The difference between tradition and routine, or between the perfunctory and the nearly pointless, was just about the only illumination available in the gloaming at Leopardstown yesterday. There was a time when Irish punters would glean vital late Cheltenham clues from workouts after racing there, just nine days before the Festival. But the institution gradually became a victim of its own success. Most trainers nowadays prefer to complete their meaningful preparations in relative privacy, and there is an increasingly ritual quality to the whole occasion.
Things reached a fresh, absurd nadir yesterday, when the 30-odd horses that stretched their limbs were dignified for the first time with number-cloths. Drying conditions, however, ensured that most barely trotted round.
Funnily enough, the only Festival contender to do anything in any kind of earnest was also confined to a spin over the Flat, though in his case at least there was a spot of prize-money at stake. Jezki, highly regarded by trainer Jessica Harrington, returned to the scene of his debut success in January for a stylish win in the bumper. "He's a possible for Cheltenham now, as I don't think he did any more than a gallop there," Harrington said. "He learnt a bit more and I think a faster pace will suit him better."
As for those horses that actually left the ground, the weekend was primarily about the John Smith's Grand National. But not everyone will have been as convinced by Junior's trial at Doncaster on Saturday as those bookmakers who have now promoted him to favourite. Any horse able to win at both Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham Festival clearly has the basic ability, but the manner of his performance at Doncaster strengthened suspicions about his aptitude for the singular demands of a National.
With a frequent tilt to his blinkered head, Junior lacked zest at some of his fences and looked painfully indolent under pressure. Nor can he be counted obviously well treated nowadays, having soared up the weights after his 24-length romp at the Festival last year. In fairness, he failed only by a nostril to give 22lb to Ikorodu Road – whose trainer, Matt Sheppard, deservedly enjoyed the biggest success of his career – and David Pipe will reliably bring him to a fresh peak on the day that matters.
Plainly, there can be no quibbles about the competence for the Aintree challenge of Ballabriggs, who less than an hour later made his first appearance since winning the National last year. Though he ultimately beat only the 250-1 outsider in a field of five, in a conditions chase at Kelso, his performance left his trainer, Donald McCain, legitimately satisfied. Still going well at the last, Ballabriggs jumped into the lead but tired on the long run-in, beaten around nine lengths without being given an unduly hard race. Jason Maguire, his jockey, reckoned it a better run than when beaten in the same race last year. Pleasingly, after that very demanding experience at Aintree, Ballabriggs showed plenty of enthusiasm and was reported to have emerged in fine heart yesterday.
"We were chuffed with his run," McCain said. "I tried to warn people that he would come on for it. They've just gone a very slow gallop, sprinted at the finish, and he's just got a bit tired and flattened out. He's where we want him at this stage, and absolutely fine this morning, so we'll kick on from here."
Though he sent out another three winners at Sedgefield yesterday, McCain continues to exude a degree of disquiet about Peddlers Cross, who was evidently too sore after his Kempton defeat at Christmas to absorb as much schooling as his trainer had intended. McCain hopes to get some more into the horse this week, before committing on his Festival options.
The frailties of these mighty creatures were reiterated in dispiriting fashion yesterday when James Fanshawe announced that Deacon Blues, whose progress last year volunteered him as the outstanding British sprinter for the forthcoming Flat season, will miss the whole campaign with a tendon tear. As for Kauto Star, who suffered a relatively trivial setback in his notorious schooling fall, it is all sounding quite promising. Having originally proposed a day off, Paul Nicholls was yesterday able to give him "a strong canter" over 10 furlongs. No number-cloth, perhaps, and no television cameras – but that definitely sounds more positive than anything on view at Leopardstown.
Cheltenham countdown: 8 DAYS TO GO
My top fancy for the Festival: Nigel Twiston-Davies, trainer: "Astracad in the Grand Annual. He's proven round the course and, as he showed when he won round there last time, never stops trying. He's got 10st 9lb so if [top weight] French Opera stays in, that would be lovely."
Chris McGrath's Nap: Made In Time (4.45 Hereford)
Has progressed nicely since being sent chasing by his new yard, including when midfield in a much better race at Cheltenham last time, doing well to get back involved after being hampered.
Next best: Catch That (2.45 Hereford)
Has shown precious little in qualifying for a mark but has looks and pedigree on his side and should find out more today stepped up in trip with Tony McCoy for the first time.
One to watch: After acquiring a modest rating over timber, Great Kicker (Simon Burrough) showed instant improvement switched to fences for his first handicap at Taunton on Thursday, failing only in a photo after a mistake three out.
Where the money's going: Baile Anrai is 12-1 from 20-1 with Paddy Power for the Fulke Walywn-Kim Muir Chase at Cheltenham.
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