With just a fortnight to go, almost all the Cheltenham Festival form is already in the book – leaving centre stage, for now, vacant for Aintree horses instead. True, a generous 29-day interval this year means that perspectives on the John Smith's Grand National may be radically altered by the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup. On Saturday, however, all eyes will be on Ballabriggs when he makes his first appearance since winning the National last year.
Donald McCain's intention has long been to run Ballabriggs in a conditions race at Kelso – just as he did last year, prior to his Aintree success. But he has covered all bases by also entering him for handicap chases at Doncaster and Newbury the same afternoon. The William Hill Grimthorpe Chase, at Doncaster, has also lured two of the other leading British fancies in West End Rocker and Junior.
But the latter, already well backed for Aintree before resurfacing for a spin over hurdles at Newbury 11 days ago, is more likely to wait to warm up in the Gold Cup. Tim Palin, racing manager to his owners, Middleham Park Racing, said yesterday: "We're having a look at Doncaster, but don't want to give him a hard race under a big weight on softish ground, and this weekend would only be 15 days since his first run of the season."
The Irish clearly have an exceptional hand in the National this year, two more strong candidates having volunteered themselves over the weekend in Prince De Beauchene and Seabass – respectively the likely mounts of Ruby Walsh and his sister, Katie. Yesterday Coral, who are quoting Junior at 12-1 and Ballabriggs at 16-1, laid Prince De Beauchene into 8-1 favouritism from 10-1.
Sadly, Mouse Morris does not have a National entry this time, but he may yet end up taking one of the most progressive young chasers in Ireland to the meeting. Though built for the job, Rathlin took a while to find his feet over fences after being transferred to Morris from Philip Rothwell's yard. On Sunday, however, he won his third consecutive chase when cruising home in a Grade Two race at Naas. "He's really got the hang of it now," Morris said.
"We've no great plans for him – I didn't even enter him for Cheltenham. He might go to Liverpool, or there's Fairyhouse and Punchestown in the mix, too. I'm glad this lad has come good, as he was disappointing on his first couple of starts for me. The difference is he's learnt to settle. He was running himself into the ground too early before."
As for those horses meanwhile being brought to fever pitch for the Festival, there was a tonic for the Kauto Star camp yesterday when Clifford Baker, who rides him daily, was named Employee of the Year at the Stud and Stable Staff Awards. Lavish sponsorship by Godolphin enabled Baker, the long-serving head lad to Paul Nicholls, to pick up a cheque for £25,000 – of which £10,000 will be distributed among the rest of the staff at Nicholls' Ditcheat yard.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Howizee (4.50 Catterick)
Outstayed a flourishing rival when raised to this kind of distance for the first time at Doncaster in December.
Next best: Ice Image (3.20 Catterick)
Has tumbled down the handicap during a quiet spell for his yard, which has shown signs of life over recent days.
One to watch: Prankster (Peter Bowen) had useful Flat form in his youth and shaped a lot better on his third start over hurdles at Chepstow on Saturday.
Where the money's going: Fury is 9-1 from 11-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill Lincoln Handicap at Doncaster next month.
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