Greg Wood reports on the Festival clues which emerged from the Christmas programme.
For a horse who gave Ireland its first Cheltenham Gold Cup in a decade just 21 months ago, Imperial Call has faded from the punting consciousness surprisingly quickly. Following the unexpected withdrawal of Dorans Pride from the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown yesterday, though, Fergie Sutherland's chaser had the chance to lay down a Festival form line all by himself, and it was an opportunity he did not spurn.
In the front rank from the off, Imperial Call jumped impeccably and took control of the Grade Two event with more than a mile still to run and galloped on solidly to beat Merry Gale by seven lengths. Its was his first win since the Gold Cup itself in 1996. Sutherland now plans to run Imperial Call in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on 8 February, when Dorans Pride should be among his opponents, after which he will attempt to become the first horse in National Hunt history to regain the Blue Riband.
William Hill now offer just 7-1 (from 12-1) against that unique achievement, although it may be instructive that 12-1 is still available with at least one Irish bookie. The identity of the best chaser in Ireland will now become clear only on 8 February, and to judge by the ante-post Gold Cup prices at least, Dorans Pride, a 4-1 chance for the Festival with Hills, is still the one that most of the visiting punters will be arriving in Gloucestershire to back.
Michael Hourigan's plan for Dorans Pride had long been to stay at home until the Festival itself, but after yesterday's unexpected withdrawal, an early trip to Britain is much more likely. "He had a drop on his foot, like an abscess or a boil, when we pulled him out this morning," Hourigan said yesterday. "It will only take two or three days to recover and we could take the chance and run but if he damaged a tendon you would never forgive yourself.
``It gives us a bit of a headache as it's thrown us out of line. He's ready to run and we must find something for him in the next week or two but there is nothing in Ireland until February. If we find something in England he'll run there. I don't mind bringing him back to two and a half miles but I don't want to run him in a handicap and it must not be too close to the Hennessy at Leopardstown."
All things considered, the future looks bright for Irish racing with the Festival now just 11 weeks (and one day) distant. The first two names in Hill's Gold Cup list are both trained there, and so too is Istabraq, the ante-post favourite for the Champion Hurdle, who attempts to make it three out of three for the season in the Grade Two December Hurdle at Leopardstown this afternoon. With just four opponents, the best of them probably Lady Daisy, third behind Cockney Lad at Cork last month, Aidan O'Brien's gelding is unlikely to relinquish his position at the head of the championship betting.
The British challenge for the Gold Cup seems to lie with Suny Bay and The Grey Monk (both 8-1 for Cheltenham), and the King George VI Chase winner, See More Business, a 12-1 chance who will run next over the Gold Cup track and trip in the Pillar Property Investment Chase next month.
"I think that race is a good stepping-stone to the Gold Cup as conditions are likely to be in our favour," Paul Nicholls, his trainer, said yesterday. "We have got to train the horse with Cheltenham in mind now. If the ground was on the easy side he would be a major player. See More Business is gradually getting his act together jumping-wise and has come on leaps and bounds. He was winning a maiden point-to-point at Larkhill three years ago and the other day he won the King George - that can't be bad, can it?"
The Festival is also the target for Adrian Maguire, who has missed the jump season's showpiece meeting for the last three years, after his latest injury in a fall at Kempton on Saturday.
Having returned only recently from a two-week absence with a fractured arm, Maguire fell from Hurricane Lamp and the same arm will now be in plaster for six weeks. "Adrian is quite relieved it won't rule him out of Cheltenham," the jockey's wife, Sabrina, said yesterday. "The bone he cracked three weeks ago has opened into a break and it was quite swollen yesterday evening, but at least Cheltenham is looking good."