Chris McGrath: Denman opens door for Carruthers

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

Denman having withdrawn his application, there is a lucrative vacancy at Cheltenham today. But with the winning post sadistically sited at the top of a dirty great hill, and conditions testing underfoot, it seems pretty safe to say that candidates must be "reliable" and "hard-working".

Pretty safe, though you never know nowadays. Perhaps there are horses out there with crack legal teams, alert to every possible affront – a fear that apparently prompted one job centre this week to refuse these same adjectives in an advertisement for fear of discriminating against "unreliable" people. In 21st-century Britain, it appears, there is no situation quite as vacant as the one between our ears.

Anyhow, it must have come as a profound relief to Newbury when Denman's owners, Paul Barber and Harry Findlay, convinced Paul Nicholls to persevere with the original plan and reserve his final Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup audition for the Aon Chase, a fortnight today. The champion trainer had seemed sorely tempted, earlier in the week, to get the ordeal out of the way in the Argento Chase this afternoon.

Nicholls knew that wherever he sent Denman, very few of his rivals would go looking for trouble with their own good horses. And he was anxious not to lose control of the situation. Denman is fit and ready, after all, and the ground raceable. Who can say whether that will remain the case in a couple of weeks' time?

On this occasion, however, Nicholls seems to have been persuaded that a bird in the hand is not always worth two in the bush. It does seem inconceivable that Denman could have a hard race at Newbury, but he might well have heard a complacent snigger from the adjacent stable even so, once the decision was made. Kauto Star, the champion next door, has had his feet up since reiterating his seniority at Kempton on Boxing Day, and would doubtless be satisfied that his neighbour must now have his rehearsal two weeks closer to their showdown.

Regardless, Nicholls is still able to give Findlay and Barber a crack at the day's biggest prize with Inchidaly Rock, remarkably contesting only his third steeplechase. In fairness, he also won three point-to-points in his youth, but he did make one howler here last time. It is not difficult to picture him slogging his way on to the podium, in the process identifying himself as favourite for the National Hunt Chase over four miles back at the Festival. And by no means impossible to see him winning, either, as the one runner still capable of huge progress.

After all Madison Du Berlais, who staggered into second a distance behind Kauto Star on Boxing Day, has seldom shown his best form over these undulations. But so long as his jockey can resist a reckless duel for the lead with Ollie Magern and Joe Lively, this is surely a big chance for Carruthers (2.35), himself still in the early stages of his chasing career.

He was given rather a wild ride in the RSA Chase here last year. Only Cooldine had managed to live with the tempo, and it was perfectly excusable for Carruthers to start floundering after smashing through the third last. He has resumed his progress since, however, impressing at Newbury after Christmas. If genes and goodwill could together make the difference he would be a good thing. Bred to stay past midnight, he is owned by one of the Turf's most beloved figures in John Oaksey.

The chances are that this race will have no more bearing on the outcome of the Gold Cup itself than on the Boat Race, but that is a small price to pay for having Kauto Star and Denman on the scene. And nor, in much the same way, is it terribly easy to envisage an authentic challenge to Big Buck's emerging from the Betfair Cleeve Hurdle.

His palpable inferior, Lough Derg, sets a yeoman standard but it looks significant that Tom Scudamore prefers Mr Thriller, who is entitled to improve over this longer trip. Lie Forrit (3.40) retains most scope for progress, however, having idled in front when posting another career best last time. The odds should make due allowance for a slight concern over the intrusion of the Scottish winter into his training schedule.

Only the novice hurdles prevent Festival Trials Day becoming a total misnomer, and Nicholls has sound prospects in both. Admittedly, it can only be guesswork to say that Royal Charm (3.10) may find greater improvement at a new trip than General Miller, but Pistolet Noir (12.55) looked worth a small fortune when he won here in November – and that, presumably, is just what was required for him to change hands in the meantime.

Tony McCoy can, meanwhile, win both handicap chases in the silks of his employer, J P McManus. Doctor Pat (1.30) makes it awkward for the handicapper to know quite how much he has in reserve, while Perce Rock (2.05) remains unexposed over fences. True, with just one run under his belt since April, it is conceivable that he will have to treat this as little more than reconnaissance for the Festival. But at least he has the assistance of perhaps the most reliable, hard-working jockey in history.

Needless to say, any unreliable, idle riders insulted by that suggestion are welcome to contact their lawyers without delay.

Nicholls admits Tataniano was left in sticky situation

After the opener at Newbury yesterday, the clerk of the course politely sought an opinion on the going from one of the senior riders. "Horrible," he was told, with an expressive grimace. "Just glue." Paul Nicholls was not stuck for an explanation, then, after the shock defeat of Tataniano in a three-runner novice chase – though the champion trainer was still pretty livid with himself, for having risked the horse in the conditions.

Tataniano's exuberant performance at Cheltenham in November had identified him among the favourites for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy back at the Festival. But here, as 2-11 favourite, he jumped out to his right throughout before being worn down on the run-in by the 14-1 "rag", Suntini. Coral eased his Festival odds to 12-1 from 7-1.

"I should have run him at Doncaster instead," Nicholls admitted. "But I was keen for Ruby Walsh to ride. He's essentially a speed horse, made to wing round Cheltenham on better going, and I know you'll see a different horse at the Festival. You get false results on this kind of ground."

His mood was not improved when another hot favourite, Aiteen Thirtythreee, faltered off the bridle in the maiden hurdle, finding no answer to the relentless finish of Adams Island. Already impressive in a bumper, the winner cost only £9,200 and is proving an eloquent advertisement for his young trainer, Rebecca Curtis.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Killyglen (3.25 Doncaster)

Developed into one of the North's best novices last season but failed to build on a promising reappearance in the Hennessy. Freshened up since and is worth another chance, not least with the sponsors, Sky Bet, paying five places each-way.

*Next Best

Aather (4.20 Cheltenham)

Made a mockery of his initial handicap rating last time, winning with any amount in hand – rather more, potentially, than the handicapper could measure with an increase of 11lb.

*One To Watch

Al Co (Jonjo O'Neill) was 66-1 and upped in trip for his handicap debut on Thursday but the smooth move he made before fading implied that there is an engine under the bonnet.

*Where The Money's Going

Kalahari King, due to reappear at Doncaster next week, is 9-1 from 10-1 with Paddy Power for the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March.