After drinking deep from one of the great vintages in thoroughbred history during 2009, the sport began the new year with a pretty precarious hold on its dignity.
Cheltenham was only passed fit for racing yesterday an hour before the opener, after which several riders reported the ground to be frozen in patches. As the owners of 20,000 hangovers stood smarting in the icy sunlight, a posse of stewards, trainers and jockeys spent more than half an hour anxiously prodding at the turf. Eventually they resolved to persevere, but there was enough dissent to prompt 30 non-runners – notably Punchestowns, who had very much been top of the bill.
As everyone knows, it is hard enough trying to anticipate the behaviour of horses. Compared with the weather, however, they are not so much predictable as metronomic. At this time of year, with daylight brief and weak, a clerk of the course has precious little margin for error. The innovation of frost blankets unquestionably saved the equivalent Cheltenham fixture last year, but their use itself raises fresh challenges. This time, for instance, they had to be held back in midweek pending a forecast for snow. And while the ground was raceable once they were removed, temperatures remained so low that frost could still steal across the top.
They are pretty expensive, too, and a decision had been required on their deployment between Cheltenham or Sandown, which is in the same ownership and holds a meeting of its own today. A pragmatic consensus was reached that Cheltenham, increasingly a new year institution, should be given priority. Sure enough, Sandown last night looked vulnerable. They could have raced yesterday, but they are confined to the sort of precautions that were available in the bad old days – not so long ago – before orchard farmers introduced the sport to frost covers.
For the Blue Square Tolworth Hurdle to survive would be a particular benediction, as it would give poor old Paul Nicholls an overdue opportunity to win a decent prize. The champion trainer has won the last three runnings, and saddles a fascinating sort this time in Ghizao. For one thing, he unites two powerful interests – Andy Stewart and David Johnson – long identified as underwriters to the bitter duel between Nicholls, as a rising force, and Martin Pipe. And détente certainly has an agreeable dividend in Ghizao, who combines a good Flat pedigree with a good chasing physique. He looked a top prospect in both his bumpers, and then made a very encouraging start over timber at Cheltenham last month, pulling 15 lengths clear of the third but just run out of it by General Miller.
General Miller's in-form trainer, Nicky Henderson, follows Ghizao here with the unbeaten Oscar Whisky, who has thrashed all comers in two bumpers and a maiden hurdle at Newbury. The form as it stands might not amount to much, but it would be fatuous to pretend any insight into his limitations at this stage, and likewise Salden Licht, a Listed winner on the Flat who bolted up in the other division of the same race. Certainty a decisive winner would move to the head of the queue of home challengers awaiting Dunguib at Cheltenham.
Ah, Dunguib! There's a thought to thaw the bleakest midwinter perspectives. Indeed, despite the loss of Sea The Stars and Zenyatta, 2009 has bequeathed much to warm the cockles for 2010. A third, deciding Cheltenham duel between Kauto Star and Denman offers racing an opportunity that vastly surpasses anything that might be proposed by its alarming new marketing friends. Then there is St Nicholas Abbey, a colt of almost reckless promise. And how about the idea of Kieren Fallon getting on Ryan Moore's case, day in, day out, during the summer?
Yes, much else remains dispiriting. Almost uniquely among major sports, a fatal separation divides performers and the revenues that have exploded elsewhere during recent years. Who else subsidises broadcasters to guarantee terrestrial coverage?
Instead racing has always had to try to get a piece of the betting action. The sport missed the boat in the 1960s, when betting shops were legalised, and again in the last decade, when it turned down the chance of a partnership with Betfair. Perhaps its last hope might be the Tote, transformed into a lethal rival even to Betfair by a radical cut in deductions. But of course that opportunity would be contingent on the state suddenly repenting of its larcenous intentions, and that is surely too much to hope for.
At least it looks as though racing will soon embrace a more intelligent, intelligible approach to its bloated, amorphous fixture list. And we are hardly alone in having problems. Later this month the spectacular new Meydan racecourse will be opened in Dubai, at a cost far exceeding $1 billion. Whether it seems a symbol of defiant, heroic endeavour, or doomed hubris, remains to be seen. But at least they won't need frost blankets.
Henderson pulls no punches despite resting his star chaser
As things turned out, Nicky Henderson might have withdrawn Punchestowns at Cheltenham yesterday simply to give someone else a chance. Reluctant to risk his star novice chaser in the conditions, he settled for scoring with each of the three horses he did permit to line up – taking his stable to a dozen winners since Christmas.
Sentry Duty's easy defeat of just two rivals was somehow deemed enough to earn a Ladbrokes World Hurdle quote of 10-1 from the sponsors. He was certainly ridden with persuasive confidence by Barry Geraghty, who restrained him on the bridle even after the last, as Robert Thornton went into overdrive on Katchit. "I dared not wait any longer, as I thought I was giving Nicky the fright of his life," Geraghty grinned. "I was making up a length at each hurdle, and I knew at the last I'd get there."
At least Sentry Duty has finally shown his true colours here, after poor runs in both his previous visits, but Mr Thriller had been broken by his duel with Katchit, and the form may not amount to a great deal. Moreover Henderson expressed reservations about his stamina for another half mile. "Barry wants to bring him back to two miles," he said. "But let's think about it. We really ought to try it, and may run him in the Cleeve Hurdle at the end of the month."
In the absence of Punchestowns, along with two others, Seven Is My Number was just left with Pigeon Island to beat in the valuable Dipper Novices' Chase. He duly did so, by 18 lengths, and remains 20-1 for the RSA Chase at the Festival.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Kickahead (3.15 Lingfield)
His improvement over hurdles suggests he should be able to achieve something off a very humble rating on the Flat, and he is readily excused defeat at Kempton last time, when left with too much to do off a steady pace.
George Nympton (1.0 Sandown)
From a stable with a strong hand of juveniles, and improving with each start, his sterling finish at Cheltenham last time promises that he will relish this stiff track, while his relative experience should also be valuable.
*One to watch
Resplendent Nova (P Howling) has tumbled down the handicap and the big move he made off the pace at Kempton the other day implied that he will soon be taking advantage.
*Where the money's going
Can't Buy Time is 33-1 with William Hill for the John Smith's Grand National after his handicap success at Cheltenham yesterday.Reuse content