One of the side-dishes at this week's Festival banquet will be the human power struggles, in the form of seasonal championships. Not so much for jockeys, for theirs is decided by numbers, and a winner at Cartmel counts as much as one at Cheltenham. But for trainers and owners, the next four days could be pivotal. Money is what counts on their leaderboards and there are purses worth £2,710,000 at stake at the meeting. And titles are important. The Premiership or the FA Cup? It's a no-brainer.
As far as the owners are concerned, it is more or less a fait accompli. David Johnson, going for a four-timer, is on £1,203,389, more than twice as much as his nearest rival, JP McManus. But antlers are firmly locked at the top of the trainers' table, where Martin Pipe, the 14-times champion, leads Paul Nicholls, runner-up for the past six seasons, by some £160,000.
The first clash comes in the £140,000 Arkle Trophy, the novices' contest that has easily the best record in spotlighting future talent. As a snapshot of that, the past three winners, Well Chief, Azertyuiop and Moscow Flyer, are the first three favourites for the senior championship tomorrow. Arkle never won the beginners' two-mile race that took his name in 1969, but 40 years ago his brilliant stablemate Flyingbolt became the best horse to do so. Today's field of 19 has been exceeded in size only twice, most lately in 1960, when Mazurka beat 24 rivals.
Pipe has won three Arkles, with Or Royal (1997), Champleve (1998) and Well Chief, to Nicholls's one, with Azertyuiop. Pipe's contender this year is Contraband (2.35). Today will be his fifth run over fences; in the first two he did not help himself by his impetuosity, but third time it all fell into place as he settled and jumped beautifully. His last appearance, a third behind Nicholls's My Will was, on the face of it, disappointing, but it was arguably his best performance. On heavy ground he did well to get within five lengths of the winner. Today's livelier conditions, both underfoot and in the pace of the race, should play to his strengths.
The respected Irish contingent is headed by War Of Attrition, unbeaten in his two runs over fences. Each-way value may be found among another raider, the mare Mariah Rollins.
The Festival opener has provided those from across the water with a lucrative start to the traditional battle with the ring for the past four years, the most recent three winners, Brave Inca, Back In Front and Like-A-Butterfly, having been roared home as well-backed favourites. Justified, a 14-length winner at Punchestown in January, is the one bearing the responsibility this time.
But there are reasons to hope that Arcalis (2.00) may spring a surprise and reward Graham Wylie, currently third, and within striking distance of McManus in the owners' table, with his first Festival winner. The grey produced a respect-able effort when thrown in the deep end against Harchibald and Rooster Booster at Christmas and though his run back in novice grade last month was a dull one, he is reportedly back to his fighting best.
In the three-mile handicap chase, two ex-invalids appeal. Iris Bleu meets Joly Bey on 5lb better terms for a six-length beating at Sandown last month, his first run since being pulled up injured in the 2003 Grand National. But Hussard Collonges (4.00), handled considerately in his two comeback races, is returning to the scene of his Royal & SunAlliance Chase victory three years ago.
The first of the new contests at the meeting is the cross-country chase, in which Comanche War Paint (4.40) can benefit from a weights pull and airway surgery to thwart Spot Thedifference's hat-trick over the course. Another innovation, the juvenile handicap hurdle, will be subject to more cunning plans than an episode of Blackadder. Papini (5.20), Nation State and Ease The Way are three to consider.
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