Just three days remain before the punters come clambering out of the trenches, but the artillery bombardment is already underway. Indeed, to all intents and purposes the Cheltenham Festival starts at Sandown today, with a £75,000 bonus offered to the winner of the Sunderlands Imperial Cup if he goes on to take any race in the Cotswolds next week.
Tomorrow, meanwhile, no less a horse than Clan Royal tries to set a positive tone for the week for his owner when he contests a handicap hurdle at Market Rasen. As usual, J P McManus has several fancied runners at the Festival, but none that matches the public following of Clan Royal, already as short as 6-1 favourite for the John Smith's Grand National. Then on Monday several Irish runners at Stratford, just up the road from Cheltenham, will hope to establish a bridgehead for visiting punters.
In the meantime, key strategic decisions remain in the balance. Rumours from behind the lines suggest that the horse whose name sums up the whole Festival, War Of Attrition, will end up in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. His alternative is the Ryanair Chase, which is sponsored by his owner - though a far more pertinent consideration is whether War Of Attrition would stay the longer trip in the Gold Cup. While William Hill yesterday laid him from 12-1 to 9-1, that is of limited significance since these bets will now be voided if the horse does not run. Even so, it is thought that Mouse Morris is eager to take a chance on his stamina in an open year.
The same firm saw continued support for Commercial Flyer, who was backed for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at 40-1 prior to making his debut over fences at Taunton last month. He is now challenging Our Ben (4-1) for favouritism, down to 9-2 from 11-2, though his lack of experience over fences must be a concern. In fairness, Martin Pipe won an Arkle Trophy for David Johnson with Well Chief off precisely the same preparation.
As it happens, the two men have excellent prospects of earning a crack at the Sunderlands bonus with Nous Voila. It would take some horse to replicate at Cheltenham the form required to win in bad ground at Sandown today, but at least the obvious "sibling" to this race - the County Hurdle - permits the maximum possible recovery period. It remains the very last race of the Festival, which has been extended to a fourth day since Pipe pulled off the double with Olympian in 1993 and Blowing Wind in 1998.
NOUS VOILA (nap, 3.20 Sandown) will duly have an extra 24 hours in which to recover if he makes himself eligible for the bonus today. An easy winner of two novice hurdles earlier in the season, he was tailed off when favourite for his first handicap at Cheltenham in December. But that was one of several disappointments for the yard at the time, and he bounced back with an easy success at Haydock, in the process proving his aptitude for the sort of ground awaiting him today. He then ran a quite extraordinary race over an extra half-mile at Uttoxeter last month.
Ridden by a conditional jockey, he was exposed to a reckless gallop in conditions so exhausting that all the others who pressed the pace were either pulled up or tailed off. Yet he has so much more ability than his present rating that he was still tanking along on the home turn, by which stage the rest of the field had been reduced to clumsy toil.
Two horses eventually emerged from the pack to wear him down, but he still finished a distance clear of the rest. He should take plenty of beating dropped back in distance today under Timmy Murphy. Much his most interesting opponent is Victram.
Lest we forget, Flat racing resumes on turf the week after Cheltenham and the meeting at Wolverhampton is the equivalent of a batsman's session in the nets. Bayeux (2.20) was a useful juvenile who lost his way over longer distances with Godolphin, but a drop in trip has paid off for his new trainer and he looks as though he could still be on a fair mark.
Nap: Nous Voila (Sandown 3.20)
NB: Dhaular Dhar