There is a reluctant hero out there somewhere, but surely none as hopelessly bashful as those who could not handle even the elementary audition staged at Wincanton yesterday. With varying degrees of optimism, four of the five runners in the HBLB Cotswold Chase had been given entries in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. The way things have been going this season, nobody could be remotely surprised when they proved incapable of beating the one who had not.
This was perhaps the most damning proof yet of the porous quality of the steeplechasing élite, now that it has lost Best Mate and mislaid the likes of Kicking King and Trabolgan. Certainly it was edifying to see Seamus Mullins, an able trainer who has had to wade through too much treacle in his time, end a 10-week drought by winning this valuable prize with See You Sometime. But those who surrendered to him so meekly did little to discourage the impression that the keynote race of the Cheltenham Festival needs salvaging from an undeserving rabble.
Perhaps a horse whose fulfilment is not yet apparent to the bookmakers, such as Hedgehunter or Joacci, can do just that. For now, however, matters appear to have reached a nadir. True, the Cotswold Chase had lost its most plausible contenders through its transfer from the abandoned fixture at Cheltenham last Saturday.
Nonetheless sufficient respect had been reserved for Royal Auclair, Ollie Magern and One Knight to make their different failures, on a raw, misty day, excruciating to behold.
The most poignant vignette concerned One Knight. After all, here is a horse who has already demonstrated the calibre to win a championship race at the Festival. But since the 2003 Sun Alliance Chase he has appeared about as often as Halley's Comet, and has occasionally seemed to borrow his jumping technique from an asteroid, too. Here it took him only two fences to discard Richard Johnson, taking his completion record to one in his last four starts.
In fairness, this mishap will most definitely be recorded in the formbook as "unseated rider" rather than "fell". Poor Johnson took so long to complete his descent that it was hard to tell whether any other part of his body touched the turf before his exasperated fist. Sadly, however, the loose horse remained too fresh to resist a disastrous tour of the track perimeter, ultimately crashing through a fence and returning covered in cuts. Philip Hobbs, his trainer, could not say how superficial or otherwise they might be, but it did not sound good. "He's a bloody mess, I'm afraid," he said.
In his absence, the restless, bustling Ollie Magern might have expected an easier time up front, but he could not shake off See You Sometime. Ollie Magern had reeked in the betting before the race and, while he is supposed to be more effective going left-handed, something deeper must account for the way he lost touch so rapidly here. He finished tailed-off - even Ballycassidy, who was under the cosh for two circuits, managed to stagger past him in the end - and Nigel Twiston-Davies spread his hands. "I've no excuses, no idea," the trainer said.
That left Royal Auclair as the only rival to See You Sometime, but he made a mess of the fourth last and was never able to get back past the winner thereafter. His young rider Christian Williams was received rather stonily by Paul Nicholls, who suspected that the injured Ruby Walsh might have ridden Royal Auclair a little more patiently.
So there you have it: the prize was presented to See You Sometime on a silver tray, by four clumsy footmen. Mullins will enter the winner in the Ryanair Chase at the Festival, but may wait for Liverpool or Punchestown. "He's only a little horse, but he's all heart," he said. "He needs to dominate, so these small fields are ideal." Andrew Thornton was adamant that he won on merit. "He was idling in front and there was plenty left in the tank," the jockey said. "He galloped, he jumped, he stayed."
Put like that, it does not sound too much to ask. If only the bookmakers could find a horse competent to do all three at Cheltenham. One Knight remains as short as 14-1 with Coral, though that may change once Hobbs manages to clean the horse up. William Hill doubled the odds against Ollie Magern to 20-1, and offer Royal Auclair at 25-1.
Nicholls, of course, had won six races at the last meeting here but this time he had to make do with three. There seemed nothing remotely counterfeit about the Festival candidature of the last of them. Kicks For Free, as on his debut here, did not come off the bridle and, at 6-1 with Coral, is now the leading home fancy for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.
l Jockeys Noel Fehily and Rodi Greene enjoyed only minor success yesterday when their 10-day bans for taking the wrong course at Fakenham last week were reduced by just one day by the Jockey Club's disciplinary panel in London.
Nap: Dusky Lord
He's The Gaffer (3.40 Fontwell) opened 7-1, won at 9-2
Prince Of Gold (2.50 Wolverhampton) opened 7-1, second at 9-2
TRAINERS IN FORM
(Most wins last 14 days) P Nicholls 13; N Littmoden 7; M Pipe 6; N Henderson 4; K Ryan 4; J A Osborne 4; P Hiatt 3; P Hobbs 3; D Shaw 3; R Harris 2; Sir M Prescott 2; P Winkworth 2; C Mann 2; J R Best 2; R Alner 2; J Bradley 2; A King 2; K R Burke 2.
TRAINERS OUT OF FORM
(Runners since last win) A Brown 134; P Midgley 81; P Butler 74; D B Feek 64; M Madgwick 54; Miss V C Roberts 52; T Caldwell 47; L Wells 44; Mrs L Jewell 36; M Blanshard 36; V Smith 34; W K Goldsworthy 33; J Unett 32; E R Oertel 31; M Appleby 30; Mrs A Hamilton-Fairley 29; G Yardley 28; P Blockley 28; Pat Mooney 27; J Jay 27; R Rowe 26; Lucinda Featherstone 26; P R Webber 25; Dr J Naylor 23; W Brisbourne 23; A Carroll 22; M Quinn 21; M Polglase 21; H Cecil 20.Reuse content