Blazing Bailey keeps King on pedestal but O'Neill endures another grim day

There was little sign of abstinence among the 22,000 cheerful souls who began their year here yesterday. Few queues since the last days of the Soviet empire can have demanded such heroic stamina as the one snaking towards the donut stall, and the tobacco kiosk was doing brisk business as well. Perhaps their dealings with horses, over the years, have resigned punters to their own weaknesses.

For much of the time, after all, these animals leave you helpless. True, Jonjo O'Neill did manage a winner down at Exeter, so bringing his stable's total for January level with its score during the whole of December. And there were signs of life, also, in Wichita Lineman, who chased home Blazing Bailey in the big hurdle race. Perhaps the tide is turning back in his favour again. But for now it remains a flux, as much ebb as flow.

Black Jack Ketchum's latest failure, in the same race, was so abject that O'Neill seemed tempted to wash his hands of him altogether. And the stable's first runner of 2008 had finished tailed off behind Oh Crick, despite having all but matched strides with the same horse at Folkestone just a few weeks ago.

Alan King, meanwhile, continues in full spate. Oh Crick was his 500th winner since he began training in 1999, Blazing Bailey his 501st. Ironically, King's initial base was Jackdaws Castle, nowadays home to O'Neill and his cavalry. At first, King emerged only modestly from the shadows of his mentor, David Nicholson, but since then that same, steady demeanour has instead come to suggest something of the quiet authority underpinning his rise.

Oh Crick he described as "a horrible colour but otherwise a bloody nice horse". Blazing Bailey, in contrast, was just too bloody-minded for some pretty horrible rivals for the Steel Plate and Sections Hurdle, almost all of them having either failed or declined to put their best foot forward in recent outings.

Robert Thornton was hard at work from a long way out, but Blazing Bailey at least has his heart in the right place and he galloped up the hill with such purpose that the sponsors slashed him to 6-1 from 14-1 for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle back here in March.

He finished third in that race last season, but is one of the few progressive animals towards the top of the stayers' division the favourite, Inglis Drever, is as short as 6-4 and he does like this hill.

It was eight lengths back to Wichita Lineman, and while he did stay on dourly, it did look rather like 10 years' hard labour compressed into five minutes. He was eased to 6-1 from 4-1 for the Festival, but that might yet prove a generous price if his stable revives.

"He has always been lazy," O'Neill reflected. "But he seems to be getting lazier. I suppose you do that, when you go up in class. But he ran well and he'll come on for the run."

The prognosis for Black Jack Ketchum, however, was sombre. There was a touch of desperation to the new tactics, tried in a share of the lead, and he quickly dropped away after blundering at the sixth. "He's just lost his way totally," O'Neill admitted. "There's obviously something wrong with him. We'll have to see. It would be a shame to drag him through the gutter."

Another 2006 Festival winner, Star De Mohaison, ended a 13-month absence in the Unicoin Homes Handicap Hurdle, where he could race off a much lower rating than he had earned over fences, notably in winning the Sun Alliance Chase. Punters were seduced, making him odds-on favourite in a competitive race, but Paul Nicholls could afford to take a more temperate view when he was third, beaten 20 lengths behind Hills Of Aran.

"Very happy with that," the champion trainer declared. "That's the first time he has galloped on grass. He has only done loads and loads of steady work at home, and just ran out of puff. He was never as good over hurdles as over fences, anyway, and it wasn't really his ground either."

William Hill left Star De Mohaison on 25-1 for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, but Nicholls will certainly put him in the mix with the more obvious candidates in his care. With Kauto Star probably heading to Ascot next month, and Denman to the Aon Chase at Newbury, the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown could be his race.

"He must go left-handed, and I can see him liking the galloping track," Nicholls said. "There's also the Cotswold Chase here later in the month, but I wouldn't want to run him on testing ground."

Nicholls had one of his less productive visits here. Predateur lacked the heart to pass Lead On in the novice chase, while Officier De Reserve was a disappointing favourite for the TurfTV New Year Chase. Instead David Pipe was able to salute a "vintage" ride from Timmy Murphy on Vodka Bleu, though the young trainer himself deserves credit for reviving the horse's fading interest with a pair of blinkers.

This was meanwhile a big day for the sponsors, who began providing exclusive betting shop pictures of Cheltenham, along with 30 other racecourses. Their emergence has been bitterly resented by the major bookmakers, but yesterday Ladbrokes became the latest to sign up and now only William Hill remains out in the cold. Talks will resume this week, and the outcome now is surely as inevitable as another donut.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Something Silver (Ayr 1.10)

NB: Young Albert (Ayr 2.10)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee