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Rooneys enter eight for festival after lifting ban on Cheltenham runners

Willoughby Court: landed the Neptune for owners Paul and Clare Rooney in 2017
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Eight entries for high-profile owners Paul and Clare Rooney were on Thursday confirmed for Cheltenham Festival handicaps after they instructed trainers to lift their ban on runners at the course after a meeting with the track's officials last week.

Former jump jockey Jason Maguire, racing manager to the Rooneys, met with clerk of the course Simon Claisse following the owners' concerns over the perceived increased risk of injury to horses running at the track.

The Rooneys wrote to their trainers in December to inform them they did not want their horses to be considered for races at Cheltenham, but revealed they had reversed their decision prior to the announcement of the festival handicap entries.

The eight Rooney-owned entries were among a total of 897 for the ten festival handicaps, including a record 322 from Ireland.

Paul Rooney (left) with his racing manager Jason Maguire: he and wife Clare have reversed their decision not to have runners at Cheltenham
Barney Dwan has been entered in the Ultima Handicap Chase, Coral Cup and Kim Muir, while I'm A Game Changer is among potential runners in the County Hurdle, Coral Cup and Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle, in which Who's My Jockey is also entered.

Go Conquer was another Ultima Handicap Chase entry, while Kruzhlinin and The Last Samuri are expected to be among the Foxhunter entries that close on Tuesday.

Paul Rooney said: "We're pleased with what Cheltenham are doing to address our concerns and we're looking forward to racing back at the track in the near future, as and when the races are right for our horses.

"Cheltenham and the clerk of the course Simon Claisse have addressed the issues and I'm really happy with what they've done.

"They've put my mind at rest that we're going forward in the right direction and the welfare of the horses is paramount."

The leading festival hopes

Kruzhlinin Foxhunter
The Gordon Elliott-trained 12-year-old has won six open point-to-point contests this winter and finished third in a 2m6f hunter chase at Down Royal in December.

Fifth in the Ultima Handicap Chase three years ago, Kruzhlinin retains plenty of ability and has breezed to victory under Jamie Codd on his last two starts.

The former Grade 3-winning hurdler is versatile regarding ground conditions and has sound claims in what appears a likely open renewal.

Go Conquer Ultima Handicap Chase
Among the ante-post market principals for the first handicap of the meeting at a general 16-1 and that's no surprise after his impressive Sky Bet Chase victory last month.

Trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, Go Conquer has improved with each start this campaign and ran well when fifth in the Ultima in 2017 when trained by Jonjo O'Neill.

Go Conquer: landed the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster on his last start
The Grade 3-winning chaser could be set for the Grand National in April, but warrants the utmost respect at Cheltenham.

I'm A Game Changer County Hurdle/Coral Cup/Martin Pipe
A narrow winner at Newbury at the end of December and versatile regarding ground and trip.

I'm A Game Changer, trained by Philip Hobbs, is a consistent seven-year-old and should be suited by a strong gallop.

He may lack course experience, having not run at Cheltenham, but is likely to attract supporters in whichever race he contests.

The Rooneys, who enjoyed festival success with Willoughby Court in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle in 2017, have not been represented with a runner at Cheltenham since the Friday of the November meeting.

The owners lost promising chaser Starchitect after he sustained a fatal injury when looking set to win the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at the track in December 2017.

Rooney said: "The welfare of our horses has and always will come first. I'm constantly in touch with our racing manager Jason Maguire and the vets and whatever the horses need, they get it. 

"If it's rest, rehabilitation or any therapy, they get it."

Earlier this month, the tricky penultimate fence on the Old course at Cheltenham was moved for a third time in the last nine years – an additional ten yards past the bend into the home straight – following discussions between course officials, jockeys and BHA senior inspector of courses Richard Linley.

The BHA conducted a review of the festival following the death of six horses last year, and one subsequently as a result of injuries sustained at the meeting, resulting in 17 recommendations to improve equine welfare.

Ian Renton, Cheltenham and South West Regional Director at Jockey Club Racecourses, said: "We are pleased that Paul and Clare have decided to make entries at Cheltenham and look forward to their horses competing at the festival.

"The team here takes immense care to provide a safe, world-class racing surface for more than 1,500 racehorses each year.

"The BHA inspects the course on a regular basis to ensure the highest welfare standards are delivered and that is a priority that has our total commitment."

Brian Hughes rode the Rooneys-owned I'm To Blame, trained by Keith Dalgleish, to victory at Sedgefield on Thursday and believes they expressed their right as owners to boycott Cheltenham's meetings in December and January.

He said: "I feel that there was too much made of it. Mr and Mrs Rooney, like every owner, pay the bills and if they want to run at a certain track or don't want to run at a certain track they can.

"Marwan Koukash doesn't get any flak when he runs every horse at Chester because he likes it and he has every right to. It's up to every owner and their trainer where they run their horses."  

The weights for the festival handicaps will be confirmed on Wednesday.

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The team here takes immense care to provide a safe, world-class racing surface for more than 1,500 racehorses each year
E.W. Terms