Chris McGrath: Alpine set to peak while Walsh waits for lift-off

Inside Track

With anyone else, you have to admit, you would be seriously worried. Ruby Walsh returns to the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday as the most successful jockey in its history. His services will be divided between the champion stables of Britain and Ireland.

At 31, he remains in his absolute prime. Yet his preparation, this time, must be making even his most ardent admirers a little uneasy.

Walsh broke a leg at Down Royal in November and returned to the saddle only eight days ago. Since then, he has taken just eight mounts, none of them winners. On Thursday, in fact, he was lucky to get away with a couple of facial stitches after a fall at Naas. As a result, he missed two winners for Paul Nicholls at Wincanton yesterday.

Understandably enough, jockeys only tend to admit how long it takes to retrieve their best form once they have palpably done so. It is not so much a case of physical rustiness as of honing the fleeting intuitions of race-riding; the split-second decisions on stride pattern, pace and position. And Cheltenham, of course, is the most unsparing crucible of all.

There may never have been a better jump jockey than Walsh and, while various smashes over the years have confirmed him in the humility shared by almost all his weighing-room colleagues, he has no deficiency of self-belief. But his rivals suspect that even he will feel uncomfortable, should he begin the Festival without having ridden a winner since November.

One of them, reflecting on his own experience, is adamant. "A winner makes all the difference," he said. "It's like a bowler making his comeback and taking a wicket in his first over. He's straight back in the groove. But not if he spends the whole afternoon being carted round the ground. Ruby will definitely not want to be going there on Tuesday without a winner under his belt."

With the likes of Big Buck's, Master Minded and Quevega on his side, Walsh is as short as 11-10 favourite to be top jockey for the fifth time in six Festivals. For Willie Mullins, however, it has not been at all straightforward to decide between Walsh's experience on the big stage, and the nerveless aplomb with which Paul Townend has once again deputised this winter. Townend has ridden Hurricane Fly in seven of his last eight starts, and Mullins is thought reluctant to break up the partnership in the Stan James Champion Hurdle.

The card at Sandown today, admittedly, has always been something of a phoney war. Jockeys are torn precariously between dread of 11th-hour injury and the need to maintain confidence. For Walsh, however, his three mounts there are arguably integral to his Festival prospects.

The Reformer seems to have a fair weight in the opener, while Mon Parrain could easily be thrown in for his debut for Nicholls in the next. He won five races in France last season and it is impossible, for handicapper and punters alike, to know what to expect. But it is Tito Bustillo who gives a literal quality to the sense that Walsh's Festival starts here, as the winner of the Paddy Power Imperial Cup will trouser a £75,000 bonus should he follow up in any race at Cheltenham.

Tito Bustillo has so far made little impression off this kind of mark, and most punters will prefer Arrayan, who has thrived since joining the only yard to have pulled off the bonus double. Only surreal misfortune prevented him completing a hat-trick at Taunton last time, losing his rider on the run-in, but the handicapper has rubbed 12lb of salt into those wounds and this is much more competitive. Via Galilei is feared on his improved form at Newbury, but has sometimes lacked commitment and is asked to embrace a searching test just a week later.

Better value, perhaps, is Alpine Eagle at 16-1. The Irish raider shaped well in the Leopardstown mud last time, on his return from a break, and prefers this faster ground. He hacked up when tried in cheekpieces – restored today – at Sligo last summer and had previously looked a little unlucky when second in a big field at the Punchestown Festival. His stable continues to prosper and Tony McCoy, two winners short of 200 for the season, is one jockey definitely not short of match practice.

Overall lack of experience has cost Hadden Frost the mount on Somersby at Cheltenham, as revealed in these pages yesterday. Henrietta Knight, Somersby's trainer, has named Frost's replacement as Robert Thornton.

Turf Account

Nap

Artic Night (2.50 Ayr)

Has repeatedly hinted at ability while quietly learning the ropes, keeping on behind some improving types last time, and takes a radical step up in distance for his handicap debut.

Next Best

Circus Clown (4.30 Ayr)

Hugely improved for his new stable, beating two subsequent winners last time, and pedigree supports the idea that there is more to come; faster ground this time, but Flat form suggests that should not be a problem.

One To Watch

Epsom Salts (Pat Phelan) confirmed himself ready to strike when failing only narrowly to cope with a drop in trip at Kempton on Wednesday.

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