Almost time, then, to pull up the drawbridge and count the ammunition. The Cheltenham Festival is now only three weeks away on Tuesday, and few trainers will want to leave the candidature of horses contingent on a hard race in the meantime. So while a handful will still be seeking late admission, some of the final trials of strength are staged on Saturday.
Mind you, the obsession with the Festival seems pretty eccentric when you consider how faint praise has tended to be for Finian’s Rainbow since he won one of the very biggest prizes there last year. Even on the day, his achievement in the Queen Mother Champion Chase was diluted by a suspicion that his main rival had been left in front too soon, and then lost critical momentum in bypassing the last fence.
Finian’s Rainbow did proceed to run away with another Grade One chase, at Aintree, but finished tailed off last of four on his reappearance at Ascot in November and has since had a wind operation. In the meantime, of course, he has been unceremoniously usurped by a younger stablemate, Sprinter Sacre, now such a short price for Cheltenham that only seven other horses were left in the race at the latest forfeit stage.
Moreover, the fact that their trainer, Nicky Henderson, restores him to a longer trip for his return to Ascot today implies that Finian’s Rainbow himself may yet take up an alternative entry in the Ryanair Chase or even the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup. All in all, a horse that once seemed to have established a decided preference for two miles has evidently reached something of a crossroads. With conditions again likely to prove tiring, he will have to re-invent himself pretty thoroughly to win the Betfair Ascot Chase.
Preference is for Cue Card, who by no means exhausted his right to further progress when failing to get home in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. He did quite well to get back involved there, after blundering at the first, but then faded away in what developed into a real slog over a new trip. He had previously looked better than ever when romping home on his reappearance at Exeter, and his only other defeats over fences remain behind Bobs Worth, now Gold Cup favourite, and Sprinter Sacre himself. The former beat him only in a photo, while CUE CARD (3.50) finished 22 lengths clear of the third when chasing home the latter in the Arkle Chase.
True, he must reverse King George form with Captain Chris, who beat Finian’s Rainbow in the 2011 Arkle Chase and confirmed himself back on track by running Long Run so close at Kempton. But he only toiled his way into contention as others dropped away exhausted that day, and it remains to be seen if he has recovered sufficient zest.
Somersby has always operated well round here, and shaped well when needing his first start for his new trainer, but has hitherto persistently fallen between stools in terms of both class and distance.
The top name over hurdles today is Zarkandar, who warms up for the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Wincanton. Still beaten only once when completing over timber, finishing strongly for fifth in the Champion last year, he showed unsuspected dash to win round this sharp track on his reappearance and raised his game again to see off Grandouet at Cheltenham last time. Grandouet was set to reoppose here but has been held up by another setback, while Nicky Henderson also elected not to run Binocular on the basis that any advantage in doing so would be outweighed by his distaste for the ground. Perhaps Henderson will meanwhile contrive some rejuvenation from Khyber Kim, but it will presumably fall to the consistent Raya Star to give ZARKANDAR (3.35) his workout.
With the Aintree weights now out, you might expect something to show its hand in the Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock, but only Teaforthree seems eligible to do so. He ran a blinder when run down only by Monbeg Dude in the Welsh National, but GILES CROSS (2.55) shaped well for a long way there, after a troubled preparation, and can repeat his success in this last year.
Utopie Des Bordes, meanwhile, made it two out of two since joining Henderson at Sandown yesterday, and will now proceed to the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham – albeit she might not have held off Twigline, but for the Irish raider’s fall at the last.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Push Me (3.30 Lingfield)
The Bear Trap (3.15 Ascot)