The concept of a racecourse indulging in a bit of fleecing is not altogether an alien concept as far as visitors are concerned but should today's meeting at Newbury go ahead the track's clientele will, for once, be quite happy. With temperatures forecast at minus four, the entire 15-furlong Berkshire circuit was swathed in the fruit-growers' friend for the second night in succession, a tactic that enabled sport to take place yesterday. All that remains is for punters to find the plums in a pie that has a rather pre-Cheltenham look to it.
Most of the runners in the feature chase, a two and a half-mile handicap, are engaged in similar contests at the Festival. None, though, will match the record at Prestbury Park of a certain 11-year-old who has been there, done that, sometimes with honour, sometimes in disgrace. The chequeredness of his career makes a chessboard look monotone.
Four years ago the faithful cheered Hors La Loi III (3.15) home in the Champion Hurdle, two seasons after he had beaten all bar Istabraq in the race. And as a four-year-old, he won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. But his most recent visit to a Festival ended in ignominy, when he refused to even try to defend his hurdling crown, digging his toes in as the tapes went up in 2003.
Hors La Loi is talented, but has had his physical vicissitudes - he has bled and suffered leg and foot problems - and, by association, discomfort generally translates into reluctance in the equine mind. Paul Green's French-bred gelding has had a succession of trainers, having passed, variously, though the hands of François Doumen, Martin Pipe and James Fanshawe for his hurdling career.
He joined Paul Nicholls last year to be reinvented as a chaser and, after an absence of 20 months, reappeared to win a novices' chase at Taunton, his first success since his day of days at Cheltenham. He jumped big, bold, and, more important, happily that day and since then has posted a couple of solid efforts, firstly behind Justified on today's track and then his stablemate Cerium at Wincanton.
Nicholls is of the opinion that the step up to today's trip will suit Hors La Loi, who has 5lb removed from his burden today by the able Liam Heard, just fine. "He is as well as he has ever been since he joined us," he said. "And I am sure that there is a big race in this horse over farther than two miles." The Ditcheat handler also sends two more first-season chasers, Cornish Sett and Albuhera, to the fray and a case can be made for either, particularly Cornish Sett, Ruby Walsh's second mount back after his injury-induced five weeks off. The seven-year-old was in front of Hors La Loi at the track in January and although he, too, sometimes thinks a bit about his job, he will be jollied today along by a fast pace in a bustling field.
Nicholls has not got to where he is today - more than half a million clear at the head of the trainers' table - by saving all his ammunition for just one target each. Sure, the élite of the elite in his yard have their sole aims, but the foot soldiers are sent out to pick up what they can along the way.
Not all of his colleagues have that luxury, however, and for Oliver Sherwood, today's £57,000 prize has been the plan for some time. Sherwood, who has sent out 132 runners for 13 winners this term (to Nicholls' 487 for 121), is responsible for the likely favourite Claymore, a good winner at Wetherby last month on ground softer than today's. "We've been going for this since the start of the season," he said, "and I was over the moon with his last run."
Walsh returns to action on point-to-point-winning hurdling debutant Captain Windsor (1.35) in the opener and can tail a successful day for his Somerset yard on Pepporoni Pete (4.55) in the bumper. The five-year-old, so impressive at Wincanton on Boxing Day, is rated the equal of Nicholls' Cheltenham candidate Kicks For Free at home.
Today's meetings at Haydock and Kelso are subject to early-morning inspections, and should the Scottish venue pass, the selection of the day, both in terms of topicality and form credentials, has to be SNOWY (nap 3.55).Reuse content