Another week still, before its shortest Saturday, but surely the winter cannot be reserving anything more dispiriting than it served up at Cheltenham yesterday.
You might beg to differ, admittedly, if you happen to be one of those unfortunates keeping the show on the road at Wolverhampton, where the last of 14 races is scheduled for 9.20 pm. But a few wild, wet hours in the half-light yesterday seem likely to have bequeathed horrible conditions for those horses convening today in the name of quality, rather than quantity. If anything, the forecast for a brighter day suggests that the going at Cheltenham may become still more congealed.
Punters need to tread with corresponding care. Frankly, one or two of yesterday’s finishes presented a pretty uncomfortable spectacle. Horses that coped best with the attrition paid for it by having nowhere to hide as they finally tired. Conditions so inimical to brilliance will certainly limit the pertinence of today’s meeting to the Festival, assuming spring ground has returned by March; and make it hard enough to figure out what might happen even today.
Not exactly a red carpet, then, for the return of the champion hurdler. Rock On Ruby reappears in the Stan James International Hurdle, for the first time officially under the care of Harry Fry – openly credited by Paul Nicholls with the horse’s day-to-day preparation for the Festival last season, at the champion trainer’s satellite yard.
Rock On Ruby seemed flat when turned out again at Aintree, compounding the evidence that he is best fresh. In fact, he has never been beaten after a break, and had been rested since Christmas before winning the Champion Hurdle. He should see things out thoroughly today, with top form both in the mud and over longer trips, and it could be that the odds damn Rock On Ruby (3.05) with rather too faint praise.
Many are favouring Nicholls to get the better of his former protégé, as Zarkandar arrives with the advantage of race fitness, but this horse’s history of coming on and off the bridle is rather unnerving in what could turn into a stop-start race in the demanding conditions. Grandouet, the only other runner with credible form claims, looked to be on his way to the top when impressing here last year but was subsequently sidelined by injury. He has made his name on better ground, and surely needs only to show signs of life in this terrain.
But he is not the only star hurdler at Seven Barrows back in the hope of repeating a success here last year, and even in this ground it is hard to conceive how Oscar Whisky (3.40) can fail to land very short odds in the Unicoin Homes Relkeel Hurdle.
Things should be much more competitive in the big handicap chase on the card, the Paul Stewart IronSpine Charity Gold Cup. Like Rock On Ruby, however, Walkon has a history of running best fresh and must therefore represent a questionable favourite – having produced such a generous effort round here, first time out, when chasing home Al Ferof last month.
Nicholls, who saddled Al Ferof that day, again has a couple of interesting runners. But it is hard to believe that Unioniste, only four years old and 6lb out of the handicap, can beat physically mature rivals in such gruelling ground; and while Cristal Bonus remains unexposed, he has diminishing room for manoeuvre at the weights.
At 20-1, it might be worth instead taking a chance with Golden Chieftain (2.30). He has often promised to win a good race some day, when everything falls into place, and should now be approaching his prime. Impressive at Worcester in October, he did not get home over a longer trip last time and a first-time tongue-tie suggests that stamina may not have been the only problem.
Romantics will be hoping for the best for Coneygree, flying the flag for a smaller yard, in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. He looked ready for the step up to three miles when seeing off a strong field at the last meeting here, but that was his second generous effort in barely a fortnight and he risks running low on fuel in this gloop. Boyfromnowhere (1.55) could be the value after relishing this trip last time.
Another trainer eager to show what he can do with the right material is Jeremy Scott, who saddled Melodic Rendezvous to gain his first win over timber in the gloaming yesterday. This was one of the best bumper horses of last season, but a clear leader for the division could yet emerge at Navan tomorrow – when two of Gigginstown Stud’s rising stars, Don Cossack and Rule The World, cross swords in a Grade One novice hurdle.
Chirs McGrath's Nap
Standpoint (4.50 Wolverhampton)
O’Gorman (8.50 Wolverhampton)