"Isn't this fun?", the Channel 4 commentator asked half-way through the Sporting Index Chase at Cheltenham yesterday, but on reflection he may wish he had not. The inaugural race over the new cross-country course at the home of jump racing was innovative and diverting, but the entertainment came at a cost as Leagaune, a 13-year-old veteran of 35 races, lost his life at the bank which is the course's "signature" obstacle.
Fourteen runners set out to tackle the mixture of hedges, ditches and railed obstacles which have been arranged on the Cheltenham infield, but it was the ditch and bank, in the centre of the race's convoluted path, which caused particular problems and claimed two fallers. The other runner to misjudge it completely was Its A Snip, whose oversight could hardly be down to unfamiliarity as he recently won the Velka Pardubicka in the Czech Republic over a similar, but far more demanding, course.
In both cases, the problem seemed to be that the horses tried to clear the bank, rather than scramble on to the top, and as a result flung themselves, at speed, into its face. Its A Snip continued unscathed, but Leagaune had broken his back and could not be saved.
McGregor The Third, the winner, negotiated all 22 obstacles with an athletic grace which bordered on contempt, and came home clear of Viva Bella and Docklands Express. Gordon Richards's gelding started favourite at 6-4, which may mean that many punters were well aware that he was not short of useful experience.
"I broke him in," Richards said, "but then sent him back to his owner to grow up. His daughter claimed him for three-day eventing and I never thought I'd get him back, but when she married he came back to me, and is a real prospect. I just don't know how far he will go." Aintree is one possible answer - William Hill offer 25-1 about McGregor The Third's chance in the Grand National.
For Richards, it was a most satisfactory weekend. Though Buckboard Bounce ran poorly in the Mackeson Gold Cup, his trainer had made it clear beforehand that he expected little more on the prevailing ground, and Tony Dobbin, his stable jockey, emphasised the point by travelling to Ayr to partner One Man in a less valuable race.
One Man's performance in beating Jodami was most encouraging, given the errors which had afflicted him towards the end of last season, and he is now 2-1 with Ladbrokes and Hills to repeat last year's success in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday week. He is an 8-1 chance for the Gold Cup, while Dublin Flyer, who showed such courage to win the Mackeson, is now 16-1 to take chasing's greatest prize.
Future plans are less concrete for Coulton, who started the Mackeson a 4-1 joint-favourite with Dublin Flyer but could finish only seventh. "I'm not going to speculate on what went wrong with Coulton," Oliver Sherwood, his trainer, said yesterday, "and we won't know until the results of the tests are revealed in 48 hours. He's eaten up and scoped clean so far."
Sherwood was also required to reflect on disappointment after the novice chase at Cheltenham yesterday. Callisoe Bay, a leading novice hurdler last season, was sent off favourite, but knuckled over three from home when ready to challenge. "He seems fine," he said, "but I just hope he doesn't lose his confidence as a result. He was a bit novicey at the start but was just getting the hang of it."
Captain Khedive, the winner, was beaten when a 2-7 chance in a poorer race at Hereford last month. After yesterday's success, the Arkle Trophy at the Festival is once more to the forefront of Paul Nicholls's plans.Reuse content