Now that so many trainers have decided that the best way to prepare a Cheltenham horse is to lock it away in a cabinet, along with all the other Sèvres, the jumps calendar depends more exorbitantly than ever on the Festival that finally begins on Tuesday week.
And it is a perilous strategy. Yesterday morning, the first five horses in the betting on the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup had this season ventured into competition just seven times between them. By nightfall, one of them had been ruled out of the race with lameness. Diamond Harry, put away for the race by Nick Williams after a brilliant success in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November, has injured a suspensory ligament. The setback is not career-threatening, and Diamond Harry should be able to resume in the autumn. As one of the emerging stars on the scene, however, his absence will be very sorely felt.
There is no accounting for such heartbreak. At the best of times, however, only one horse can win, so the rest are devoting an unnecessary amount of time to staring out of their stables. The idea is that their competitive longevity is enhanced, but eight months is a long time to wait before we can celebrate a cameo appearance at Down Royal, Haydock or Newbury in November.
Admittedly, trainers can nowadays get a horse as fit as necessary, at home, and so avoid the additional risk of injury involved when a horse contests a race short of peak condition. Even so, it's a pretty pitiful state of affairs, and makes a dangerous joke of this notion that the Flat season has a relatively deficient narrative.
Mind you, it would be wrong to imagine that we can only be marking time, now that we have reached this final, breathless pause before the Festival. In fact, today is all about the one and only steeplechase that means anything to the man in the street.
For barely a fortnight after welcoming the unbeaten Peddlers Cross, Kelso provides a stage for the second favourite for the John Smith's Grand National. Like Peddlers Cross, Ballabriggs is trained by Donald McCain, who must be thanked for drawing fresh attention to one of the most enchanting venues on the Turf. Sadly, the race is not on terrestrial television, which can only heighten the sense of privilege among those fortunate enough to be spending their afternoon on the banks of the Tweed.
McCain's surname alone guarantees that a satisfactory rehearsal will qualify Ballabriggs as one of the big public favourites at Aintree. He has quickly become a far more successful trainer than his old man, but for now remains four Nationals behind "Ginger". Ballabriggs looks a classic Aintree type. He goes about his races with gusto, and a handicap win at the Festival last year disclosed a touch of class, too. Confined to hurdles, pending the publication of the National weights, Ballabriggs has found a very inviting opportunity back over fences.
Many of the locals gathered on the wrought-iron balconies of the Georgian grandstand will be just as curious to see how Storm Brig fares in the next. Trained near Hawick, by Alistair Whillans, Storm Brig has impressed in both starts over timber, and a series of subsequent winners has emerged in his wake. How gratifying it would be if Storm Brig could develop into a modern reiver, equal to plundering a big prize in the south.
The Scottish circuit is certainly on the upgrade, with James Ewart readying his first Festival runners, and Lucinda Russell supervising another of the Aintree favourites, Silver By Nature. Needless to say, they still lack the resources available down in Somerset, and it does seem inevitable that Paul Nicholls will sooner or later redress one of the few omissions in his CV by winning a National.
Perhaps Niche Market will be the one, though Nicholls should not take it amiss if neutrals would sooner he had to wait and do it with another horse. Last summer his owner found it within his conscience to move Niche Market to the champion trainer, even though Bob Buckler had discovered him for just £20,000 and trained him to win an Irish National. It is a pity that goodwill towards this charming horse should have been so diluted, at least in those of us whose sense of decency is grossly offended by this desertion.
Niche Market himself will doubtless prove as bold and brave as ever at Newbury today. The trip looks a little short, but his jumping will keep him involved and the handicapper has given him a chance. Even so, preference this time is for Matuhi, much improved for his new stable in the autumn.
The preceding veterans' chase could yet enable Buckler to advertise a talent that has culpably eluded the attention of the big spenders. There are better grounds than sentiment, certainly, for siding with The Sawyer, who contributed to his stable's recent return to form with a typically game second at Ascot last month. Buckler hopes to run him in one of the Festival handicaps, mindful of the fact that last season he won at Ascot and Cheltenham inside eight days.
Of course, if only Buckler had trained him like a proper horse, restricting him to two runs a season, The Sawyer would be going strong in the middle of the next century. As it is, his owners must make do with a superbly tough and committed 11-year-old, who adores his vocation. And that, nowadays, is hardly the sort of thing that will get you taken seriously.
Bach overture still leaves Walsh as second fiddle
He will doubtless settle for simply getting round in one piece – which is just as well, really. Otherwise Ruby Walsh could find little in his comeback at Newbury yesterday to remind him just what it was he had been missing. Walsh, in his first race since suffering a double fracture of his right leg at Down Royal in November, rode the well-backed favourite for a handicap hurdle. But Don't Turn Bach was soon off the bridle and managed to beat just one of his dozen rivals.
Walsh playfully reproached Paul Nicholls for failing to come up with a better ride for his resumption. But he can only have been touched by a spontaneous round of applause as he entered the parade ring, and certainly had a useful workout as his mount laboured up the straight. He paid tribute to his surgeon, David Moore, and to Brian Green, the Ireland rugby physiotherapist. "Ronan O'Gara introduced me to him," Walsh explained. "His techniques and schedule in getting me fit, and keeping me fit, were amazing. I owe him a big debt of gratitude."
Walsh has three rides today and partners Quadrillon for Willie Mullins at Naas tomorrow. But he will have had little in the way of match practice when he gets to Cheltenham on Tuesday week.
Mullins has booked Paul Townend for four others at Naas, and Walsh admitted yesterday that he has no idea whether his understudy, who has forged a fertile partnership with Hurricane Fly, will keep the ride in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. "I haven't talked to Willie about it," he said. "It's a decision for him and the owners. I ride Quevega, Big Buck's, Kauto Star and Master Minded. After that, I haven't looked at the rest of them."
Kings Guard (5.25 Kelso)
Drying conditions the only concern about a flourishing handicapper who is certain to relish the extra distance, after chasing home a subsequent winner over two miles at Ayr last time – a superb effort from a horse that has already won over three.
Presenting Forever (3.15 Doncaster)
Has got away with some lenient treatment after running a stormer from 8lb out of the handicap at Cheltenham in December, raised just 7lb despite cruising into the lead and, idling in front, being collared only close home – by a Gold Cup candidate. Given a break since, but goes well fresh.
One to watch
Amirico (Venetia Williams) went very strongly for a long way at Folkestone on Wednesday, before fading out of contention over what will probably prove his maximum distance, in such testing conditions at any rate.
Where the money's going
Dunguib is 14-1 from 16-1 with William Hill for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, while another in demand for the Cheltenham Festival is Robinson Collonges, 12-1 from 20-1 for the Jewson Novices' Chase.