Festival doubt as Maguire mourns

RACING COMMENTARY

The Cheltenham Festival, which begins tomorrow, is the three-day meeting which matters above all others for jockeys, but it will not be at the forefront of Adrian Maguire's thoughts this week. The Irishman, who lies level with Richard Dunwoody on 121 winners at the head of the riders' championship, will, in fact, miss part or all of the meeting following the death of his mother.

"Due to the present circumstances Adrian will not be riding tomorrow," Dave Roberts, Maguire's agent, said yesterday. "A decision concerning Cheltenham will not be made until the morning."

If the jockey is absent, there will be a logistical problem of some complexity for David Nicholson, his principal employer. The Cotswolds trainer was not worried about himself yesterday, however. "Adrian and his mother were very close," he said. "Whatever he decides I will go along with."

Maguire's predicament is a hurtful passage at the outset of National Hunt's most feverish times. His place on Relkeel in the Champion Hurdle tomorrow is now in doubt, though there will be others in the race who capture the very essence of the Festival's appeal.

In one corner will be Oliver Martin Carwardine Sherwood, former public schoolboy and now in the vanguard of Britain's young trainers. His Large Action is vying for favouritism with Ireland's Danoli, whose trainer, Tom Foley, is the epitome of the folksy image of a small-time horseman. Both are champing at the prospect of competition at Prestbury Park as violently as any mustang.

"The camaraderie between the Irish and the English, and the best horses at the best track make Cheltenham unique," Sherwood said yesterday. "The atmosphere in my yard over the weekend has been very tense but exciting at the same time. All the lads are excited and taking turns to do the security work at night."

The Festival's greatest strength is that it enjoys a protracted and blanket build-up, the sort of hype that boxing promoters would sell their mothers for. And, unlike a Frank Bruno contest, the drum roll rarely ends with a raspberry.

Last year's most powerful image was Foley and Danoli being swept into the winners' enclosure by what appeared to be half the Irish nation after the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle. That was the trainer's first trip out of Ireland (and first aeroplane journey) and, like many before him, he was shocked by the magnitude of operations at the base of Cleeve Hill. "It was a surprise when I saw it because it's so big," he said. "It's a town on its own.

"Everyone seems to be happy there and I've never seen anyone going around disappointed. You'd think everyone was winning, but that can't be true when you see so many bookies smiling.

"As soon as I got home last year I wanted to come straight back."

There was encouragement for Foley on Saturday, when another member of his small team, Run Bavard, won at Naas. Elsewhere the portents were far less promising. The form of Alderbrook, another Champion Hurdle combatant, was visited by seismic waves.

Trying Again and Statajack, who were behind Kim Bailey's horse in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton, ran miserably in the Imperial Cup at Sandown, while another Wincanton combatant, Morstock, was beaten at Chepstow.

There was also little to warm the connections of the Triumph Hurdle favourite, Balanak. Stoney Valley and Fionans Flutter, who finished third and fourth to David Gandolfo's colt at Kempton, ran as if they had been on a stag night in races at Chepstow and Sandown respectively. Balanak's previous Windsor victory was also done no favours by Irkutsk at Chepstow.

There was a favourable signpost race at Esher, however. Collier Bay, who had been a 20-1 chance for Wednesday's Coral Cup, contracted to a quarter of the odds following his impressive success in the Imperial Cup. Jim Old's gelding will carry a 7lb penalty at Cheltenham but won by 11 lengths on Saturday.

Richard Baerlein obituary,

page 12

RICHARD EDMONDSON

NAP: Ferrufino

(Taunton 5.00)

NB: File Concord

(Plumpton 4.50)

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