Since he sauntered away with the Cesarewitch on the Flat last autumn, Vintage Crop has slipped in and out of the upper reaches of the Champion market as rumours about his health have ebbed and flowed. A torn muscle in his quarters has prevented him adding to two minor successes over timber late in 1991, a shortfall in experience that was all too plain yesterday as Weld asked Vintage Crop to clear nine hurdles in a schooling session.
'He schooled a bit novicey but I suppose that's to be expected,' Weld said. 'He jumped adequately but it was not the most impressive schooling I have seen.' This, remember, was at a pace of Weld's own choosing, far removed from the aggressive pace of the championship.
'I wanted to put as little pressure as possible on his hind quarters,' the trainer added. 'He was sound afterwards and he will run all being well. He will have physiotherapy right up to the race but he runs irrespective of the ground.'
With such despondent reports preceding him, it might seem strange that Hills' price of 9-1 fifth favourite is the best on offer about Vintage Crop, but that is to misunderstand the greedy mechanics of ante-post betting. With his participation in doubt, no serious punters were willing to part with their cash; now that he is likely to run, the bookies can quote him as short as they like and, with no major liabilities to worry about, he will be running for their benefit. Perhaps the biggest clue to Vintage Crop's participation is the name of his owner: he runs in the colours of Michael Smurfit, the Champion Hurdle's sponsor.
There was no such pensiveness from Jimmy FitzGerald, who saddled the novice Polar Region to beat a field of experienced handicap chasers in the Durham National at Sedgefield yesterday, the gelding's third success in 28 days.
FitzGerald reported no problems with his half-dozen strong Festival challenge, headed by the likely favourite for the Arkle Trophy, Sybillin.
'They did their final gallop this morning, and each of them moved very well, particularly Fox Chapel,' FitzGerald said. 'I was very pleased with him, and he goes for the Coral Cup, in which I might run Trainglot as well if I don't put him in the Sun Alliance Hurdle.' FitzGerald is not unknown to the bookmakers, and the 33-1 on offer about Fox Chapel's chances with William Hill last night may not survive the day.
At the same meeting, Chris Grant recorded the 750th success of his career when partnering Shelton Abbey to success in the Hartlepool Handicap Hurdle. The 751st came an hour later, when Break The Chain defied top weight in the John Simpson Memorial Handicap Chase.
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