Chris McGrath: Quality may be watered down, but Whisky can still be the toast

Inside Track
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Racing at Catterick was abandoned yesterday because of high winds, but it was nothing to compare with the gale whistling between the ears of whoever decided to permit two Champion Hurdle trials inside 45 minutes today.

Sure enough, they are contested by just four and five runners respectively, and the odds anticipate little more than a schooling session for the favourite in each case.

As it happens, both are stabled with Nicky Henderson, who would hardly have wanted to run Binocular and Oscar Whisky against each other. The chances are, then, that you couldn't have cobbled together much of a race regardless. True, the situation has been sadly exacerbated by the absence of Peddlers Cross, who was scheduled to enliven proceedings at either Sandown or Ffos Las until coughing on Wednesday morning. One way or another, anyhow, we are left with two races that will probably become interesting only if something proves awry with the best horse – hardly the sort of thing to showcase the sport on a Saturday afternoon.

The best racing of this weekend is instead staged at Leopardstown tomorrow. While the Irish are in an unenviable pickle, in many respects, they have long shown the way in Sunday racing. In fact, they have probably overdone it, with their Champion Stakes and 2,000 Guineas just about the only big races still decorating a nondescript Saturday programme. Over here, in contrast, the calendar seems to have been compiled by Melina Mercouri – never on Sunday.

The whole business of when and where meetings are staged remains absurdly cart-before-horse, as you might have noticed yesterday if you have the good fortune to live in the Welsh borders. Following the loss of Catterick, you had the only jumping of the day on your doorstep; you were obliged, however, to choose between Chepstow and Bangor-on-Dee. Time, you might tell those responsible, to ascend windswept Wenlock Edge and see the bigger picture.

One day, perhaps, the fixture list will gain direction and dynamism. Already there are signs of a shift in the commercial relationship between those providing the stage, and the actors. A new minimum tariff proposed by the horsemen may prove more sustainable as a principle, than as a practice, but should at least help all parties to think in terms of symbiosis, not subsidy.

After all, the historic need for so many tracks, simply to support the fixture list, has now been vitiated by all-weather racing. Great Leighs, admittedly, could manage only a brief and disastrous contribution to that programme. The new turf circuit at Ffos Las, in contrast, has been so warmly received by the industry that Dai Walters, its developer, will be readily indulged his moment in the sun – and never mind if there is horizontal rain in Carmathenshire – with Oscar Whisky in the William Hill Welsh Champion Hurdle.

In fairness, this race has a prize fund of £45,000, while the champion hurdler makes do with one of £16,000 for his spin round Sandown. And Walter can shrug that if they won't join Oscar Whisky, they won't beat him, either. Nor does Walters confine this refreshing spirit – "it's there if you want it" – to his racecourse. Paul Nicholls was perhaps a little disconcerted this week when Walters mischievously divulged that he had tried to send Oscar Whisky to the champion trainer, only to be told that there were no vacancies.

The rest is history. Oscar Whisky is quoted 1-5 by today's sponsors to extend his record to six wins in seven starts, following that striking resumption at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. He went with real gusto that day, tried over an extra half-mile, and the question is how he will cope with the return to two miles. His class should suffice in this field, plainly, and he met his only defeat so far when fourth in what looks a vintage running of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. But while his jumping there left him room for improvement, it is difficult to see him having the gears to reverse form with Menorah, never mind troubling Binocular.

His stablemate put in some electrifying leaps at Kempton last month, and looks to be on his mettle for the defence of his crown in the Stan James Champion Hurdle next month. Which is just as well, the way Hurricane Fly is shaping up – not to mention Peddlers Cross, whose trainer still hopes to get a run into him later this month, at Wincanton or Kelso.

Another of Donald McCain's big Festival hopes had his rehearsal at Bangor yesterday, Wymott comfortably seeing off a couple of useful rivals for the novice chase. He did make one pretty horrible mistake, at halfway, but regrouped persuasively and the way he saw out the race promised better again restored to three miles. Coral go 10-1 from 12-1 for the RSA Chase. "He is just playing at the job," McCain said. "He'll be a different horse in a proper race."

Today McCain sends Khachaturian (3.35) to Sandown after missing a lucrative opportunity at Doncaster last week. His bold jumping promises to be an asset, while Alfie Spinner (3.0) looks yet another improver for Nick Williams. The Totepool Scilly Isles Chase should be hugely informative, but those looking for a novice to back should return to Ffos Las, where Adams Island (3.10) remains unexposed and can improve again for this trip. Shoegazer (3.45) could have done with rather more in the way of a following wind at Wincanton last time, set plenty to do off a steady pace. That should not be an issue today.

With Mullins on fire, don't give Cooldine cold shoulder

At this rate, thousands of Irishmen will be depending on one man to determine whether they return from Cheltenham by private jet or coracle. After five winners at Punchestown last Sunday, Willie Mullins bestrides jump racing in Ireland as never before and is the automatic focus of some top-class racing at Leopardstown tomorrow.

Zaidpour certainly looked sensational in his first two starts over timber, and found the race coming too soon when turned over at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. He meets a strong field in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, and a convincing success would qualify him as a death-or-glory bet to set the tone for the raiders in the very first race of the Festival next month.

It was a similar story for Mikael d'Haguenet when he disappointed, the day after Zaidpour's defeat, having returned from an 18-month absence barely a fortnight previously. He remains the class act in the Moriarty Novice Chase.

There has been quite a gamble on one of Mullins' runners in the Hennessy Gold Cup, the idea being that Kempes is unexposed over this trip and might have beaten all bar Pandorama – who sits this out after his setback – in the Lexus Chase but for unseating two out. Certainly, you can see the logic for opposing Pride Of Dulcote, who looks very short odds for a horse who has so far beaten a grand total of five horses over fences.

If we are consistent, however, surely Mullins' other runner warrants fidelity. Cooldine had made a promising return over an inadequate trip at Fairyhouse, but was another who could not cope with a quick turnaround at the Christmas meeting. If people are prepared to forgive Zaidpour and Mikael d'Haguenet, why are they being so hard on Cooldine? Sadly, his name did not appear among the entries for the John Smith's Grand National. But maybe his big pay day is rather closer to hand.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Royale's Charter (4.40 Sandown) Bumped into a well-treated one on his handicap debut at Wincanton last time, but pulled clear of the rest and is bred to prove even better given a test of stamina, so progress is seemingly assured over the extra half-mile.

Next best

Call Me A Legend (4.05 Sandown) Surely remains ahead of the handicapper on only her third start over fences, having built on a promising comeback from injury with a stylish success at Warwick last time.

One to watch

Tenor Nivernais (Venetia Williams) looks worth perseverance off this kind of mark, having again finished third on his second British start at Taunton during the week. He pulled well clear of the rest and could produce better still once sent over longer trips.

Where the money's going

Solix is 6-1 from 8-1 with Coral for the Totesport Trophy at Newbury next Saturday.