Chris McGrath: Henderson to turn heat up to Max
Saturday 16 January 2010
And God said: "Let the Earth bring forth grass... and the Earth brought forth grass." And then, as Spike Milligan added, the Rastafarians smoked it.
Ah, let's hear it for chlorophyll! Let's hear it for the green, green grass. Where would the Turf be without it? Here it is again, at last. After the loss of more than 60 meetings during the past month, either side of the Irish Sea, the snow has finally begun to thaw and exotic patches of vegetation are emerging on our racecourses. And enough has now appeared for jumping fans to quit climbing the walls, and settle down in front of Channel 4 to watch horses finally leaving the ground in anger.
For a sport that has just celebrated one of its greatest years, and anticipating many fresh converts from Kauto Star and Denman in just eight weeks' time, 2010 has so far been a pretty exasperating affair.
Every yard will have its war stories. Anyone who has been round stables on cold mornings knows the evocative sight and smell of a steaming muck heap. Over recent days, however, the soiled straw has instead been spread across icy walkways, to preserve the delicate limbs of precious thoroughbreds and their stoical escorts. The daily grind of manual labour has meanwhile acquired unwelcome variety, with many tedious new rituals prompted by frozen standpipes and blocked gallops.
Corresponding toils on the all-weather circuit have ensured some kind of stimulation for the betting shops, but other tracks will look back on the big freeze as red, not white, when it comes to their end-of-year accounts. The sport as a whole will do the same, no doubt, though matters would have been a good deal worse without the flexibility we nowadays take for granted in its administrators.
Bookmakers, after all, are only too willing to introduce their customers to alternative "wagering opportunities" that do not entitle anyone else to a share of revenue. And if they can change the mugs' habits for good, so much the better. They tend to find owners, trainers and jockeys at "virtual" venues, such as Steepledowns, pleasingly indifferent to the notion that they might warrant a piece of the action.
For the real fans, at any rate, the silver lining comes now. Trainers will be desperate to retrieve lost ground in the preparation of their Cheltenham horses – novices, in particular. Any track staging a beginners' chase or hurdle can now expect even drab midweek cards to be dignified by elite prospects, eager for extra sparring.
Some trainers will have been more successful than others in keeping their horses on the move. Certainly, there seemed little sign of rust in Nicky Henderson's three winners on that unique, all-bumper card at Southwell on Wednesday.
At the best of times, Henderson feels a particular affinity with Kempton and he will reliably make his presence felt there this afternoon. Perhaps no trainer in the land has a stronger hand of novice chasers and Mad Max (12.55) has every right to prove another ace. Beaten only once, when not at his best at the Festival, he had previously seen off the classy Karabak over hurdles and certainly has the physical scope for fences.
Henderson also saddles the two top weights for the day's most valuable prize, the William Hill Lanzarote Hurdle, and riding arrangements imply greater expectations of Tasheba (2.45). Though raised 8lb for a photo-finish success at Sandown last time, he can find even more improvement now that his stamina is tested, having been campaigned very much as a stayer on the Flat. He remains less exposed than all these bar Triggerman, who caught the eye in only his third start over hurdles last time.
Tasheba's victim at Sandown, William Hogarth, in turn races off a 6lb higher mark in the last race. His trainer believes he retains huge potential but for now he might do well to give weight to Triggerman's stablemate, Marchand D'Argent (3.45), who twice looked a proper machine during a light first season.
Keith Goldsworthy, trainer of William Hogarth, has another potential heir to Hold Em – the star of his overachieving stable, who was victim of a tragic accident at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. Kennel Hill (1.30) has been transformed by the switch to hurdling, beaten only narrowly at huge prices in consecutive Graded events, and the odds still might not be as short as they should be today.
Kempton is by no means the sole source of succour. Officials at Huntingdon are optimistic of passing an inspection this morning, while Ffos Las is all set to race tomorrow, though Wetherby's card for today fell by the wayside. Jumping also resumes in Ireland – at Naas today, and Thurles and Fairyhouse tomorrow. Perhaps the most interesting runner of the weekend is Cousin Vinny, one of the best young hurdlers of last season, who goes to Fairyhouse to put right an odds-on defeat in his first novice chase.
Mind you, something about the conjunction of those words – "odds-on" and "novice chase" – is stoking embers of regret somewhere in my psyche. Suddenly I don't feel quite so euphoric about this jumping lark... Are you quite sure we want this kind of thing back in our lives?
Milligan titled one of his memoirs Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall. Don't spoil it for me, because I haven't read it yet. But I'm guessing Mussolini was the name of a novice chaser.
Little man Borel eclipsed by big money in Jockey of the Year stakes
Nobody is pretending that Simon Schama should have waited until the Eclipse Awards on Monday before passing judgement on Obama's America. But its horseracing community is certainly divided by its own agenda of change – one that will likewise guarantee conservative discomfort at home and goodwill overseas.
European fascination in America's choice between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra as Horse of the Year was addressed in these pages, earlier in the week. Suffice to say, Europeans will be rooting for a first Horse of the Year to have been campaigned on synthetic tracks – and not for Rachel Alexandra, the dirt champion who was cravenly kept away from the Breeders' Cup.
Funnily enough, voters on both coasts seem to have developed a distaste for Rachel Alexandra's owner, Jess Jackson, conspicuously omitted from the nominations for Owner of the Year. But the snub for his jockey is another matter altogether.
Having already attained an unexpected summit in the Kentucky Derby, on Mine That Bird, Calvin Borel proved a modest and engaging escort for Rachel Alexandra. And it seems outrageous that a Cajun journeyman can win two Classics, and many new friends for horseracing, and still fail to make the cut for Jockey of the Year. Instead the voters have robotically favoured the three highest earners in the prize-money table.
Objectively, these riders may well be his superior. Paradoxically, however, such indifference to the bigger picture augurs very well for his filly, if not for Borel himself.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Saddlers Mot (12.45 Huntingdon)
Has hinted at better to come since joining Gary Moore, notably when coming from a poor position and pulling 17 lengths clear at Leicester last time. The handicapper has been indulgent in raising her just 6lb.
Bridge Of Gold (3.40 Lingfield)
On paper a tough task fors handicap debut, but could prove different class judged on pedigree, physique and the ability he showed last season.
*One To Watch
Vertigo On Course (R A Fahey) has repeatedly shaped well for her new stable, and did so again when returning from a break at Southwell on Thursday, initially struggling with the surface before keeping on for third.
*Where The Money's Going
Lochan Lacha, going well when unseating two out at Leopardstown after Christmas, is 7-1 from 8-1 with William Hill for what is shaping up as a hot race for the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park on Thursday.
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