Through no fault of horse or trainer, Beef Or Salmon's season has not been wholly straightforward. But if Plan A was torn up with the abandonment of Down Royal's meeting in early November, Plan B has proved an acceptable substitute and the 10-year-old goes to Sunday's Hennessy Gold Cup, his final Cheltenham prep, at the top of his game.
Beef Or Salmon was once perceived as Ireland's next Arkle. Now his image is that of the nearly horse, an in-and-out performer who has never really fulfilled his potential. The latest carp is that he is Gold Cup favourite by default only. His trainer, Michael Hourigan, has every sympathy for those trainers whose charges have been sidelined by injury, but has never lost the faith in his own.
Yesterday, Hourigan watched Beef Or Salmon complete his final serious spin ahead of Sunday's Leopardstown race before the trainer headed for the bloodstock sales at Fairyhouse. "He went a mile and a half, a good strong bit of work," he said, "and he's in great form. It's hard enough to get a horse to the track for any race, let alone keep one right for the top level, and the fact that so many have fallen away this year goes to show that.
"Mine is better now, and happier in himself, than he's been for a long while and I hope he can stay right and he'll give us a true run in the Gold Cup."
After a pipe-opener in the Irish Cesarewitch in October, Beef Or Salmon's intended first outing over obstacles was thwarted by a bomb scare and a hastily substituted run on the Flat at Leopardstown the following day was prevented by a nose-bleed while down at the start, apparently the legacy of a bang on the head in the horsebox during the hustle and bustle of leaving Down Royal in a hurry.
He then ran a good second to Kingscliff in the Betfair Chase two weeks later. "He was very full of himself that day, but it was good to see," said Hourigan. "I knew he was healthy in himself."
Beef Or Salmon has run in the last three Cheltenham Gold Cups. He fell at the third fence as a novice, then ran a decent fourth, and was pulled up last year, a victim of the debilitating virus that was plaguing Hourigan's Co Limerick stables at the time. During January, February and March last year the yard sent out only two winners.
"We gave him a huge lay-off after that," he said. "And I think that is why he is better this year, he's had time to recover from everything. The fall he had in the Gold Cup as a novice shook him and I think it took him a long time to get rid of all the aches he had. He doesn't seem to have muscular trouble now, you can see that when you see him exercising."
The Cheltenham fall has been Beef Or Salmon's only one in 28 runs over obstacles, but his jumping technique has not always pleased the purists. There was little wrong, though, with his polished display in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in December. It was the switch-tailed chestnut's 15th career victory, and seventh Grade One success, performances which have included a defeat of Best Mate at the Co Dublin track and of Kicking King at Down Royal.
Joe Craig's colourbearer will be a short-priced favourite to make it eight at the top level on Sunday, back at his favourite track, and thus consolidate his position at the head of the Cheltenham market.
"I know people say he's the Gold Cup favourite only because there isn't anything else, and he's still got it to prove," added Hourigan, "but when he's right he's very good indeed. He's beaten a three-time Gold Cup winner and the reigning one, and I wouldn't mind another horse who has won seven Grade Ones and more than half a million pounds. Others may have given up on him. I have not."
Beef Or Salmon started odds-on last year for Sunday's Leopardstown three-miler, but was defeated by Rule Supreme, notching trainer Willie Mullins's sixth success in the race in seven runnings. The Co Carlow handler relies this year on Hedgehunter, the only horse among yesterday's nine entries shorter than 20-1 in the Gold Cup lists. The Grand National winner, solidly supported for Cheltenham this week, finished a staying-on fourth in the Lexus Chase on his first run over fences since Aintree.
* Appeals by the trainer Willie Musson and jockey David McCabe against penalties imposed by the Southwell stewards under the "non-trier" rules over the running of High in a claimer last month were upheld at a hearing in London yesterday. The Jockey Club's disciplinary panel decided the four-year-old had been affected by kickback at the rear of the field before running wide and finishing sixth, and quashed McCabe's 12-day ban, Musson's £1,250 fine and High's 40-day suspension.
Nap: Glad Big
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