Racing: Late deal saves BHB from Order of Merit shambles

One out of three is not so bad. It is just a pity that the only word that retains any validity in the phrase "Order of Merit" should be the middle one. Unfortunately for the British Horseracing Board, the distribution of £300,000 when the National Hunt season ends on Saturday has more to do with worthiness, at best, and farce, at worst, than merit or order.

Mind you, things could easily have been worse. Until yesterday it had seemed likely that the two jumpers still eligible for a first prize of £200,000 would engage in a stand-off that menaced the sport with indignity, if not a downright welfare scandal. Fortunately, their owners have now made a deal that salvages a guaranteed profit for both, along with what remains of their self-respect. Whether it can also rescue the laudable intentions behind the Order of Merit, in only its second year, is another matter.

Neither Royal Shakespeare nor Monkerhostin will contest the Betfred Celebration Chase, the final available leg of a 63-race series. Royal Shakespeare will therefore be confirmed the formal winner, having accumulated 87 points over hurdles by the simple ruse of showing up in a succession of small fields throughout the winter. Monkerhostin acquired 85, most notably by finishing second in the King George VI Chase. Each horse has already secured £50,000 as top hurdler and chaser respectively, but Monkerhostin would have claimed the title outright if managing fifth or better on Saturday.

The trainers of both horses sound relieved that an unseemly duel to squeeze the very last out of these horses has now been abandoned. The owner of Royal Shakespeare had told Steve Gollings to enter him for Sandown, even though he would be making his chasing debut against élite jumpers round the most difficult park course in the land. And Philip Hobbs has admitted he would sooner not have exposed Monkerhostin to a hard race at Cheltenham last week, after a gruelling season. "If it weren't for the Order of Merit, he would definitely have been put away by now," he said over the weekend. "Maybe the Order of Merit is backfiring slightly on the BHB. I feel my hand is being forced slightly. It's a difficult one, as there is prize-money for stable staff, not just owner and trainer."

His wife, Sarah, yesterday confirmed that Monkerhostin would not run on Saturday. "The owners have decided between themselves to share the prize," she said. "Monkerhostin is going to be roughed off now."

Gollings deserves plenty of credit for spotting a neglected opportunity with an honest but limited horse, and would have been spared plenty of heartache had Royal Shakespeare not made an excruciating error when poised for second place in his final bonus race at Ayr last Saturday. "From my point of view, I never intended the horse to run at Sandown," Gollings said yesterday. "My owner instructed me to put him in but we had a long chat about it and decided not to enter. The horse is 100 per cent, but we decided to give him a deserved break. He has only had his ground once this season, so he has shown what a tough and consistent horse he is. He has done us proud and the welfare of the horse always comes first."

Happily, then, there will no longer be a grotesque sub-plot to undermine a card that has always had a particularly sporting flavour, mixing Flat and jump races. The Betfred Gold Cup is certainly not suffering from the lapse of Whitbread's sponsorship, its new backers yesterday extending its commitment for another three years. They make Innox 8-1 favourite to confirm his relish for Sandown, but will be wary of You're Special after his handicap success at the Cheltenham Festival, having offered a £250,000 bonus to any Festival winner that follows up here.

Ferdy Murphy also had an eligible candidate in Hot Weld, but has elected to send him to Punchestown, along with 10 others. The Festival opens today with Newmill, the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner, topping the bill in the Kerrygold Champion Chase. The first of the 10 Grade One races over the week is the VC Bet Champion Novices' Hurdle, where Straw Bear tries to follow up his spectacular performance at Aintree. War Of Attrition runs tomorrow, while Brave Inca meets Macs Joy and Hardy Eustace on Friday.

Chris McGrath

Nap: All The Good (Bath 6.10)

NB: Spanish Ace

(Folkestone 3.10)

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