With three weeks and a day to go until the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a record number of potential runners remain in the Festival showpiece, bringing, for the first time, the prospect of a cut to be missed. For if the 39 horses remaining in the £400,000 Grade One contest are not whittled down to 24, the safety limit, by the final declaration stage in 20 days' time, the lowest-rated among them will be eliminated. "We hope it will not come to that," said the clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, yesterday, "but 39 is quite a large number."
This year's biggest-ever Gold Cup entry of 64 was undoubtedly a function of two leading contenders, Best Mate and Kicking King, being removed from the equation. But not much has happened since to counteract the perceived wisdom that the 78th running is up for grabs. The six horses at the head of the market - Beef Or Salmon, Monkerhostin, Kingscliff, Celestial Gold, War Of Attrition and Take The Stand - can be backed within five points of each other, from 5-1 to 10-1.
At the same forfeit stage 12 months ago, 27 remained from an entry of 40, of which 15 faced the starter. The same proportional representation would bring next month's field down to 22 but given the apparently open nature of this year's contest, the temptation to have a go with sub-standard horses may be strong.
The largest Gold Cup field has been the 22 who lined up in 1982. Silver Buck, at 8-1, won; Night Nurse, the 11-4 favourite, was pulled up; and Sunset Cristo, a 50-1 shot, struck a blow for the no-hopers by finishing third. And there have been some mighty moderate winners: the likes of Master Smudge, Alverton, Davy Lad and Royal Frolic were, in élite terms, very ordinary.
All the leading fancies stood their ground yesterday. Martin Pipe, yet to win the Blue Riband, has left in four alongside Celestial Gold: Iznogoud, Joaaci, Our Vic and Therealbandit. The 25 removed from the fray contained no real surprises; the highest-profile were Fondmort and Silver Birch. Other absentees include the novices Neptune Collonges, The Listener and Hors La Loi, but two first-season chasers, Darkness and Bewleys Berry, stay in the mix.
The lowest-rated of those remaining is the 10-year-old handicapper Early Edition, trained by the individualistic permit holder Oliver Carter and last seen pulling up lame at Newton Abbot 17 months ago.
The next revelation of runners comes on Saturday fortnight with the five-day declarations and a £20,000 supplementary entry stage.
In the Champion Hurdle, there will be no numerical record. The 23 who paid forfeit yesterday can all run if they wish, for the safety limit is 30. The largest field has been the 24 who took part in 1991, when the 4-1 favourite Morley Street won, and in 1964, the year of the 100-6 shot Magic Court.
But there are still 20 still in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, for which the most populous field has been the 13 headed by Call Equiname seven years ago, and a massive 36 go forward for the staying hurdles crown, the World Hurdle. In both 1985, when 5-1 favourite Rose Ravine won, and 1990, when Trapper John, at 15-2, prevailed, 22 runners went to post.
The marathon hurdling division is becoming increasingly sexier, and deservedly so, for the long-distance runners are the true iron men of the Festival. Six World Hurdle entries will be putting their credentials on the line this afternoon at Haydock in the Rendlesham Hurdle: Crystal D'Ainay, going for back-to-back victories, Patriarch Express, Sh Boom, long-absent Royal Rosa and, from France, Blue Canyon and Millenium Royal, stablemates of the two-time title holder Baracouda. The Grade Two three-miler has produced three winners of the greater prize in Baracouda (2002), Anzum (second in1999) and Balasani (1994).
The exciting novice chaser Monet's Garden, runner up in the Rendlesham last year at its usual home, Kempton, will further his education in the Pendil Chase, another transfer from Sunbury, at Sandown on Saturday. The grey eight-year-old, unbeaten over fences, has been left only in the two-mile Arkle Trophy at the Festival, for which he is a 14-1 chance. "He's in grand fettle and Saturday will be another stepping stone," his trainer, Nicky Richards, said, "but we're not sure he'd stay three miles round Cheltenham at this stage."
Ireland's Accordion Etoile, a market leader for the Arkle, the Festival novices' race that has produced more subsequent champions than any other, will not be seen again before the big day but was reported in sparkling form yesterday by his trainer, Paul Nolan.
Last season's Champion Hurdle fourth will keep his date with the Prestbury Park hill come rain or shine. "We couldn't be happier with him," Nolan said. "We're praying for good ground, but he'd run on soft. He has been trained for a year with just one race in mind."
Nap: Fabulous Jet
NB: Moulin Riche
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