Other than cardiac arrests and women in labour – and you meet plenty on the Turf who would urge even these minorities to stop making quite such a fuss – few have been as stricken by snowdrifts and floodwater as racehorse trainers. For anyone preparing a runner at the Cheltenham Festival, just 24 days away, now finds himself wedged awkwardly between a rock and the hardest place of all.
Modern methods and facilities have persuaded many trainers to keep a horse as fresh as possible for its most arduous assignment of the season. The favourites for both the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup and Smurfit Champion Hurdle, for instance, completed their public preparations before the turn of the year. To expose a horse to a tough race, too close to the meeting, is nowadays viewed as a rank error. But many trainers are this time being left with little choice by the weather.
It is possible, admittedly, to be too dogmatic about these things. Only a few years ago the meeting at Kempton next weekend was still being viewed as the perfect springboard to the Festival, and the Pipes (Martin, twice, and David once) have three times scooped the bonus offered to any horse that can win the Imperial Cup at Sandown and follow up in any race at the Festival – in the case of Gaspara, just three days later.
But the fact is that few trainers still need the racecourse to get their horses fit. One of the reasons Paul Nicholls was so despondent about the performance of Denman at Kempton last Saturday was that he knew the horse had arrived with little margin for physical improvement before the defence of his Gold Cup.
Now, however, many trainers are feeling obliged to run horses in gruelling ground, less than a month before the Festival. For one thing, many of their horses lack experience following the loss of dozens of meetings during a critical window of the season. Above all, however, almost all of them have been severely restricted in their use of available facilities. Grass gallops, for instance, are often vital to fine-tuning but these have been largely frozen since Christmas.
On the basis that beggars can't be choosers, then, plenty of good horses have been declared to run today in revolting conditions. As befits a strictly utilitarian approach, it may not make for the most aesthetically pleasing of spectacles. And, bearing in mind that many races today will merely be a means to an end, punters should exercise extreme caution before deceiving themselves that the best horse is necessarily the best bet.
Voy Por Ustedes, for instance, is the obvious pick in the Betfair Ascot Chase, but his connections have never considered him comfortable in really testing ground. By his high standards, moreover, he has jumped poorly in both starts this season, and did little to discourage reservations about his stamina when trying his luck over three miles against Kauto Star on Boxing Day. Though he drops slightly in trip, conditions will be more tiring here, so his camp will not be complacent even in this tiny field.
Gwanako won over course and distance last time and is entitled to improve again, but it is easier to picture Tamarinbleu (2.15) taking charge up front. In finishing tailed off in the King George, he contributed to a barren run for his stable – but things have perked up no end since, and he had looked better than ever when getting Kauto Star off the bridle at Haydock in November. He impressed here in the mud last winter, when his rider, Tom Scudamore, showed the sort of aggression that paid off against Denman last week.
The opener features one of the most assured jumpers on the novice scene in Breedsbreeze. He was less impressive raised to this trip last time, however, and there will be no hiding place against two bold frontrunners in Carruthers, who gets 7lb, and Ballyfitz (1.05). The latter represents a stable groping its way back to form and looks the strongest stayer.
There is no better example of a trainer being painted into a corner than François Doumen with Kasbah Bliss, who reappears in the Blue Square Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock. With Inglis Drever retired, this horse will be fancied to go one better in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Festival, but he has not run since showing improvement on the Flat last season. Doumen considers him better on good ground, and this could turn out to be too brutish a test. Duc De Regniere (next best 1.20) is most eligible to take advantage.
Comply Or Die's journey back to Aintree is proving a slow one, and he was scratched yesterday from the Blue Square Gold Cup after scoping poorly. Mon Mome is of interest despite a stiffer mark, but the way GLASKER MILL (nap 1.55) responded to cheekpieces here last time suggests he is approaching fulfilment.
Ashkazar, narrowly foiled as the Pipes' latest candidate for the Imperial Cup-Festival bonus, was disappointing on his only run since but could mirror the stable's revival in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. Preference is for Songe (3.40), who demonstrated at Haydock last time that the ratings do not always tally with the result in races like this.
He was one of the favourites for the big handicap hurdle abandoned at Newbury last week, but a win here could prove every cloud has a silver lining. Even ones containing enough snow to turn a trainer's hair white.
Meade to surprise Mullins novices with Pandorama
This has been a strange season in Ireland. Willie Mullins, never one to light his Cheltenham fuses too early, has been in explosive form all winter. And if he is a little unnerved, imagine how Noel Meade must be feeling. Historically, Meade has tended to dominate at home, only to find his friend and rival creeping up with a cosh at the Festival.
The two men try to retrieve their bearings in the Deloitte Novices' Hurdle at Leopardstown tomorrow – a race that tops a bill featuring Neptune Collonges and Notre Pere in the big chase. Mullins has such depth among his youngsters that he runs two of the best against each other. They have already crossed swords at Fairyhouse in November, when Hurricane Fly proved too experienced for Cousin Vinny.
His Flat pace could be decisive again but Meade may upset the applecart with Pandorama, lame after his unbeaten spree ended at Navan in December. Following that break, Pandorama has almost had a Mullins prep for Cheltenham. But both trainers will want to keep an edge for next month, so the whips are unlikely to appear before the last.Reuse content