The Festival week is marked off in red ink on every trainer's wall calendar from the first day of the season, but the period between the Tote Gold Trophy and the first weekend in March is almost as important, as the finishing touches are applied to six months of meticulous planning.
Trainers like Paul Nicholls could quickly find themselves with a dozen or more Festival candidates whose paths to Cheltenham could take an unwanted diversion.
Double Thriller, his Grand National favourite, was supposed to run in the Racing In Wessex Chase at icebound Wincanton today, and will now prepare for the Gold Cup instead in the Jim Ford Chase at the same course in two weeks' time.
Earthmover, another of Nicholls' Gold Cup team, will be re-routed to Newbury on Saturday having been frustrated at Chepstow yesterday, as his trainer tries desperately to get another two races into the chaser before Cheltenham.
No trainer places quite as much emphasis on these three days in March as Nick Henderson, who was either the leading or joint-best handler at the Festival in six of the nine years between 1987 and 1993. He drew a blank last year, and saddled only one winner - the last one, Barna Boy - the season before that, but with leading contenders for both the Supreme Novice Hurdle and Triumph Hurdle, Henderson's will still be one of the first names to look for.
More immediately, Henderson will send Sharpical to Newbury for the Tote Gold Trophy on Saturday, which will be the gelding's first outing since he won the same race last year. An injury soon afterwards robbed him of a chance to face Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle, but that slightly dubious privilege could now come next month if his return to action proves acceptable.
"He's got a lot of talent and he's in the Champion, put it like that," Henderson said yesterday. "It's his first race of the season because I just haven't had time to get a race into him, but he's quite an easy horse to get ready. We'll just have to see what happens on Saturday.''
Sharpical's success 12 months ago was due in part to a magnificent ride by Mick Fitzgerald, who held his mount up far longer than many jockeys would have dared, before cantering past Kerawi with 100 yards to run.
"It was one of the great rides," Henderson said. "We ride him with exaggerated tactics, but it's not the case that he needs everything to go his own way. The Tote Gold Trophy has turned into the most extraordinary race, because three-quarters of the horses are within 7lb of each other, from 11 stone 7 pounds to 12 stone, and the one thing it does is play into the hands of Tiutchev [the ante-post favourite].''
Both Hidebound and Katarino, Henderson's main hopes for Cheltenham, are reported to be in good form, although the weather may deny Katarino, who heads the market for the Triumph Hurdle, a run at Newbury on Friday.
"He coughed over Christmas but he's fine now and galloping away," Henderson said. "I think he'll almost certainly wait for either Huntingdon or Kempton the following week.''
Tiutchev's task in Saturday's big race could become even more straightforward tomorrow, when Wahiba Sands, the second-favourite, may come out - along with the David Nicholson-trained Midnight Legend.
"We will not make up our minds until Friday," David Johnson, Wahiba Sands' owner, said yesterday. "He was in the race on a racing weight but the horses at the top have all come out and I'm not very happy about that.''
Yesterday saw the first full day's trading on the Grand National following the publication of the weights, and Double Thriller was a predictably popular choice. The 12-1 on offer with both Ladbrokes and Coral yesterday morning had been cut to 9-1 by the evening.
But a more significant move was possibly that for Eudipe, trained by Martin Pipe. A 20-1 chance when Coral's doors opened, the seven-year-old was first cut to 14-1 and, when that failed to stem the flow of money, the odds were dropped further to 12-1.Reuse content