Racing: Rain dampens trainers' anger

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The Independent Online
In a normal year, it would need to be a fairly thin news day before "rain in February" became a worthwhile item, but 1997 is anything but normal, and reports that Cheltenham racecourse received a thorough soaking on Sunday night swept all before them on racing's bush telegraph yesterday. With just four weeks to go to the National Hunt Festival, Philip Arkwright, the clerk of the course, briefly postponed plans to water the track artificially, and several trainers who have been grumbling about the prevailing fast ground suddenly fell silent.

At least, they did for the moment. The post of clerk of the course at Cheltenham is one of the most desirable the sport can offer, but from the start of February onwards, Arkwright can be fairly sure that each morning's browse through the trade papers will see another verbal grenade or two heading in his direction.

David Nicholson and Jim Old, both of whom would like an easy surface for their respective Champion Hurdle candidates, Relkeel and Collier Bay, will now be a little happier. Others, though - Jessica Harrington, who prepares the fast-ground specialist Space Trucker, springs to mind - may feel that their own chances have suffered as a result. For punters, too, long-cherished ante-post slips may suddenly appear rather less valuable.

Some would argue that Arkwright should simply let nature take its course, but the possibility of firm ground for the Festival is not one he is prepared to entertain. "We've had about 7mm of rain, just over a quarter of an inch," he said yesterday, "but it's not as much as we need and although there are fronts coming in, my local forecaster does not think it will amount to all that much."

The "local forecaster", by the way, is not an ageing shepherd with a bit of seaweed hanging from his porch, but, less romantically, a contact at the Bristol weather centre.

"You're never going to satisfy everybody," Arkwright said, "but we have a perfectly clear policy and we will not divert from it, which is that we should produce good ground for the Festival meeting.

"This is an exceptional year and it is probably going to take exceptional steps to do that, but we think it is in the best interests of the majority, and most importantly of the safety of the horses, that it should be no faster. I consider that will require two inches of rain between now and then, and if not rain, artificial water."

The concern, of course, is that while modern watering systems are admirably efficient at easing the ground, no one has yet devised a system to remove excess moisture if the weather proves unexpectedly harsh.

"It is a danger," Arkwright admits, "but much more so if you are watering from November to January and racing on it when it's wet. We have two courses which have not been raced on and as a result they will take a lot more water."

The appearance of a tropical storm over the brow of Cleeve Hill 24 hours before race-day would be excellent news for Wally Sturt, the owner of Collier Bay, who yesterday confirmed that, as expected, the champion hurdler will defend his title on 11 March without the benefit of another prep race. Ante-post punters, though, seem to feel that Arkwright's prayers will be answered, and stepped in yesterday to back Make A Stand, the Tote Gold Trophy winner, down to 8-1 (from 12-1) with William Hill to win the championship in his novice season.

Another novice who may upstage his seniors at the Festival is Dorans Pride, second-favourite for the Gold Cup. Michael Hourigan, his trainer, said yesterday that the 1995 Stayers' Hurdle winner will probably run in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles on Thursday, rather than the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park two days later. The latter race may now offer Imperial Call, who won the Gold Cup 11 months ago, a straightforward chance to record his first victory of the season.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (3m 2f 110yds)

Horse (Trainer) Coral William Hill Ladbrokes Tote

Imperial Call (F Sutherland) 4-1 7-2 7-2 7-2

Dorans Pride (M Hourigan) 5-1 9-2 4-1 9-2

Danoli (T Foley) 6-1 7-1 6-1 6-1

Coome Hill (W Dennis) 6-1 8-1 8-1 9-1

Dublin Flyer (T Forster) 8-1 8-1 6-1 9-1

One Man (G Richards) 10-1 10-1 *8-1 10-1

Mr Mulligan (N Chance) 14-1 14-1 12-1 12-1

Addington Boy (G Richards) 14-1 14-1 12-1 14-1

The Grey Monk (G Richards) 12-1 16-1 12-1 12-1

Banjo (D Nicholson) 16-1 20-1 16-1 20-1

Each-way a quarter the odds, places 1, 2, 3 (Cheltenham, Thursday, 13 March) *- with a run