As a result the road to Cheltenham next month has become even more of a minefield. Paul Nicholls, for instance, was impatient to get a run into Kauto Star in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury last weekend, only for the meeting to be claimed by frost. The prize has been transferred to Lingfield today, but Nicholls has decided not to expose him to a hard race in heavy ground and will now send him straight to the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Monkerhostin, for the same reason, heads straight for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup rather than take up his own engagement on the card. One way or another, a lot of horses will be arriving fresh at the Festival. That has been increasingly the vogue over recent years anyway, but it cannot suit all horses equally well. Inevitably, some will go there torn between lack of experience and an excess of nervous energy.
In that context, it is interesting to see Martin Pipe stepping on to the highwire with so many horses today. If the champion trainer is happier with their health, then his diminishing prospects of catching Nicholls will settle squarely on their merit. So while the ground is likely to be radically different, the game may well be up if he cannot materially strengthen his hand this afternoon for Cheltenham and Aintree.
Perhaps his most interesting runner is Joacci in the Red Square Vodka Gold Cup at Haydock, though it must be said that Pipe seems to be viewing the potential of this horse rather more conservatively than his performance at Cheltenham on New Year's Day might allow. In such an open year, Joacci looks a legitimate outsider for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, but he could scarcely have a less flattering preparation than this.
If Pipe thinks that Joacci is equipped to give weight to this field of Sumo wrestlers over three and a half miles in the mud, he presumably considers him too slow for the Gold Cup. He may be right, but he is hardly giving the horse the chance to prove otherwise. Defeat in such a race would be very easily forgiven, but it might not be quite so readily forgotten, as far as the horse himself is concerned.
This is more obviously a trial for the John Smith's Grand National, and a good run by Ebony Light would lend substance to the romantic possibilities of a fifth Aintree success for Ginger McCain. But of greatest interest today are two thriving Irish raiders, who each receive 26lb from Joacci.
What A Native won his fourth consecutive chase when beating A New Story a couple of lengths into third at Leopardstown last month, but Michael Hourigan is prepared to follow the winner here. What A Native gained first run that day in a race that was not run at a searching pace, whereas A New Story (1.40 Haydock) is a thorough stayer who has since finished strongly in good company at Gowran Park. He is also 3lb better off this time.
Pipe may have better luck at Lingfield, where Don't Be Shy (3.05) looks admirably qualified to profit from the absence of Kauto Star, not to mention a generous weight allowance and a drop in trip. He has plenty of pace and, though technically a novice, these French imports can jump before they can walk and he will hardly be crowded.
Pipe clearly feels that Our Vic (1.25) is back in form and if so he should see off a mixed bag of animals in the Totesport Ascot Chase, not least because Take The Stand needs faster ground. The card opens with a terrific race for the Totepool Reynoldstown Chase, where the conditions should bring out the best in The Listener (12.55).
It is instructive that Pipe has declined that tough option with Bannow Strand, who started the season off a laughable rating, but then hastened to run under a penalty just as the stable lost its form. Bannow Strand (3.35) bounced back at Haydock last month and remains the least exposed candidate for a valuable prize at Uttoxeter.
There is little prospect of a Smurfit Champion Hurdle winner emerging at Wincanton, where Chief Yeoman (3.20) has a solid chance but could none the less represent fair value. Hardy Eustace, the defending champion, is yet another big name heading straight to Cheltenham, his trainer having decided he is not ready to tackle Macs Joy in the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park today.
Both favourites for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, Baracouda and Rhinestone Cowboy, have likewise gone off the radar, leaving the staying division looking vulnerable to fresh blood. Golden Cross tries three miles for the first time at Navan tomorrow, when My Way De Solzen warms up at Fontwell.
Nap: Meadow Mischief (Wolverhampton 5.15)
NB: Don't Be Shy
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