Chris McGrath: Pipe delivers The Package in perfect shape to whet appetite for Festival
Saturday 28 February 2009
They say talk is cheap. And seldom more so, you might think, than in these final days before the Cheltenham Festival, when the torrent of tips and whispers approaches full spate. The vast majority of it, by definition, will be contradictory – and, as such, jolly expensive. After all, by the time the talking finally stops, on Tuesday week, the banks of caution will doubtless have burst once again.
For the perilous reality about all this prolixity is that if you pan the cascade long enough, you really might come up with pure gold. Talk will sometimes prove very precious indeed. To those who really know what they are about, therefore, the more pertinent aphorism is that "loose talk costs lives".
That is why the stuff that comes straight from the horse's mouth often tends to be mumbled from behind a cheroot. And that is also why it has been so refreshing to have Harry Findlay, the human foghorn, sharing so many insights into the rise of the champion he shares with Paul Barber, Denman. Between them, over the past couple of years the horse and his owners have stimulated a great deal of curiosity in the world beyond racing. Denman's difficulties since, however, serve to reiterate how the sport becomes more perplexing, the more intimately you understand it.
A couple of nights ago Findlay sat alongside Denman's trainer, Paul Nicholls, on a preview panel in the West Country. "I don't think we'll see the real Denman again," the professional gambler declared. "Personally, if I was betting on it, in this situation and knowing what I know about major sport, I don't think he's a certainty to run." As sure as eggs is eggs, Nicholls himself told the audience that Denman had "really sparkled" on the gallops that same morning, for the first time this winter.
No wonder so many punters will seek refuge in the unequivocal favourites, the likes of Voy Por Ustedes or Kasbah Bliss or even, at microscopic odds, Master Minded himself. Or in the most loquacious of the "talking horses" –Alexander Severus, say, who managed to get himself beaten in a photo while barely coming off the bridle at Leopardstown last time, and guaranteed to be all the rage in the four-year-olds' handicap.
But over the four days of attrition with the bookmakers, these dugouts become overcrowded and chaotic. Instead you want to be the sniper, surreptitiously picking off the winners among the fusillades and flashes.
Despite all the championships that long made it the first port of call for every punter, few stables have been better at this kind of thing than the one run by Martin Pipe, now in the hands of his son, David. Comically, as though to demonstrate that even nowadays the right hand does not know the whereabouts of the left, Martin and David both placed charity bets this week on the outcome of the inaugural Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle, the old man favouring Gaspara at 25-1 and his son Mamlook, the 8-1 favourite who so nearly won at Royal Ascot.
It does seem conceivable, however, that the Pipes will be disclosing one of the aces in their Cheltenham hand at Newbury today. As it happens, The Package (next best, 3.10) has already drawn attention to himself by taking a supporting role in the most watched race of the winter, as the runner-up when Tony McCoy rode his 3,000th winner at Plumpton.
His rider did not give him a hard race in heavy ground that day, wrapping up pretty soon after McCoy asserted. In fairness, The Package has not always seen out his races, but now that he is settling better he could even improve now that he tests his stout pedigree over a longer trip.
Built for fences, he is much the least exposed member of the field, and could prove leniently treated on his second to Punchestowns in a Sandown novices' hurdle a year ago. Admittedly, the winner has since proved far better over longer distances, but The Package was giving him 10lb and took him a long way clear up the hill. Though he is 3lb out of the handicap today, an excellent claimer takes off 5lb and success would leave The Package nicely treated under a penalty in one of the Festival handicaps.
There is another decent prize at Doncaster where, if satisfied by the going, Pipe Jnr hopes to run the horse who set the seal on his accession at Pond House. Comply Or Die has not looked the same horse since winning the John Smith's Grand National, however, and his trainer will be anxiously seeking signs of renewal with the blinkers back on. Noir Et Vert (3.25) has shaped better with each run this term, and might have won but for being badly hampered by a faller at Musselburgh the other day. Though 4lb out of the handicap, he is 1lb lower than when running well at the Festival last year.
But the best opportunity to top up the Festival fighting fund is in the opener, where HARRY THE HAWK (nap 1.50) looks handicapped to summon up his Flat ability after completing the necessary reconnaissance over hurdles to qualify for a rating.
These are all just skirmishes, of course, but the phoney war is nearly over. The Package, indeed, could yet prove a Festival winner himself. Just mind who you tell.
Real insight comes from Cheltenham preview nights
The Cheltenham Gold Cup this year falls on Friday 13th but it is precedent, not superstition, that fills you with a dreadful certainty that some time over the next week or so, somebody, somewhere, is going to see his best horse finishing its final pre-Festival gallop lame.
There will be corresponding nerves among trainers over the coming days, not least those who elect to work their horses in public. True, the traditional workouts after racing at Leopardstown tomorrow nowadays tend to be conducted on the bridle, but it should still prove instructive.
If you really want to learn something, however, you need to take in one of the Festival preview nights that have become so popular. These not only keep horsemen from wearing out the carpet at home, but help them achieve a commendable connection with the racing public.
The trade press lists panels at every point of the compass, but perhaps the pick is at the Abbey Hotel, Roscommon, on Wednesday, which brings together Ted and Ruby Walsh, Tony Mullins, Ken Whelan and Nina Carberry. Try keeping that lot on the bridle.
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