The January blues are not hard to explain.
There is the reluctant return to work, or school; the anxiety or regret prompted by the turn of another year; and, of course, that bloody great credit card bill. For those who depend on the Turf for our comfort, however, matters are worse still. The first weeks of the calendar serve up such thin gruel that punters should have their shoelaces confiscated at the racecourse gates.
It all makes sense, of course. In most winters – and the very mildness of this one will compound a miserable instinct that something is grievously wrong – these fixtures are the most vulnerable to the weather. Most of the Cheltenham horses, having been wheeled out to assist the sport's own solstice festivities, are being freshened up for a maximum of one run before the Festival. And the champion trainer typically gives his best horses a flu jab, and therefore a compulsory break, in January.
Paul Nicholls did his best, in fairness, to enliven the scene this week by announcing his intention to run Al Ferof in open company on only his third start over fences, at Ascot a fortnight today. The grey will, moreover, be given an entry in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Festival – mirroring David Pipe's intention to consider the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup for another novice, Grands Crus.
Each case has to be assessed on its own merits. How would their respective jumping hold up against the old salts? What are the different standards that must be met? Sprinter Sacre, for instance, has looked so frightening in his first two steeplechases that some reckon the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy might be a tougher test than the Champion Chase itself. Connections of Grands Crus have, meanwhile, wondered whether the RSA Chase could prove a more hectic race than even the Gold Cup, where he could be hunted round until Kauto Star and Long Run punch each other to a standstill up front.
Grands Crus is one of the few horses classy enough to involve Big Buck's in something like a race over hurdles. Another, lest we forget, was Time For Rupert – so no point counting chickens until they meet on the trials card later this month. At this stage, however, it is worth noting that Grands Crus, with his energetic style, might be dropped in trip for the flat-out gallop and steep finish at the Festival. Alan King, remember, won an Arkle over two miles with My Way De Solzen a year after he had won the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
Funnily enough, Al Ferof might yet turn into another of those horses that Nicholls stretches over longer trips as they mature. After all, he is by a strong stamina influence out of a mare that won over nearly two miles on the Flat. It would be strange, but not inconceivable, if it turned out that these two young chasers were fast-tracked to the right level but at the wrong distance.
For now, regardless, it repays reiteration that those who have got to the top of their divisions have done it the hard way. Yes, it is always true of jumpers, in particular, that they may not be as sound and healthy in a year's time. Equally, they are only eligible for a novice championship once – and if you think you have found a substandard one, try winning it first. A year ago, everyone was telling the Tizzards to run Cue Card in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. In the event, he finished fourth against fellow novices. It was a very similar story the previous year, with Dunguib.
So why run before you can walk? It is different in handicaps, where a novice profits directly from the fact that he has not yet shown his hand. Nicholls tried that recently with Prospect Wells, one of just five going in the Grade One race that illuminates today's Sandown card. In the event, it turned out that his rating anticipated his progress, and he managed no better than fourth.
Connections have restored him to novice company in the 32Red Tolworth Hurdle in candid opportunism, after the race reopened on Monday. This race has mustered 10 runners only once since 1988, and Charlie Longsdon may yet reduce the field after walking the track, Magnifique Etoile having made his improvement in much better conditions.
While Colour Squadron (2.35) does shape as a real staying type, and may be vulnerable to tactics, he is at least proven in the ground and does look a super prospect. Then there is Captain Conan, who brings a big reputation from France. Ultimately, then, the whole thing must boil down to guesswork. So, for trainers of novices or their backers, it looks as if we all need to be patient.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Minella Theatre (2.50 Wincanton)
Rather disappointed on his debut for this yard at Newcastle, having looked well treated, but then seemed to be going with renewed gusto in a tongue-tie when losing his rider in a collision at Cheltenham.
No Loose Change (3.25 Wincanton)
Handicapper seems to have given this one a real chance. Showed improvement on his second British start at Hereford, the winner since franking the form in good company.
One To Watch
Specialagent Alfie (Nick Gifford) needs one more run for a handicap mark. Travelled well, and not given a hard race as he tired, when third at Plumpton on Monday.
Where The Money's Going
Bob's Worth is 5-1 from 13-2 with William Hill for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March.
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