Of the four senior titles at this year's Cheltenham Festival, two are up for grabs. With this season's attrition rate among the élite in mind, it is probably advisable to touch whole forests on behalf of Jessica Harrington and Dessie Hughes while stating that their respective charges Moscow Flyer, the two-mile chasing king, and Hardy Eustace, the two-mile hurdling champion, are still standing. But with Kicking King and Inglis Drever on the sidelines, there will be new names on both the Gold Cup and World Hurdle rolls of honour.
And on Saturday at Prestbury Park there will be crucial eliminators on the road to filling the voids. All bar two of yesterday's entries for the Cotswold Chase (a name splendidly revived for continuity's sake in an era of ever-changing sponsorship; it was what the Arkle Trophy was known as before 1969) and the Cleeve Hurdle are engaged in the big ones.
With Kicking King out, logic might dictate to look to the horse who finished closest to him in his last run. That was Monkerhostin, who was just a neck adrift in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, the great Irish gelding's narrowest-ever margin of victory.
Monkerhostin was among the outsiders that day at 22-1; with Kingscliff on the drift he is now Gold Cup second favourite behind Beef Or Salmon. It may be a reflection on the perceived quality of this year's championship that the best of the home side in the betting lists is a horse whose last two victories have been off light weights in handicaps, but Saturday will be his opportunity to show that the Sandown performance was no flash in the pan.
The upwardly-mobile French-bred nine-year-old has won 10 of his 40 outings over obstacles and is as adept at crossing a fence as a hurdle. Four of his successes have come in chases, his sole métier this term, including a defeat of two-mile cracks Kauto Star and Ashley Brook in the ill-starred contest at Exeter in which Best Mate died.
The King George was Monkerhostin's second try in Grade One company and his first over as far as three miles over fences. Two years ago, he won the Rendlesham Hurdle over the trip at Kempton. "He appeared to see it out well at Sandown, assuming the others ran their races," Philip Hobbs, his trainer, said cautiously. "But whether Kicking King did or not, you'd say compared with the others we were definitely staying on.
"The Gold Cup is another two furlongs, but he's won at three miles over hurdles, and it's probably more difficult to stay over hurdles than fences. It's all a bit faster and you don't get so much of a breather in the air."
Saturday's Grade Two race, under the Letheby & Christopher banner, is over a furlong short of the Gold Cup trip and has in the past spotlighted the prospects of Master Oats, Looks Like Trouble and See More Business. In Monkerhostin's favour is his record at Cheltenham; in seven runs there he has won twice, been placed four times and never shirked a battle up the hill.
"He's been a star for us," added Hobbs, "and he's been in very good order since Sandown, physically and mentally, and seems on the upgrade. But whether he runs on Saturday will depend on how he is this week, and what the ground is. If he doesn't run then, the Aon Chase at Newbury next month is an alternative. But to be honest I wouldn't mind if he didn't have another run before the Gold Cup. He's won first time out for the past three seasons and it can be argued that he is better coming to a race fresh."
Monkerhostin tends to run better when the s-word does not appear in the going description. It is currently good to soft at Cheltenham. By contrast his stablemate One Knight, who has recovered from his fall at the last in the Welsh National last month, revels in easy ground, but he may bypass Saturday's test for a different reason. "I'd be concerned about his handicap mark," said Hobbs, always realistic. "He could run well against very good horses without winning, and for the sake of showing he isn't good enough to run in a Gold Cup, we could mess up his chance to win a big handicap."
Celestial Gold, unraced since his seventh place in last year's Gold Cup, heads Martin Pipe's team of five for the Cotswold, the others being Our Vic, Therealbandit, Comply Or Die and Joaaci. But one notable absentee from yesterday's entries was Iris's Gift, who will now head to either Lingfield or Haydock next month for his Cheltenham prep.
In the Cleeve Hurdle, Inglis Drever's Howard Johnston stablemate No Refuge, vying for favouritism for the Festival marathon title with Baracouda, is set to pull on the supersub jersey, in the face of stern opposition from another French crack, Ambobo, the Irish mare Asian Maze and recent Newbury winner My Way De Solzen.
Nap: Bay Island
NB: D J Flippance
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