Horse Racing: Cross-country on wrong track

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The Independent Online
"Roll on March" Charlie Mann declared after watching Celibate win the valuable novice chase here yesterday, and he was not the only racegoer for whom the Festival cannot come soon enough.

Inevitably perhaps, since the three-day meeting is sponsored by a beer company, the final afternoon of the Murphy's Festival was one too many, and the result was a thumping hangover. After the excitement and drama of Challenger Du Luc's success in the Murphy's Gold Cup 24 hours earlier, bafflement took over as the dominant emotion, as eight runners set out for the second running of the Sporting Index Chase over the cross-country course laid out on the infield. McGregor The Third, successful 12 months ago, came home clear again, but rarely can an odds-on favourite have galloped up the Cheltenham hill to such a subdued welcome.

It was a shame to see such an admirable horse receive so little acclaim, since McGregor The Third treated the various obstacles in his path with glorious indifference and at no stage in the 31-furlong contest did he look anything other than the winner. At 10 years of age, he is not getting any better, but his jumping is so assured that a trip to Aintree for the Grand National in April seems a logical plan, though it is worth noting that his form tailed off completely after his victory here 12 months ago.

Racecourse administrators are often accused of lacking imagination, so in one sense at least, Cheltenham deserve credit for building their cross- country course. It is hard to avoid the feeling, though, that the desire to be different overtook considerations of precisely what it would be for, how often and, most important of all, whether conservative British punters would take any notice.

Similar courses in Europe - in particular that at Pardubice in the Czech Republic - were often designed to pander to a desire for guaranteed carnage, which in Britain, thankfully, is largely a thing of the past. As a result, Cheltenham's course is never likely to be anything more than a picturesque anachronism.

If nothing else, it was a relief that yesterday's race did not see a repeat of the death which marred the inaugural running. Its A Snip, a former winner of the Velka Parubicka (Czech Grand National) at Pardubice pulled up lame, but his injury could have happened in any event at any track, and he walked into the horse ambulance without appearing in serious distress.

Mann, Its A Snip's trainer, had more cause to celebrate half an hour later, as Celibate held off Land Afar in the Grade Two novice chase to take his record over fences to four out of four. It was the only performance of the day which seems likely to hold any relevance to the Festival itself, and even with four months still to travel to the Arkle Trophy, Celibate seems sure to be well worth a place in the field.

"That was great because he was there to be shot at and he was probably in front a bit soon because he jumped so well," Mann said. "He's one of the best jumpers I've ever seen, and he'll be lovely to train for the Arkle."

If Festival pointers were thin on the ground yesterday, there were plenty throughout the country the previous day, and at Ayr in particular where The Grey Monk beat Jodami and Morceli to advance to 3-1 favouritism for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday week, and a quote of 12-1 (with Coral) for the Gold Cup itself.

Challenger Du Luc, Saturday's big-race winner, could be among his opponents at Newbury. "I've not been home yet but my head lad reports him in good shape," Martin Pipe, his trainer, said yesterday. "I'll have to think seriously about the Hennessy. I'm not too worried about the longer trip, he's been second over three miles before." Challenger Du Luc is 12-1 for the season's next major event.

The most dismal news of the weekend was that of the death of two popular performers, Willsford, who suffered a heart attack at Cheltenham on Saturday, and the Irish mare Dance Beat, whose fractured her off-fore fetlock at Punchestown. "Her leg was smashed and they couldn't save her," Jessica Harrington, her trainer, said yesterday. "It was only an outside chance but we had to try."