The malign coincidence that last week eliminated three favourites from the betting on the Cheltenham Festival has undoubtedly left a dispiriting vacuum at the heart of the jumps season. Even so, it is better to respond with opportunism than paranoia.
True, the two can be confused. Some people were yesterday trying to make a fast buck on the betting exchanges from vaporous rumours about the wellbeing of Kingscliff. On the other hand, the genuine eclipse of so many other good horses will permit other, less familiar stars to glow more brightly in the March firmament. And so it is, at a time when the meeting desperately requires fresh impetus, that the French have resolved to take their cue.
Kario De Sormain holds valid claims to being the best steeplechaser in France. She holds unparalleled claims to being the most exciting. A freewheeling front-runner, she is apparently as ungovernable by her trainer as she is by other horses. The discovery that she will make her next start in the Queen Mother Champion Chase gives the Festival an exotic new dimension.
Granted the tepid recent form of Moscow Flyer, and the absence through injury of Azertyuiop and Well Chief, the two-mile division certainly looks vulnerable to a new pretender - so much so, indeed, that Kauto Star is as short as evens favourite with William Hill after just four runs over fences. The word from France is that he will be a legitimate champion if he can give 7lb to their mare, who is not the type to blush shyly before such gallantry.
Quite the reverse, in fact. Her trainer, Jean-Paul Gallorini, tends to discuss her in much the same terms as a Proustian aristocrat would his favourite harlot. "She has a huge engine, but no brains," he said. She is such a tearaway, in fact, that he never dares to school her at home. "She would have no respect for small obstacles," he explained. "But when she gets to the track, to Auteuil, then she knows it is for real - and she jumps brilliantly."
Unfortunately, Kario De Sormain did unseat her rider there last month, in the process causing Gallorini to abandon plans to run her in the King George VI Chase at Sandown. But the fact remains that she was some 20 lengths clear at the time, in the biggest French steeplechase of the autumn. Many present were convinced that she could not possibly be caught.
Gallorini has never had a runner in Britain before, but was bewitched by the drama and atmosphere when he visited the Festival three years ago. His judgement remains highly respected in France, where he has been champion jumps trainer 11 times, and he is convinced that Kario De Sormain, who was held up by knee problems last year, is reaching her peak at eight.
Kario De Sormain has done most of her racing over distances around two and a half miles. While Gallorini had been optimistic that she would stay three miles in the King George, he takes the view that the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself would represent too coarse a test of stamina. The mare's aggressive style should conversely equip her well for the drop in distance for the Champion Chase. The stiff finish at Cheltenham always colours perceptions of the track, but the fact is that its layout is too sharp for many horses. Clearly the blend suits Moscow Flyer peculiarly well, but his trainer, Jessica Harrington, extended her barren run at Naas yesterday to 94 runners over 10 weeks.
Quite what kind of malaise was supposed to have afflicted Kingscliff is hard to say. Though he ran deplorably in the King George, dropping away meekly after a mistake at the ditch in front of the stands, his trainer remains adamant that nothing is amiss with the horse. His previous start at Haydock, when beating Beef Or Salmon, still qualifies him for 9-2 favouritism for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup with the sponsor, but yesterday morning he proved positively leprous on Betfair. Fleetingly available at 26-1, he was laid at 18-1 before finding his way back to 9-1.
"Obviously he was hurting after that mistake at Sandown," Robert Alner said yesterday. "But we had him checked thoroughly over afterwards and found nothing. I don't know how these rumours start but I can promise the horse is in very good form. He nearly ran away with Sally [Alner's wife] yesterday, which is very unlike him, and when we turned him out he had a good roll and galloped away." Kingscliff is likely to be given a public opportunity to demonstrate his vigour either at Cheltenham on 28 January or at Newbury a fortnight later.
Nap: So Elegant (Wolverhampton 3.30)
NB: Sting Like A Bee
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