The Cheltenham Festival roadshow rolls on to Leopardstown this afternoon, and after its stop-start progress round Britain - Newbury yesterday became the second high-profile trials meeting to be abandoned in three Saturdays - it seems that Irish-trained horses will have at least one advantage at Prestbury Park next month, that of match practice.
The home side's trainers are running out of time for preps before the four-day extravaganza, with its £2.87 million in prize money, starts four weeks on Tuesday. One of those thwarted in Berkshire yesterday was Philip Hobbs, whose charge Monkerhostin, the Gold Cup joint-favourite, was denied a run in the Aon Chase.
The Newbury officials gave the frozen track every chance to thaw; it was only after the fourth inspection, at 1pm, that the white flag was hoisted. By then, a weak winter sun had appeared but not soon enough and the ground remained, in the opinion of Timmy Murphy and other jockeys who helped assess conditions, dangerously slippery in places.
The decision did not find favour with Hobbs. "I walked the course and I can't believe they called it off, it's a crazy decision," he said bluntly. "Everyone had the option to take their horses out if they felt there was any risk involved."
Monkerhostin's last-chance saloon may be a Grade One contest at Lingfield on Saturday over two-and-a-half miles, but with rain forecast this week a more likely scenario is that the fast-ground specialist will not be seen before the big day. "I will enter him at Lingfield, but I suspect he will now go straight for the Gold Cup," said his Minehead-based handler.
This afternoon in Co Dublin the other Gold Cup favourite, Beef Or Salmon, faces the Grand National winner Hedgehunter in the Hennessy Gold Cup and, over his favourite course and distance, will be short odds to prevail. The 10-year-old has won seven Grade One races and his trainer, Michael Hourigan, is hoping for an eighth. "He is in very good form, this race fits in nicely before Cheltenham and we are looking for a victory," he said. Beef Or Salmon has run unsuccessfully in the past three Gold Cups, but his supporters can take heart from The Dikler and The Fellow, both winners of the Blue Riband at their fourth attempts.
Hedgehunter finished fourth to Beef Or Salmon in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in December, his first run over fences since his Aintree success, and has 17 lengths to make up. His performance today will dec-ide whether he can bridge the class gap and take his chance in the Gold Cup. "This race has been his target since the National," said his trainer, Willie Mullins, "and we'll make a decision about Cheltenham afterwards. But he has improved for his last run and I hope he can get closer."
There is an early inspection before today's racing at Hereford, but no problems are envisaged at Exeter, where the exciting novice chaser Racing Demon makes his long-awaited first appearance since winning a Grade Two at Sandown in early December. The Henrietta Knight-trained six-year-old, who has the Arkle Trophy as his Cheltenham target, faces 10 rivals, chief among them Cornish Sett.
At Lingfield yesterday, the jockey Shane Kelly, who had been in sparkling form since returning two weeks ago from three months off because of injury, suffered a reverse when given a 28-day ban. Kelly was caught in the last stride and beaten a short-head on the 1-2 favourite Just Logic in a division of the mile maiden, and the stewards considered that he had eased off prematurely, allowing Lake Shabla to snatch victory.
BETS OF THE DAY
Its A Dream (5.0 Exeter) can win again after a good effort on too-tacky ground against a top-class rival.
Each-way punters could find a mate in Buddhi in the same race (5.0 Exeter)