The appearance at Haydock today of two of the favourites for the Cheltenham Festival renews a perennial conundrum. Arcalis and Kingscliff head some lists for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle and Totesport Gold Cup respectively, yet it remains entirely possible for both to experience defeat without undermining their chances in March.
Every year it is the same. The approach of spring at Cheltenham - a track that nowadays drains like a sieve - makes a muddy muddle of trials staged in midwinter ground. Yes, these are two of the biggest guns around, but conditions at Haydock are such that the only effective artillery will be fitted with caterpillar tracks.
Nobody seems to have got himself more perplexed than Howard Johnson, who vowed to keep Arcalis fresh for the Festival sooner than risk him on heavy ground, only to declare him overnight for the Commhoist Champion Hurdle Trial. At least there was no such equivocation over Lord Transcend, who showed that he adores the mud when running away with the Peter Marsh Chase last year and will be very hard to beat this time round.
Indeed, if Kingscliff can give Lord Transcend any kind of race - win, lose or draw - he will make a powerful case for the Gold Cup. Lord Transcend was running for the first time this season when bumping into the well handicapped Captain Corelli here, and though he was well beaten, it was a satisfactory return from such a long absence.
Johnson admits that the grey has not been without one or two minor problems in the meantime, but the bottom line is that he remains one of the least exposed chasers around. Bear in mind he was having only his second start over fences when fourth in the Hennessy last year, and his fourth start when winning this race. Indeed, Johnson believes he has sufficient class to have entered him for the Gold Cup itself. If Lord Transcend (next best 2.10) cannot beat Kingscliff today, he will not do so at level weights on spring ground.
Kingscliff himself remains remarkably lightly raced, after just 10 starts including point-to-points, and showed his liking for Haydock when beating Beef Or Salmon here in November. Some people have disparaged that performance as evidence that he is just a grim plodder who will never have sufficient crackle to win a Gold Cup, but they forget the dashing way he won the Foxhunters' Chase in his youth. If Kingscliff makes a decent fist of giving Lord Transcend 19lb in this ground, it will represent ample contrition for that dismal performance at Sandown over Christmas.
As for Arcalis, Johnson evidently hopes that class will tell, and he may well be right - although Graham Wylie, his owner, yesterday sounded most surprised that he was running after all. In the circumstances nobody should contemplate a serious bet, because Arcalis (1.40) will hardly be punished if a fit, in-form horse like Mister McGoldrick were to make a nuisance of himself.
A more compelling opportunity presents itself at Wincanton, where the irresistible form of Venetia Williams makes it worth taking a chance on the inexperienced jumping of LORD OLYMPIA (nap 3.10). True, anyone taking the same gamble at Wetherby last week regretted doing so, but the way he was travelling when he fell suggested he has far more ability than the handicapper has been able to judge from three starts over fences. His trainer could restore him to novice company if she lacked confidence in his jumping, so her decision to go for this prize seems eloquent.
That tireless metronome among hurdlers, Solerina, tops the bill at Naas today but a rising star has an important supporting role. Sweet Wake, a Group winner in Germany, made such a luminous debut over hurdles at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting that he is as short as 7-1 for the AIB Surpreme Novices' Hurdle.
But no horse prompted more talk at Leopardstown than Central House, whose jockey mistook the winning post in such tragicomic style. Roger Loughran is still serving his suspension for that personal catastrophe, so Paul Carberry takes over at Fairyhouse tomorrow.
Nap: Lord Olympia (Wincanton 3.10)
NB: Lord Transcend
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