Chris McGrath: It's tune-up time for Festival hopes

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

In the case of Andrew Thornton, admittedly, you might easily get the wrong end of the stick, and advise him to forget any big ideas about becoming a professional jockey. But the rest of them, it seems safe to say, should not be giving up on the day job just yet.

Thornton was one of many familiar faces to assemble in a recording studio earlier this week, to contribute the chorus to a charity song for the Cheltenham Festival. Most of them, invited to belt out the single word "Cheltenham" for a reworking of Petula Clark's 1964 hit, "Downtown", had apparently recoiled in horror and protested that they could not sing to save their lives. Few, seemingly, were charged with false modesty by the end of the session.

To judge from the photos and footage, however, it is by no means uncharitable to suggest that Thornton looks more of a natural at the microphone than he does riding a finish. And that is not solely because of his tendency, as those long shanks start swinging, to resemble a cavalry officer who has just noticed the silent appearance of a thousand Zulu spears either side of the gorge.

His lack of frills has never stopped him getting the job done, of course. By the same token, equally, he might conceivably be the worst singer of the lot. But he gets maximum points for effort, either way.

One or two of the others, notably among the trainers, looked as though their harmonies had been fatally impaired by the insertion of a smouldering pineapple into the seat of their trousers. Not many Ziegfeld types in there, that's for sure.

Anyhow they will all be sharing some rather more earnest Cheltenham preparations over the next couple of afternoons. It would be astonishing if the weekend did not yield at least one Festival winner and unsurprising if it produced several.

The trainer looking to strike the highest notes in Britain will be Nicky Henderson, who runs Punchestowns, Binocular and the JCB Triumph Hurdle gamble According in the space of barely an hour at Sandown this afternoon.

An able performer on the level in France, According has evidently been drawing attention to himself at Seven Barrows, and there certainly remains room at the top of this juvenile crop. But odds already as short as 8-1 for the Triumph represent a wild punt on his inexperience.

After two tame efforts this season, meanwhile, Binocular is in a no-win situation. He will presumably outclass his two rivals but can hardly prove himself back to his best in the process. As for Punchestowns, he is as accomplished a hurdler as has been sent over fences in a good while. If he can deal flamboyantly with the railway fences here he might prompt the first tremors of long-term disquiet for Kauto Star and Denman.

In fairness, the abyss dividing even an outstanding novice from the present Gold standard has already been measured this season by the travails of Cooldine. Every bit as impressive in the RSA Chase as Denman, two years previously, Cooldine ran a ghastly race on his delayed reappearance in the Lexus Chase.

He returns to Leopardstown tomorrow for a Hennessy Gold Cup rematch with Joncol, who possibly played his hand too soon off a fierce gallop that day, and Money Trix, who gratefully picked up the pieces on the run-in, albeit not quite able to collar What A Friend as well.

Cooldine scoped badly after the race and so, too, did those of us who had credulously backed him to break Paul Nicholls' monopoly in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. There has been significant confidence behind him in the Hennessy betting, so perhaps all is not yet lost. But Willie Mullins, his trainer, warns that Cooldine is still ring-rusty and professes himself bewildered that he is favourite.

An engrossing card at Leopardstown also features Grade One prizes in three novice disciplines: open and juvenile hurdles, and a chase. Clearly most significant is a final Festival rehearsal for Dunguib, such a monster in bumpers last season and barely less intimidating in his first forays over timber.

Top of the bill in Ireland today is the appearance at Naas of Captain Cee Bee. Already a Festival winner over hurdles, he is favourite for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, having travelled better than Sizing Europe when capsizing at the last at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting.

One of the leading home candidates, Somersby, is now likely to go straight for the Arkle after Henrietta Knight decided against declaring him at Doncaster today. That meeting instead welcomes back last year's winner, Kalahari King, and he need only acquit himself creditably under his big weight to remain a feasible contender for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

So much for the "ponies" – which, as it happens, is Broadway vernacular for the chorus line. Rest assured that many of those who sang together this week will end the weekend auditions in very different voice. Though some will be puffing out their chests with new confidence, others may find themselves unceremoniously discarded in the edit suite.

'Cheltenham' will be available as CD or download from 8 March. All profits to racing charities.

Presvis flops in Dubai warm-up

You would have to go a long way to see £90,000 divided as laughably as it was in a three-runner handicap at Meydan yesterday. The race was intended as an opportunity for Presvis, the Newmarket globetrotter, to sample the new Tapeta track with a view to going for the Dubai World Cup itself in March. Held up as usual, however, Presvis was caught out by a funereal gallop, still groping for the next gear as Allybar slipped clear into the straight. His trainer, Luca Cumani, did his best to stifle his vexation. "We didn't learn much, so it's back to square one," he shrugged. "We'll just have to try again."

Turf Account


Killyglen (3.40 Sandown)

One of the North's best novices last term, he has been freshened up since disappointing behind Denman in the Hennessy.

*Next Best

Tartak (3.25 Doncaster)

Beaten out of sight behind Kauto Star on Boxing Day, but only after getting all bar the winner off the bridle. Looks good value at 12-1.

*One To Watch

Imported from France, Spruce (J Feilden) travelled well at Lingfield in the week, but was just caught out in a sprint finish, closing to a neck at the line.

*Where the money's going

You'll Be Mine, unlucky when third in the Fillies' Mile at Ascot, is the subject of some curious midwinter support for the Investec Oaks – 12-1 from 20-1 with Coral.