Racing: Rain may dash Ground plan: Greg Wood reports on how the recent downpours could frustrate many trainers' attempts to time a run to perfection

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The Independent Online
EVEN THE most committed punter may view the waterlogged abandonments of recent days as no more than an irritation, and perhaps, with Christmas just weeks away, as a blessing in disguise. Not so the nation's leading trainers, who can only watch as their carefully laid plans disappear down the nearest drain.

While a precocious juvenile on the Flat may take little getting ready, it generally requires time and the right programme of races to put the sharpest edge on a 10- year-old steeplechaser. Cool Ground, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, has a choice of Christmas targets, but Toby Balding, his trainer, conceded yesterday that at present the gelding is one race short of his best with time running out.

The Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow tomorrow is probably Balding's last realistic chance to give Cool Ground the vital extra outing, following the loss of today's card at Sandown, on which Cool Ground was a precautionary entry in the P & O Handicap Chase. 'If he doesn't run this week then he will have to go to the Welsh National or Anthony Milday, Peter Cazalet without a run,' the trainer said.

The initial prognosis from Chepstow yesterday was far from hopeful, but a later bulletin from Rodger Farrant, the clerk of the course, offered Balding some grounds for hope.

'I was quite surprised,' Farrant reported after walking the track during the afternoon. 'It's perfectly raceable at the moment. There is no inspection planned unless there is further heavy rain.'

Similar sentiments had been expressed about today's meeting at Sandown, however, but a two- hour downpour yesterday left the Esher track with little chance of passing an early afternoon inspection, while another inspection at 2pm today will decide the fate of tomorrow's card, which features the William Hill Handicap Hurdle and Tingle Creek Handicap Chase. If it survives, racegoers will enjoy a bonus race: the Grade Two Winter Novice Hurdle, the richest contest at today's abandoned meeting, will be carried over to open proceedings at 12.25. No further inspections will be necessary at Towcester, where the course is so waterlogged that any hope of recovery in time for tomorrow's scheduled meeting has already been discounted.

Martin Pipe took the Rehearsal Chase 12 month ago with Carvill's Hill, prior to saddling the huge chaser to land the Welsh National. The trainer appears to have mapped out a similar route for Miinnehoma, last year's Sun Alliance Chase winner, who will be one of Cool Ground's opponents if Chepstow gets the nod.

Pipe is no stranger to producing horses to win top-class races at the first time of asking, however, and if Chepstow is lost Miinnehoma can still be expected to put up a strong show in the Welsh National. The punters clearly believe so: Pipe has a nine-strong entry in the race, but only Miinnehoma and Run For Free attracted any support in Coral's ante-post list yesterday. Miinnehoma is now the firm's 6-1 clear favourite from 10-1 for the race on 28 December, while Run For Free is 10-1 from 12-1. Balding's Belmount Captain also found favour, being cut from 12-1 to 8-1. Captain Dibble is 12-1, with 14-1 bar the four.

Britain's clerks of the course may not have a great deal to smile about at present, but most of them can at least see some grass when they look out of the office window. Pity Jack Bennett, the course manager at Worcester, who would need a canoe to perform an inspection as the track, which adjoins the River Severn, is under several feet of water.

Next Wednesday's meeting is almost certain to be called off, but cannot be officially abandoned until Monday morning. 'The going could be described as choppy,' was Bennett's stoical report yesterday.