They say that weight can stop a train, and it would certainly make for a better excuse than leaves on the line. Perhaps services to Kempton this morning will be delayed by fried breakfasts in the Clapham Junction area. The fact is, however, that the three key contenders for the big race today are all clustered at the top of the handicap.
For conditions at Kempton, a sharp track at the best of times, will place an even greater emphasis than usual on speed. The racing community is perhaps too insular to ponder why its groundsmen should find themselves watering in February. George Bush, equally, may not have asked himself how Ascot last weekend, and Kempton today, should be quite so parched. Either way, the point is that class, not weight, should be decisive in the Racing Post Chase.
Simon won last year in deep ground, and runs off an 8lb higher mark this time. But he has in the meantime proved just as effective in better conditions, and also hinted that he has yet to reach the ceiling of his improvement. Indeed, he might conceivably have won three of his four races since – including the Grand National itself – if only he had jumped better. Since that fourth defeat can be excused on grounds of fitness, he must be feared if his jumping holds together today. But there must be a chance that things will happen just too quickly.
Ungaro is also returning to the scene of his finest hour, having won a Grade One prize over course and distance as a novice. Having rather lost his way since, he began life in handicaps off a kind mark at Doncaster last time, and the way he travelled – before failing by just half a length to give the winner 16lb – suggests that he should again go close off his revised mark today.
But... oh dear, there is no kind way of putting this. It's Saturday, the day when the most potent National Hunt stable in the land reiterates its supremacy as a matter of ruthless routine. And the best steeplechasers in lesser yards tend to find that Paul Nicholls can almost always beat them with one from his second XI.
While nobody is pretending that he is another Denman or Kauto Star, Gungadu does retain an entry alongside them in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Certainly it is not anomalous to suggest that he could still be well treated with top weight. He seems to be evolving into a rather different animal from the rather dour novice who emerged last season, having the race wrapped up a long way out at Sandown last time. If anything, he was idling in front, so Burntoakboy may not narrow the gap on these more generous terms.
Gungadu (Kempton 3.15) has sometimes looked as if he might be happier racing right-handed, though he looked sure to be involved when falling two out in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham last year. That form, however imprecise his own role, has proved extremely strong, and there was no mistaking a sense that he was well handicapped before he failed to get home in the Welsh National.
Off a mark just 6lb higher this time, in only his third handicap over fences, he can maintain the runaway momentum of his stable. If the gradient is with you, after all, weight will only make a train go faster.
Bookies benevolent after Noland victory
Messrs Nicholls and Walsh have another steeplechasing natural on their hands in Noland, who warmed up for Cheltenham against a small field in the Durkan Group Novices' Chase at Sandown yesterday.
While the strict form is ordinary – Pyschomodo was still harrying him when falling two out, and he still only won by a length and a half – Noland flowed over the railway fences like an old hand. His class is not in doubt, having collared Straw Bear over hurdles at his first Festival, and the fluency of his jumping will certainly sort out the wheat and the chaff.
Some bookmakers got it into their heads to ease Noland in their betting on the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, but Walsh was delighted. "He jumped impeccably," the jockey observed. "He's not a frontrunner, but had to make a lot of his own running, and force the issue a bit. He'll be better off in faster-run race."
Nicholls thinks that Noland will benefit considerably for the run, having picked up a bug on his reappearance at Folkestone last month. All in all, if he had any right to be 3-1 for the Festival beforehand, he must be decent value now at 4-1.
Moose on the loose at Newcastle
There are few more promising novices outside Ditcheat than Hobbs Hill, who will presumably extend his unbeaten record over fences at Kempton today. His trainer, Charles Egerton, has already said that there is no suitable race for Hobbs Hill at the Festival, though perhaps the horse's new owner, J P McManus, may develop a different view.
McManus also has the favourite for the big juvenile race, in Binocular, second favourite for the JCB Triumph Hurdle following that flashy debut at Ascot. But he looked a nervy type there, and will be a very short price. Perhaps Zanir (Kempton 3.50) merits a little each-way, having matched the improvement in his stable's overall form when scoring over course and distance last time.
The opener is another race that demands too much guesswork about unexposed horses, but anyone insisting on a bet might give Pigeon Island (Kempton 2.05) due respect for runs already on the board.
Better, however, to keep your powder dry for 10 critical minutes later in the afternoon. MIGHTY MOOSE (nap Newcastle 4.35) remains fairly handicapped after being hampered at Newbury last time, while the well-bred King Of Dixie (next best, Lingfield 4.45) melted the stopwatch when winning his maiden at Kempton.
Snowy Morning on trial for Aintree
By showing his commitment to Paul Nicholls today, perhaps Ruby Walsh will be excused to ride for Willie Mullins at Aintree in April. Recommended in these pages at 20-1 last month, Snowy Morning is now as short as 7-1 favourite for the John Smith's Grand National. So it is to be hoped that he makes a good impression in his final trial, the ATR Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse this afternoon.
Ridden this time by Davy Condon, he should take plenty of beating on his third to The Listener at Leopardstown earlier in the month. Walsh was impressed with the commitment Snowy Morning showed that day, having lost momentum with a blunder three out. A novice only last season, Snowy Morning must iron out these errors, having unseated Walsh in his only other steeplechase this season. Mullins, incidentally, also saddles the Aintree veteran, Hedgehunter, in the same race.
Perhaps a National type will also emerge from the Totesport Eider Chase at Newcastle, though the most interesting runner is still a novice. Ferdy Murphy has a rare eye for staying chasers and seems to have recognised the necessary raw materials in Negus De Beaumont. Having won this race with a novice in 2001, and gone close with another last year, there was something rather artful about the way Murphy dropped one to an inadequate distance at Sedgefield last time. Progressive over hurdles last season, Negus De Beaumont (Newcastle 3.35) had shaped nicely on his chasing debut and can overcome wary treatment from the handicapper.
My Way is more, much more than this
A second Festival success last year suggested that My Way De Solzen could yet intrude on the private differences between Kauto Star and Denman, but he has not been seen since running a shocker at Kempton on Boxing Day. Back over hurdles at Fontwell tomorrow, he has apparently been working with undiminished flair at home, so it is not too late for him to salvage some kind of role at Cheltenham.
He is perhaps the most interesting runner anywhere this weekend, though some would make a case for War Pass, runaway winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He embarks on the road towards the Kentucky Derby at Gulfstream tomorrow, albeit the animals against him bear no comparison with those he avoids in the Fountain Of Youth Stakes on the same card.
Wildenstein lived a life that's full
The death of Alec Wildenstein this week raises questions about the future of one of the bloodstock world's most powerful dynasties. Whatever happens, the Turf will certainly be a duller place without him. After Dominique Boeuf finished third in the Coronation Cup at Epsom on Vallee Enchantee, Wildenstein declared: "We weren't unlucky, she was ridden by an asshole who didn't follow instructions." And when Westerner was foiled by Godolphin's Papineau in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot, his owner brazenly announced that "the dope-testing machine must be broken". Mortifying, really. Everyone knew that Papineau's success had in reality been ordered by the Duke Of Edinburgh.