Frances Crowley has decided to forsake a final opportunity to give Sackville, the leading Irish contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, some more experience of the Prestbury Park contours. The gelding will miss the Pillar Property Chase on Saturday, the final day's racing at Cheltenham before the Festival in March, and will instead contest a hurdle over three miles at Gowran Park tomorrow before a crack at the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday week.
Lining up on Saturday, though, will be Marlborough, who was given a very positive progress report from Mick Fitzgerald yesterday, Cyfor Malta and Lord Noelie. A possible opponent for Sackville at Gowran – one who is likely to provide a rigorous test – is the Mouse Morris-trained Boss Doyle.
"We're going to Gowran with Sackville," Crowley said yesterday. "We're just trying to do the right thing for the Gold Cup. We decided an easier race up the road would suit him better.
"I think he would run very well [on Saturday] but we're looking ahead and trying to do the right thing for the horse. He's in good form and seems well."
While Sackville has held his place well in the betting market and is a best-priced 8-1, his compatriot Istabraq has been a constant drifter in the ante-post exchanges on the Champion Hurdle in recent weeks. The signs are that position may be about to change and Aidan O'Brien's charge, chasing a record fourth hurdling crown, was at last the subject of support with the Tote yesterday.
"For the first time in this season's ante-post market we've seen punters begin to nibble at the price on offer," the Tote's spokesman, Jeremy Scott, said. "After a period in which he's done nothing but drift, he now looks to have found his market price, having stabilised at 2-1. If interest continues tomorrow we could see his price cut for the first time this season."
Fitzgerald, the most successful jockey in the past fortnight with 11 wins, including two at Fontwell yesterday, is keenly anticipating the return to the racecourse on Saturday of Marlborough. The 10-year-old has been off the track since November after having to undergo an operation because of a trapped epiglottis.
"I rode him [Marlborough] work myself this morning and he worked very, very well," the jockey said. "I was very, very pleased with him. He seems to have improved for this trapped epiglottis operation. He's come back and he's flying. He schooled very well last week so it's all systems go."
Fitzgerald will face some stiffer competition on the track from tomorrow when Richard Johnson returns to racecourse action. The jockey was yesterday given the signal to resume from his doctor after almost exactly three months on the sidelines because of a broken leg sustained in a fall at Exeter.
Johnson was on 81 winners for the season at the time of his accident and, to put his place in the jockeys' hierarchy in perspective, it was only yesterday that Fitzgerald slipped past that figure into second place in the championship table, with Tony McCoy in glorious isolation in front. "I shall have to put that right," Johnson said. "Second place is worth fighting for.
"My leg feels very good. A broken leg does not heal completely in three months, but it looks all right on the X-ray. You can see where it was and you can see the new bone and the doctor is very pleased with it.
"I have been riding out for six days and the leg feels great – although I am rather stiff in the morning because I haven't ridden for three months. I want to reach 100 winners and I want to ride as many winners as I can before the end of the season."