Michael Halford tends to keep his own feet on the ground by getting the odd horse to leave it. The arrival of 15 yearlings from the Aga Khan testifies to the way he is standing up against Messrs O'Brien, Weld, Oxx and Bolger on the Flat, but there is nothing like a jumper to guard against complacency.
Yesterday Halford revealed that Golden Cross may have run his last race when beaten in a photo for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Back in the spring it was reported that he had only picked up a minor injury, and Golden Cross remains as short as 8-1 to go one better in March. But he will definitely not run, reducing still further opposition to the unbeaten Black Jack Ketchum. "You won't see Golden Cross this season, and you'd have to be guarded as to the future," his trainer said. "Unfortunately he cut a tendon sheath and a lot of muck got in there, it became very infected. He's been fighting a battle since and though he's in good hands, he's certainly not sound enough to train."
From a family of farriers, Halford is intimate with the fragile design of a thoroughbred. He is certainly excelling within those parameters, however, and his Curragh stables have soon found an alternative midwinter distraction in Tipperary All Star, who landed a gamble with comical ease at Cheltenham last month. He returns to Britain tomorrow for one of the most valuable handicaps of the season, the £150,000 Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot. Unfortunately the handicapper retaliated venomously after Cheltenham, where Ruby Walsh sat way off the pace before coasting into the lead without any apparent effort. The jockey grinned expressively afterwards. "When it comes off you're a hero," he said. "When it goes wrong you're some idiot." Tipperary All Star's rating has been raised 24lb for this far more competitive race. Even so he is no better than 6-1 second favourite with the sponsors behind Tarlac, on 7-2, and Halford concedes that he had been well treated at Cheltenham, as a Listed winner on the Flat. "He took a long time to get the hang of jumping," he said. "And had been inclined to hold onto his breath: he was displacing his palate in Dubai last year, so we gave him a tie-forward operation.
"But he was still disappointing on the Flat afterwards. I think maybe it helped that Ruby rode him so patiently. I was surprised that he has gone up quite so much in the weights, though. After a certain point it's just guesswork, and there are plenty of times when a jockey can go for a horse and it won't find two lengths off the bridle."
The first day of the meeting features the Scanmoor Noel Novices' Chase, though the absence of Fair Along - who has an alternative coming up at Newbury - spares Natal a rematch with the only horse to have beaten him over fences. Certainly Natal had his work cut out conceding 12lb to Fair Along at Cheltenham last month.
His opponents include Harmony Brig, who was third to Natal over hurdles at Aintree in the spring, and delighted his trainer with his chasing debut at Ayr. "He's a grand horse, but we're coming down for the ground as much as anything," Nicky Richards said. "It might be a race too soon for him, but nowadays you seem to get the same horses running for ten grand or forty."
Richards hopes that he fares better than another recent southern raider, Turpin Green, so disappointing in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury last month. "His back wasn't the best afterwards," he explained. "He is picking up slowly now and may go for a graduation chase at Haydock at the end of the month."
Nap: Dig Deep
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