The final meeting at Cheltenham before the Festival is an hors-d'oeuvre that borrows many flavours from the big banquet. Any candidate impressing today will have demonstrated an affinity for the track on drying ground, which is more than can be said of many others who will be fancied there in March.
The race that most craves fresh definition at the Festival is the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. Everyone seems to think that the loss of Best Mate and injuries to Kicking King and Trabolgan have bequeathed the worst Gold Cup in years. On the other hand, most would have little hesitation in dismissing LORD OF ILLUSION (nap 3.20) as incompetent to deal with the other Gold Cup entries he meets in the Letheby & Christopher Cotswold Chase today.
Well, you cannot have your cake and eat it. Yes, he is officially rated 20lb below that worthy animal, Royal Auclair. But if he is outclassed today, then there can be precious little wrong with the calibre of our staying chasers. For there are certainly valid grounds for believing that Lord Of Illusion is capable of far more progress than is allowed by Gold Cup odds of 50-1.
He put up a spectacular performance in a handicap round here on New Year's Day 2005, routing Baron Windrush by a dozen lengths, with It Takes Time a distant third. As a novice, he was admittedly on a lenient mark, but the bottom line remains that Baron Windrush promptly ran away with what was supposed to be a frantically competitive handicap at Warwick, while It Takes Time beat Ollie Magern in a Grade One race at Lingfield. It seemed plain that Lord Of Illusion was qualified to break into the élite.
Unfortunately, he was then sidelined until the autumn, and the flame seemed to have died when he reappeared, twice finishing tailed off. But Tom George says that he simply requires a lot of training, and all the old flair was back when he returned to Cheltenham on New Year's Day. Jumping magnificently in the lead, he had some classy handicappers beaten a long way out, only for Joacci to emerge from nowhere on the flat.
The connections of Joacci believe that they have a superior Gold Cup candidate in Celestial Gold, who reappears today, and there is a possibility that he was flattered by the leaders going off too hard. Once again, however, you cannot have it both ways. If Joacci was flattered, then Lord Of Illusion ran even better than it appeared. Either way Joacci clearly has immense natural ability, and it is conceivable that he could win a race like the Racing Post Chase and end up as Gold Cup favourite. Lord Of Illusion will also prefer the quicker ground today, and no other horse in the field is better placed to produce a career best.
The transfer of the Victor Chandler Chase from Ascot makes this an even better card than usual, but it may not suit Dempsey, who has always seemed best going right-handed. Tikram could reverse their Sandown form as a result, but Albuhera (next best 2.10) remains far less exposed over fences and will be happier on this better ground than at Wetherby last time.
Another race to have relocated, this time during renovations at Doncaster, is the Sky Bet Great Yorkshire Chase. The best candidates for the richest prize ever contested at Southwell may be Jakari, who is on a good mark and suggested that he is running into form at Sandown last time, and the thriving Sonevafushi (2.25), who has gone up another 10lb for his flamboyant display at Taunton last time but seems to have acquired a new purpose in life.
Whatever happens at Cheltenham today will be set in immediate relief at Leopardstown tomorrow, where a card of scarcely less depth is crowned by the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle. Last year this turned into a memorable scrap between Macs Joy, Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace, who passed the post more or less in triplicate. Brave Inca is likely to come out on top on less testing ground this time, especially with Hardy Eustace likely to be saving his very best for Cheltenham and blinkers.
Ireland's leading novice chasers converge on the Baileys Arkle Trophy. Nickname has looked a machine in softer ground but may not shake off these better horses over a shorter distance - notably Missed That, who won the Festival Bumper last year and has proved a rapid learner after a tentative start over fences.Reuse content