Hard to believe, after another day when clerks of the course were left forlornly prodding frozen ground, but there is a class of men on the Turf just now with even colder feet. For an icy dread always permeates the bookmaker who must calculate the odds against any horse saddled in a big handicap by Tony Martin. These days, the layers tend to conclude that discretion is the better part of valour, making the Co Meath runner an automatic favourite. This time, however, they are going to have to try a little harder.
The Pierse Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday is one of the most valuable handicaps of the season, and Martin yesterday admitted that he has had the race in mind since last March. Unfortunately for those inclined to a corresponding leap of faith, he has had it in mind not for one horse, but for three. As things have turned out, Mourne Rambler "needs another week", but that still leaves everyone between a rock, in Robin Du Bois, and a hard place, in Psycho.
Either horse, on his own, would certainly be favourite. As it is, both contest that status with Imperial Hills, whose own trainer, Willie Mullins, will fear nobody with his horses in such invincible form. If anything, the money so far has been for Robin Du Bois, but yesterday Martin offered a guarded recommendation for Psycho.
"He's the one who has done it all before," he reasoned. "He was second in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham, possibly unlucky on the day, and has shown that he deserves a race like this. So I suppose you'd have to give him first preference.
"Things just didn't go his way at Cheltenham. He was in traffic, couldn't get out, and was left with too much ground to make up off no gallop. He was over the top at Fairyhouse next time, and has been an unlucky horse, really. Before, he had fallen at the last at Leopardstown, with the race won. Davy Russell rode him that day, and came and rode him in a piece of work last week. He was very pleased, and said he'd be happy to ride on Sunday.
"But I'm very happy with the preparation of both. Robin Du Bois also ran at Cheltenham, but was too keen and didn't get the three miles there. He couldn't have done it any better [on his reappearance] at Cork, and Robbie Colgan will be riding again."
That Cork win was back in November, and likewise Psycho's pleasing comeback at Fairyhouse. Martin has always been dextrous in priming a horse for a particular day, and all trainers acknowledge that it is easier to have a long-term target than to extemporise one. As such, he sounds indifferent to his image among bookmakers.
"I don't mind – if we get the right result," he said. "It's great when it does work out, like the day at Newcastle last summer with Arc Bleu [in the Northumberland Plate]. With these horses, we've worked backwards from this race since after Cheltenham, really, certainly since they came back in. If they came in time for the Ladbroke, at Ascot last month, grand. Otherwise you hope they might come in time for this. It's simply a case of when they start coming into shape. But I must say they're both best on soft ground, and it's drying out here. It's not really January ground at all."
But at least it is raceable. There has been no frost at Leopardstown since the Christmas meeting, whereas jumping in Britain remains stricken by the freeze, with today's cards at Catterick and Hereford duly interred yesterday.
In the meantime, the publication yesterday of 38 entries for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup seemed suggestive of unimaginable pleasures. It should be another vintage race, even if 36 of them happened to disappear in the meantime, so long as both Denman and Kauto Star are fit for their rematch. The ball is firmly back in the court of last year's winner, who makes his delayed reappearance at Newbury next month; Kauto Star meanwhile goes straight to the Festival.
CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP (13 March) Totesport: 6-4 Denman, 5-2 Kauto Star, 13-2 Neptune Collonges, 16-1 Albertas Run, Exotic Dancer, Star De Mohaison, 20-1 Tidal Bay, 25-1 Barbers Shop, Imperial Commander, War Of Attrition, 33-1 others.