and he has a swing [advantage] in the weights, so it's a big ask but if he's to be a top horse he needs to defy that.

"It all depends on where his ceiling is, but at the start of the season we said that if he has the ability to go that far then the Ryanair Chase at the Festival would be the race for him. This should help us work it out."

Any other business?

Davy Russell on Tiger Roll
Grand National winner Tiger Roll is a three-time Cheltenham Festival winner

Others being talked up for the feature race include the Nicky Henderson-trained Rather Be and Noel Fehily's mount Kalondra. In-form Bryony Frost partners Frodon, the top weight, as she looks push her burgeoning riding career to new levels after losing the right to claim a weight allowance with a 75th career success this week.

Grand National winner Tiger Roll returns to action for the first time since his springtime triumph, in Friday's Glenfarclas Handicap Chase staged on the 'cross country' track in the middle of the course. As well as looking for an Aintree repeat this season, trainer Gordon Elliott's ambition for the eight-year-old - "an amazing little horse" - is to win at March's Cheltenham Festival for a fourth time after the Triumph Hurdle (2014), the National Hunt Chase (2017) and the Cross Country Chase (2018).

Defi Du Seuil and Lalor are two intriguing contenders due to make the journey up the M5 from the south west of England for the Racing Post Arkle Trophy Trial (Sunday). Defi Du Seuil, from the in-form Somerset stable of trainer Philip Hobbs, was the 2017 Cheltenham Festival's Triumph Hurdle winner but lost his way subsequently. Highly rated Lalor, a winner at last season's Aintree Festival, was the apple of the eye of his late trainer Richard Woollacott, who died in January, and is now under the care of Woollacott's widow Kayley in north Devon.

No new trainer has made a more striking impression over the past 15 years than Dr Richard Newland, winner of the 2014 Grand National with Pineau De Re, from whose small but prolific base near Worcester 40 winners have been sent out already this season. Two of those - from two starts for the Newland team - have been by Storm Rising, whose ongoing rate of improvement faces its biggest test to date in the Greatwood Hurdle (Sunday).

Officials are to use a specially designed 33m stretch of plastic rail to direct horses and jockeys up the run-in from the final obstacle in steeplechases - and away from the temptation to head off on another circuit of the track - after two separate incidents at the October fixture. On both occasions runners crashed through the length of tape traditionally used.

Cheltenham's November Meeting - changed from 'the Open' after apparent confusion with golf's Open - is growing all the time and is expected to attract crowds of more than 65,000 over the three days.