The final fortnight before the Cheltenham Festival tends to be a torpid time of prickly tempers around the stables and half-hearted skirmishes on the track, and this year the phoney war seems to have started earlier than usual.
After a dry winter, the recent deterioration in conditions has made life very awkward for any trainer still trying to squeeze a run into a Festival horse. A hard race now would almost certainly vitiate any benefit sought in fitness, and there is no disguising a lack of depth to today's Sandown card.
The most seductive entry had been Monet's Garden in the novices' chase, but heavy ground has confined the thrilling grey to his Cumbrian lair. Nicky Richards was too thoroughly schooled in the patient ways of his father to seek one step forward at the risk of two steps back. If the rains persist, Monet's Garden may yet run in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham, but his trainer's priority remains to shepherd him on the long path to Kempton on Boxing Day.
"The King George VI Chase is the race at the back of our mind, that's his first real date with destiny," Richards said. "So between now and then it's just a case of making the right moves. There is a race at Kelso next Saturday, over two miles, but that puts us right on top of the Arkle, so he might go straight there. If I owned him, I would wait for Liverpool, but we'll talk it over during the coming days. He does need some more mileage put on his clock this season, so whether it's Cheltenham or Liverpool, I can certainly picture him going on to Perth afterwards."
Given all the grumbling over the calibre of the field assembling for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, it is gratifying to contemplate the next wave of chasers awaiting the return of Kicking King and Trabolgan next winter: horses like Monet's Garden, Missed That and the French champion, Cyrlight.
Attention today falls nakedly upon what looks a plain but well matched field for the Racing Post Chase. In fairness, the climb to the post after three miles in the mud will demand some plain virtues, and it is also worth noting that Philip Hobbs and Charles Egerton both saw fit to leave their runners in the Gold Cup at the latest forfeit stage.
Hobbs has a fine record in this race and the way Lacdoudal rallied in a big handicap at Cheltenham in the autumn suggested he might be best returned to three miles. On the other hand, testing ground and a testing track is not a combination that encourages assumptions about stamina, and Lacdoudal looks no more than fairly handicapped. In contrast Graphic Approach has run over fences only half a dozen times and is entitled to progress. He may not be designed for too searching a test, however, and has only won for Tony McCoy.
The champion jockey is instead claimed for Innox (3.20), who looks amply qualified as a thorough stayer who loves this track and handles the ground. The only concern is that his trainer is making a frank priority of the Grand National, and may have left room for improvement. Many of his recent runners have shaped as though short of fitness, but Innox has tended to excel after his midwinter break and may not require as much work. Inconsistent in his youth, he has looked an improved horse during the last year.
The sponsors of the Coral Backing the NSPCC Handicap Hurdle may be ill rewarded for their charity if laying too many bets on KILGOWAN (nap 3.55). The way he travelled through the race before winning in similar going at Leicester last time suggests he is very fairly treated off a mark just 6lb higher, and his stable remains in form.
McCoy's followers will note that he will have flown off to Chepstow by this stage, but the chief distraction from Sandown will be the Eider Chase at Newcastle. This promises to be a pretty primitive spectacle, but four miles in the mud brought out the best in Malek (3.35) at Kelso last year and he can run off the same mark today. He has shown little this season, but his trainer is likely to have had this race in mind long before and returns him from a break in a pair of blinkers.
It looks like being a day in the trenches and it is hard to imagine matters improving at Fontwell tomorrow. The place was ploughed up pretty thoroughly in a deluge last Sunday and it will be interesting to see what state the track is in now.
Nap: Kilgowan (Sandown 3.55)
NB: San Antonio
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