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Cheltenham’s Open meeting broke all previous crowd records for Saturday’s running of the Paddy Power Gold Cup, with over 35,000 punters in attendance. It’s a meeting regularly marked in the calendar by former Gloucester and England rugby player James Simpson-Daniel, even if his own horse Monbeg Dude isn’t taking part.

The three day meeting is the first big National Hunt benchmark of the jumping season and where, a year ago “the Dude”, as James fondly calls him, finished 4th in the Murphy Group Handicap Chase. It was also the weekend of what turned out to be Sinbad’s last first team appearance for Gloucester, in the LV Cup against Newcastle.

“When I start talking about Dude I don’t shut up” said James, smiling. “The first thing probably half the people I see say to me is ‘how’s the horse?’ – even when I was hobbling around on crutches. It shows how they’ve shared the fun he’s given me (Simpson Daniel owns the horse with former team mates Mike Tindall and Nicky Robinson). I suppose I should have pictures of my boys (George, 4 and Oliver, 2) on my phone screensaver but it’s the Dude when he won the Welsh National. He’s been incredible.”

I saw James at one of his favourite cafe’s in Cheltenham. A midweek lunchtime meeting with him would normally have meant a media call at Hartpury but, tucking into a ham omlette, he openly admitted how the nine year old chaser had been a big outlet for him.

“I can’t describe how good he’s been for me” Simpson-Daniel said. “My ankle injury was very nasty, and remember I had my shoulder injury the season before – thankfully we got that right enough to play again. To be able to go racing – especially at Cheltenham – and watch him, get the adrenalin, get the buzz, has been a great pick up. It was nice to get what you might call the pre match nerves back again when he had his first run of the season at Chepstow. All I’d had was a feeling of loss since my retirement. It got the heart pounding again and I welcomed it.”

This is the fifth season “Oydunow” (the name of the Simpson-Daniel/Robinson/Tindall syndicate) have owned Monbeg Dude. He really came to prominence by winning at the 2012 Open meeting at Cheltenham at 25-1, and then landing the Welsh National in January 2013. Throughout, he’s been trained in Herefordshire by Michael Scudamore, and James enjoys being able to pick up the phone to him.

“Michael is a brilliant trainer for us” said James. “He likes his rugby and we were friends with him before we had Dude. so we can ask him the silliest question in the world without him hanging up. Michael is probably a bit defensive with him, but he wants us to have an opinion about when and where he should run, so it’s a good balance. He didn’t run at Cheltenham this weekend because if we went in the same race he won two years ago he’s be carrying a lot more weight. We’re looking at a few other options.”

Those options include the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury at the end of the month, or the Becher Chase at Aintree in December, which is run over the Grand National fences but a shorter distance. Earlier this year Monbeg Dude ran in the National and came 7th. Surely the boys would like to have another crack at it ? James finishes his food. For once, there is a pause in his enthusiastic chat.

“We’ve got that discussion to have and I’m not looking forward to it” he said. “I’d hate to make the wrong decision.”

“This year there was no hard luck story. Paul Carberry gave him a cracking ride – he jumped well, on the whole – and two fences out there was no question in my mind he had a chance of winning. He did tire quite quickly after that but he’s plugged away and kept going. He’s held nothing back and the weight wasn’t a bad weight. There were no excuses, so would we get another run without a hard luck story ? We’ve probably got five runs a season with him so could he go to another big race where he’d have a better chance ?”

“One or two of the others might want to go for the National again because we’re the type who would rather be ambitious with him. Every time we’ve been like that he’s answered us and that’s why we love him. Nicky (Robinson) would want him to run every day if he was able to. Essentially we are three friends having some brilliant days out watching our horse. What more could you ask for.”

Photograph : Copyright http://www.monbegdude.co.uk

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