Within the space of 40 minutes on Saturday, the élite hurdling hierarchy on each side of the Irish Sea will undergo what will probably be its last inspection. The domestic microscope will be out at Wincanton, where Royal Shakespeare sets the standard in the Kingwell Hurdle, just before Macs Joy and Hardy Eustace renew rivalry in the Red Mills Trial at Gowran Park.
Royal Shakespeare is currently available at 66-1 for the Champion Hurdle, which could be considered an insult, if not to the horse then to the seasonal Order Of Merit, the points table that he currently heads. But then, the seven-year-old has always been more consistent than brilliant as his seven runs this term indicate: two wins, a second place, two thirds, a fourth and a fifth.
He is, perforce, an excellent yardstick, and probably a better one than he is given credit for being, given that he rarely seems to get his essential fast ground. He may not get it at Wincanton, either, though he will turn out in the Grade 2 two-miler no matter what the underfoot conditions. "Everybody knows he is a much better horse on good ground," said his trainer, Steve Gollings, "but the bad news is that it has rained down there. And there are more showers forecast, so its all in the lap of the gods. But unless the meeting is off, he will run."
Royal Shakespeare's last visit to the sharp, flat Somerset track, in November, brought a victory; the one before that, in last year's Kingwell, a third place. Last time out he won at Sandown despite tacky conditions and even though, as far as the wider public are concerned, he has had a charisma bypass, he is a thoroughly admirable character. "He was not really at the top of his game then," said Gollings, "and without disrespecting the second horse [the handicapper Alph] we should have beaten him a lot further.
"He was never travelling like he can but he has run with great credit on unsuitable ground this season, especially at Haydock [fourth to Al Eile on heavy]. Looking back, I thought that was a fantastic performance. He was off his food a little after Sandown but he worked well on Tuesday and is back in good shape."
The gelding has won twice at Grade 2 level and missed out on a top-level victory by a whisker as a novice, when he ran Brave Inca to a short-head at Punchestown. He has earned £170,000 but as far as Gollings is concerned points mean prize money, for top spot on the Order of Merit is worth £250,000. Last year's winner, Inglis Drever, won the Kingwell Hurdle on the way.
Royal Shakespeare's chief rivals on Saturday will be last year's Triumph Hurdle winner Penzance, who has found the transition to senior company difficult so far, and the very good youngster Natal, who has the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival, as his target.
The horse who pooped the party at Wincanton two weeks ago is to return to the scene of his social gaffe. See You Sometime upset a clutch of Gold Cup contenders, headed by Royal Auclair, to notch his first victory in 10 starts as the outsider of five and will be back on Saturday for the three-mile handicap. "He came out of that last run really well," said trainer Seamus Mullins, "and has been bouncing around the yard thinking he is the bee's knees."
Among the 11-year-old's opponents will be Royal Auclair's Paul Nicholls stablemate Silver Birch, the Grand National third favourite, who will be running over fences for the first time this season and the last time before Aintree.
Silver Birch is scheduled to be ridden by Paddy Brennan; at Haydock, Graham Lee has landed the plum ride on another of Nicholls' National contenders, L'Aventure.
Nap: Cruise Director
NB: Definite Approach
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