Better fresh for Gold Cup tilt

A prominent steeplechaser has been wintering in Italy in preparation for Cheltenham. Richard Edmondson reports
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The Independent Online
A horse ambled down a ramp in Upper Lambourn last night after a holiday on the Continent. It could have been the Gold Cup winner.

While other frost-coated beasts have been falling by the wayside for the Blue Riband, Couldnt Be Better, the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup winner in November, has been topping up his tan at Pisa in Italy's Tuscany region, on the shores of the Ligurian Sea.

Punters may now start leaning towards the nine-year-old, as he is reportedly a fresh animal following a health regime that has been established in the racing consciousness for some time.

It was almost 30 years ago that Vincent O'Brien, the master of innovative thinking, graced Pisa with his subsequent Classic-winning colt (to this day the best thoroughbred he has ever ridden, according to Lester Piggott), Sir Ivor.

Other trainers have not been slow to pick up. Yesterday Barry Hills flew out to the poor man's Dubai to monitor the five horses he has there, including the Cheveley Park runner-up from last season, My Branch. His son John also has a sizeable contingent at Pisa.

Couldnt Be Better, along with stablemate Padre Mio, has been soaking up the rays since late December, but it did not take long before the weather was trying to knock some of the goodness out of them. When they returned by road this week they hit snow before their first stopover in France, at Dijon. Further flurries followed as they approached their second harbour, Paris.

Those at Uplands believe the return leg will not negate the benefit of the health farm at Pisa, where their horses had the bonus of quarters in the sumptuous veterinary area.

"Couldnt Be Better has been doing a lot of long, slow exercise, lots of slow and repeat cantering," Miriam Francome, assistant to the gelding's trainer, Charlie Brooks, said yesterday.

"He takes quite a lot of getting fit but, on the other hand, he does go well fresh, and we're just hoping that when he comes back he'll just have to get the cardiovascular system back into action.

"The idea was to get away from the damp, cold English winter and to get him warmer and freshen him up. It has rained in Italy, but, on the other hand, they haven't had those awful foggy, freezing nasty days that we've had.''

Couldnt Be Better's last appearance on the racecourse resulted in a fall at Ascot, and yesterday came news of a far more serious accident for a Cheltenham aspirant, in Ireland. That's My Man, Aidan O'Brien's favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival, perished after injuring himself in a routine - gallop.

"The horse broke his off hind leg about a furlong from the end of a half-speed gallop yesterday afternoon at Ballydoyle," Charlie Swan, Ireland's champion jockey, said. "I was about to pick up his lead horse when That's My Man had his accident. The vets were there and took X-rays and tried everything to save him but they hd to put him down later in the day.

``It is a terrible blow for all of us because he was really going well and was one of our main fancies for Cheltenham.''

There are still prizes to be claimed before the bunfight at the foot of Cleeve Hill, however, and the betting for tomorrow's Racing Post Handicap Chase was slipped over the gas rings yesterday following the abandonment of the Jim Ford Chase at Wincanton.

Barton Bank and Lusty Light, both intended runners in Somerset, are now back among the considerations for Kempton's highlight tomorrow.

RACING POST HANDICAP CHASE (Kempton tomorrow) William Hill ante-post prices: 9-4 Unguided Missile, 7-2 Percy Smollet, 9-2 Rough Quest, 11-2 Amtrak Express, 9-1 Big Matt, 10-1 Barton Bank, 12-1 Lusty Light, Young Hustler, 14-1 Egypt Mill Prince, 33-1 Whispering Steel, 66-1 Elfast.