Gloria Victis fuels Cheltenham dreams

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The Independent Online

Get used to that nagging headache, the eyes that feel like golf balls and the strange sensation that the rest of the world is working in a higher gear. Before Festival euphoria kicks in a fortnight tomorrow, there is the inevitable Festival insomnia to deal with. For who among us can sleep when there is a life-changing Cheltenham Yankee to construct?

Get used to that nagging headache, the eyes that feel like golf balls and the strange sensation that the rest of the world is working in a higher gear. Before Festival euphoria kicks in a fortnight tomorrow, there is the inevitable Festival insomnia to deal with. For who among us can sleep when there is a life-changing Cheltenham Yankee to construct?

And even when you do drift off into slumber, there will be the anxiety dreams to worry about, not least if you have a lot of ante-post money riding on See More Business or Looks Like Trouble in the Gold Cup. These will probably involve a bag of cash with legs, and your name on it. It is running frantically across the Cotswold countryside, pursuing a big bay steeplechaser with an evil glint in its eye. Just when you think that the horse must be tiring, it finds an extra gear, and now you can make out the face of the jockey on top. It's Tony McCoy. You wake up screaming.

The success of Gloria Victis in the Racing Post Chase on Saturday was that sort of performance, one to make a mark on both the conscious and subconscious mind. From now until the Festival, the memory may sneak back into your thoughts when you least expect it. Could his gallop really have been that pitiless, despite top weight on his back? Did a six-year-old novice truly jump around Kempton like Desert Orchid used to? The answer to both questions is an unqualified yes.

Indeed, everything about Gloria Victis was positive, including the performance of his stand-in jockey, Richard Johnson. The questions which matter now are whether he will be able to produce the same sort of display at Cheltenham - so far, he has run on tracks which are either flat, right-handed, or both - and whether he will try to do so in the Gold Cup.

Like most of his stable-mates, Gloria Victis is in almost everything at Cheltenham, save possibly the race to be first to the Guinness bar on Tuesday lunchtime. There is also a £50,000 bonus on offer if he can add either the Cathcart, National Hunt Handicap Chase or Gold Cup to Saturday's success, with the former offering the easiest chance to bank the cash.

Yet as Terry Neill, his owner, is surely aware, when Fate deals the cards at Cheltenham, a chance to win the Gold Cup is generally a once-in-a-lifetime hand. To duck the opportunity, even with a six-year-old, in the hope of standing a better chance next time would be like twisting on 18. You may get lucky, but the odds are that it is a decision you will regret.

Given the choice, then, between 7-2 "with a run" for the Gold Cup, offered by Victor Chandler, and 6-1 "all in", with the other leading firms, the instinct would be to take a chance on the sixes. If Gloria Victis does line up for the Gold Cup, he will surely be close to half that price, even in one of the best fields for years.

The mood around Looks Like Trouble, however, is growing murky. He won the Pillar Chase like a champion in January, but despite that, Norman Williamson, his regular rider this season, has been relieved of his place in the saddle by the horse's owner, Tim Collins.

"I'm sickened to lose the ride," Williamson said yesterday. "The explanation Mr Collins gave me was 'I wasn't very happy with the ride you gave him in the King George'. Looks Like Trouble ran lifelessly at Kempton and I was working at him after only four fences. When I came in after the race no one said to me that I had given the horse a bad ride. This has only surfaced within the past couple of days."

Collins said yesterday that he hopes to book a replacement within the next couple of days, although the list of leading jockeys without a ride at Cheltenham is not extensive. Adrian Maguire, Andrew Thornton and, perhaps, Richard Johnson may hope to get the call.

The forgotten horse in the Gold Cup is Ever Blessed, who has not run since winning the Hennessy at Newbury in November. He worked after racing at Kempton on Saturday, leaving Mark Pitman, his trainer, "very happy" with his performance. "I think the horse has improved," he said. "He's bang-on and we're spot-on for Gold Cup day. I think the Gold Cup is going to be a real good race and with four or five real front runners it should be run at a blistering pace, which is ideal."

The Last Fling is one of those potential pace-setters, and is a 20-1 chance for the Gold Cup after running away with the De Vere Gold Cup at Haydock on Saturday. The Grand National is a more realistic target, though, and Sue Smith's chaser is now Ladbrokes' 12-1 second favourite for Aintree behind Gloria Victis on 10-1. Young Kenny, well beaten at Haydock, is 16-1 from 10-1, while Bobbyjo, last year's winner, continued his unorthodox big-race build-up with a solid fourth place in a handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse yesterday.

But first there are 20 races at Cheltenham to be considered. Count sheep by all means as you try to get some sleep, but do not, under any circumstances, start counting your winnings.

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