The circus is ready, the gladiators are assembling. The calm before tomorrow's storm was actual as well as metaphorical at Cheltenham yesterday, when a chill, still day dawned with Cleeve Hill, the stunning backdrop to racing's most famous amphitheatre, dusted with snow. The most serious logistical problem was that overnight temperatures of minus nine had frozen the water pipes in both stable yards but that was quickly resolved and the behind-the-scenes business of putting on the greatest show on turf progressed in its inexorable rhythm.
By last night there were 50 Irish invaders - including reigning dual hurdles champion Hardy Eustace and two of his rivals, Macs Joy and Asian Maze - safely ensconced in their boxes on site, a continuous succession of bay, brown, chestnut, and grey forms emerging from lorries, glad at last to stretch their limbs after the ferry journey. The clip-clop patter of hooves and high, questioning whinnying mixed with hails of recognition in accents from Dublin to Derry to Dingle. The party is ready to start.
Hardy Eustace will face 16 opponents in tomorrow's 76th Champion Hurdle in his bid to match the hat-tricks of Hatton's Grace (1949-51), Sir Ken (1952-54), Persian War (1968-70), See You Then (1985-87) and Istabraq (1998-2000). As well as Macs Joy and Asian Maze, the favourite Brave Inca and Al Eile challenge from Ireland.
The home side's defence is headed, as far as the betting lists are concerned, by Arcalis, the first winner at last year's Festival in the Supreme Novices Hurdle. An international flavour is added by the presence of German raider Fiepes Shuffle, an outsider with genuine credentials, but the pair from France, Astonville and Turnium, come under the heading of joke runners and the pity will be if these mobile chicanes, who filled the last two places last year, either get in the way of their betters or hurt themselves trying to keep up.
The ground at Cheltenham is on the slow side of good, and is likely to remain so for curtain-up tomorrow. "Although the snow was balling in the hooves of the horses who were exercising early, it soon disappeared," said the clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, yesterday. "And although we had a minor problem with the water freezing, the track never did, and we could have raced today. There is some rain forecast, maybe five or six millimetres. We are currently good, good to soft in places - it may just flick it the other way good to soft, good in places."
The deliberation over War Of Attrition's target ended yesterday when the seven-year-old was announced a starter in Friday's Gold Cup (for which he is around 10-1) rather than the Ryanair Chase the previous day. The shorter race is sponsored by the gelding's owner Michael O'Leary, but trainer Mouse Morris said: "He left it up to me and [jockey] Conor O'Dwyer. There is only one Gold Cup."
Nicky Henderson issued an upbeat bulletin yesterday about Afsoun, a leading Triumph Hurdle candidate who had seemed below-par over the weekend. "He was brighter this morning when we had him out for a little stretch," he said. "We'll be monitoring him, but he's done all his work so there's nothing I need to do on that score and I think we have every reason to be hopeful he will be OK for Friday."
There are doubts, though, about Our Armageddon, ante-post favourite for Thursday's Racing Post Plate. The nine-year-old rapped himself at home and a spokesman for his trainer Richard Guest's yard said: "It's a race against time now to get him ready."
Grand National favourite Clan Royal warmed up for his task at Aintree next month with victory over hurdles at Market Rasen yesterday, his first win for more than two years. "He was a bit fresh and keen, but I was happy," said trainer Jonjo O'Neill.Reuse content