Oscar Wilde would have felt rather more at home in the royal enclosure at Ascot than at Cheltenham, where the air was raw yesterday and, with rain expected overnight, the going may well be grim this afternoon. Contemplating today's big races, however, Wilde might well have revised his definition of a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing". In racing, that is the perfect definition, not of a cynic, but of a credulous Pollyanna.
Those who make a living from betting – a small, hard-working community whose lives tend to be somewhat less glamorous than you might imagine – will assure you value is the most important factor in their vocation. Anyone can see Imperial Commander and Binocular have strong prospects today, in the Boylesports Gold Cup and International Hurdle respectively. But are the odds right?
Successful gamblers do not back the most likely winner. They back the horse that is the wrong price – at 5-2, say, when they reckon its real chance to be 7-4 or 2-1. If you keep taking 5-2 about such horses, and your judgement is sound, you will make money in the long run. Equally, if you take 7-4 against a horse that should be 5-2, you should not be deceived if it happens to win. In the end, the ground will start slipping beneath you. And, on that basis, neither of these animals looks an attractive wager.
Reviews of Binocular's reappearance at Haydock, where he started 1-9, have been remarkably myopic. Admittedly he could scarcely have gone about his task with greater flair, jumping fluently and coasting away from his inferiors. But those were very flimsy grounds for slashing his odds as favourite for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, never mind making him a short price for the far more earnest rehearsal he undertakes today.
Remember he is returning to the scene of his sole defeat over hurdles, albeit an excellent second against older rivals at the Festival. He was still tanking along two out that day, but was outstayed up the hill by Captain Cee Bee. The relative test of speed at Aintree next time palpably suited him better, and conditions are again likely to be testing today.
He may not even be the best hurdler in his own stable, with Aigle d'Or creeping under most radars, and Chomba Womba could prove as much today. This season she has already beaten two of the other key protagonists, idling when seeing off Crack Away Jack at Ascot and previously making the most of the weight she received from Katchit at Wincanton.
Katchit should get closer on these terms, back at the scene of his gutsy Festival success, his fifth in six visits here. The one concern is that all those generous efforts might be catching up with a horse hardly built like a lion, except between his ribs.
In contrast, Harchibald is always disparaged as lily-livered – wrongly – but confirmed himself still capable of top-class form, this time last year, when beating Katchit at Newcastle. Everyone else has given up on him, but as a result you can get 25-1 today. (Incidentally, only two horses dare to take on Noel Meade's new star, Pandorama, at Navan tomorrow).
Bad ground would never bring out the best in Harchibald, however, so perhaps the best value lurks among the younger generation in Solwhit (3.05). In a light career to date, he has made rapid progress both on the Flat and over jumps, and it is intriguing to see him fast-tracked here by a shrewd stable, when valuable handicaps still look his for the taking.
Imperial Commander too has come a long way quickly and was brilliant over course and distance last time. But he was clearly primed to run for his life and, off a 13lb higher mark, could prove vulnerable even to one or two well beaten there – notably Three Mirrors (next best, 2.30), who crept into fifth from miles off the pace. With that run under his belt, and his stable in better form, he looks tempting at 12-1, so long as conditions do not deteriorate too much.
Silverburn is also fancied to get closer, having tired quickly after a mistake two out. His trainer, Paul Nicholls, admitted yesterdayt it had been hard to gauge the fitness of such a lean type. Though disappointed not to give Ruby Walsh a comeback winner, Mahonia being readily outpointed, Nicholls returns today with another exciting youngster in Massasoit. His showdown with Diamond Harry (3.35) should disclose a real star in the making – a description that already applies to Punchestowns (1.20), another arresting winner at the last meeting here. But the best bet is Something Wells (nap 12.45), who produced an improved effort on his reappearance.
His stable won a valuable prize yesterday with Mon Mome, now one of the favourites for the Coral Welsh National, though the eye was really drawn to the runner-up, Star De Mohaison, trying to give 18lb. With question marks over his stablemates, Denman and Kauto Star, those who approach these matters in a healthy spirit of cynicism will agree there is only one word to describe odds of 33-1 for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Value.
East meets West to explore best of all possible worlds
It might seem a world apart, to the tweedy throng at Cheltenham today. In reality, of course, Sha Tin is only half a world away. As always, however, the prizemoney at the Hong Kong International Carnival seems to belong to a different galaxy.
The four big races contested there, in the early hours of tomorrow morning, have drawn some of Europe's most adventurous trainers. The globetrotting Doctor Dino leads the challenge for the Vase, along with Muhannak, already the pioneering winner of the inaugural Breeders' Cup Marathon.
Marchand d'Or, the divisional champion of Europe, bids to round off Freddie Head's breakthrough year in the Sprint, while Major Cadeaux and Pressing are among British obstructions to the American star, Kip Deville, in the Mile. Finally, Lush Lashes, one of the defining contributors to Jim Bolger's return to the elite, meets Eagle Mountain in the Cup, over 10 furlongs.
The increasing depth and diversity of competition at this meeting will have been one of the spurs to renewed adventure in the organisers of the Breeders' Cup. Those now wholly absorbed by steeplechasers, likewise, should take the cue to peer, however briefly, beyond the end of their noses.