There is now barely a month to the Cheltenham Festival, and few trainers become more reliably fretful at this time of year than Nicky Henderson. It is easy to imagine his anguish, then, on arriving here yesterday to find himself lodged so firmly between a rock and a hard place.
Strictly, according to the official going, it was a rock and a good to firm place, but anyone who examined the hurdles track could only assume that the "good" referred to the occasional, lonely patch of grass, and the "firm" to the warren of earth and sand divots in between.
There were 23 withdrawals during the afternoon and, in normal circumstances, Henderson would not dream of running a Festival favourite on such rough terrain. But this has not been a normal winter - they intend to start watering at Cheltenham next week - and nor is Afsoun the sort of horse that would permit his trainer any latitude.
Henderson had prepared him for a race at Cheltenham a dozen days previously, only for the meeting to be lost to frost. Judging from the way the horse was simmering before the Betfred Chatteris Fen Hurdle, any further postponement might well have caused him to blow a fuse.
After two months off the track, he pranced around the parade ring, cocking his ears mistrustfully, and he practically bolted to the start. When the tapes rose, Mick Fitzgerald was greatly obliged when the young rider on Ellerslie Tom went off fast enough to give him some kind of cover.
Even so, Afsoun dragged Fitzgerald to the front halfway down the back straight and it says a lot about his talent that he was able to pull clear of some fairly competent rivals so readily, having consumed so much energy. Though coasting on the run-in, he was able to beat Kalmini by 10 lengths. This flat, sharp circuit could hardly be more different from Cheltenham, but he won round there in November, too, and Coral now make him 11-2 favourite for the JCB Triumph Hurdle, from 7-1.
"We did think long and hard about the ground," Henderson said. "But I didn't dare wait another week. You can only bring the soup to the boil so many times.
"On the can, it always says that you shouldn't over-boil. Horses don't come with instructions, as a rule, but this is one that does. His temperament is perfect, I'm not worried about that at all. But he is quite buzzy, and I'll be very glad to back off him for a fortnight now."
Afsoun was blowing pretty hard, too, suggesting that Henderson - who has already won the Triumph Hurdle three times, with Alone Success, First Bout and Katarino - had indeed been concentrating primarily on the horse's mental preparation. "We have left a bit to work on," he said. "I can't say I thought this was his track, but he showed how much pace he hasout there. This is not a slow horse, even though he stayed well on the Flat. He'd be too keen to get two and a half miles over hurdles. You need that kind of speed for the Triumph, but we know that he stays as well."
* Champion jockey Jamie Spencer's disciplinary hearing under the 'non-triers' rule, concerning a race at Southwell in November, was adjourned yesterday morning. The Jockey Club later released a statement which said: "The enquiry has been adjourned to a date to be fixed. The Disciplinary Panel has asked that additional enquiries be made by both parties to assist them further in considering this matter."
Nap: Ever Present
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