Fehily's return delayed as jumps get back in business
Daily familiarity with hazard and frustration nurtures the stoic in every jumps professional, but this early intrusion of winter has tested the patience of many. There will be relief and gratitude, then, when the frost blankets are dragged off Cheltenham this morning.
A timely thaw has complemented the endeavours of the ground staff there to guarantee interesting sport this afternoon – albeit that the cross-country race still depends on an inspection at 10.30am – and some genuinely top-class stuff tomorrow.
For one man, however, the recent sense of impotence has been unexpectedly prolonged. In fairness, Noel Fehily has been immune to the freeze, grateful as he was to be nursing an injury that had proved much less grave than initially feared. It was only a fortnight ago today that Fehily was thought to have broken a wrist in a fall at Newbury, days after being booked to ride Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day. The Irishman was reprieved, however, when X-rays revealed no fracture, and he had secured several exciting mounts for his comeback at this meeting, notably Master Minded in tomorrow's Keith Prowse Tingle Creek Chase.
He was dismayed, then, when the British Horseracing Authority's medical adviser, Dr Michael Turner, blocked his return yesterday morning. Fehily, who had just been schooling Kauto Star himself, said: "The doctor has stood me down, but I can't understand why because he hasn't even seen me yet this morning."
A lower-key return next week would obviously remain contingent on a continued thaw, as only prestige venues can afford frost blankets, but should in principle still leave Fehily ample time to retrieve peak condition for Kauto Star – an opportunity he owes, in turn, to Ruby Walsh's broken leg.
In the absence of both, Paul Nicholls has booked Tony McCoy for Master Minded and Daryl Jacob for his most exciting young hurdler, Silviniaco Conti, in a gripping showdown with Cue Card and Menorah, also tomorrow. That is a significant endorsement for Jacob, who impressed with his confident handling of Diamond Harry in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
Fehily's key mount on today's card was Al Ferof, rated just about the best bumper horse Nicholls has trained and now poised for his hurdling debut. Though ultimately swamped by the freakish Cue Card at the Festival here in March, the Irish import saw off the rest by eight lengths and more and had really impressed with his gusto in the lead. Another powerful stable fields a promising bumper graduate in Prince Of Pirates, but Al Ferof (3.35) has apparently schooled well and it would be disappointing if he failed to volunteer himself as one of the season's emerging stars.
Nicholls and Nicky Henderson also take each other on with top novice prospects in another discipline when Rebel Du Maquis meets Spirit River (12.10) in the opener. The former has won both his steeplechases to date, whereas Spirit River failed to get round when sent off favourite for his debut over fences at Newbury. Even so, the latter had jumped the first 10 like a natural and, returning to the scene of his success over hurdles at the Festival, warrants perseverance as one built to excel at this game.
In between there is a series of handicaps so competitive that some punters will be asking themselves quite what they think they have been missing. At least the Glenfarclas Chase has an obvious starting point in the cross-country specialist, Garde Champetre (3.0). He looked as good as ever on his return here last month, despite failing by a neck to reel in one who had enjoyed a head start.
Nicholls runs a Grade One winner, Neptune Collonges, under top weight in the day's most valuable race. Fourth and third in the last two Gold Cups, the grey was brought down early in the Hennessy and may still need the run today. He faces a couple of interesting rivals in Presenting Forever, sadly 8lb out of the handicap, and especially Horner Woods (2.25).
Don't Push It, meanwhile, makes his first appearance since winning the John Smith's Grand National in April – yes, Tony McCoy did actually have a horse to help him – in a hurdle race. Jonjo O'Neill will obviously be working backwards from Aintree and limited expectations for today are measured by McCoy's preference for Synchronised. Total Submission (1.50) remains unexposed, not least given the sort of test he must relish on pedigree, and should be a fair price each-way.
While the home fires can at last be stoked again, an important card at Fairyhouse has been postponed yet again, this time to Wednesday – and it will now be intolerably close, for some trainers, to the Leopardstown Christmas meeting.
Horner Woods (2.25 Cheltenham) Became disappointing for Jessica Harrington but returns to the scene of his stand-out performance when chasing home Cooldine at 66-1 in last year's RSA Chase.
Ubenkor (12.50 Southwell) No chance against a subsequent winner over course and distance last time, but confirmed his enthusiasm for this surface by going 10 lengths clear of the rest.
One to watch
Our Kes (P Howling) is not easy to win with but the handicapper has given her every encouragement.
Where the money's going
Cue Card is 8-1 from 9-1 with Ladbrokes for the Champion Hurdle on the eve of his big test at Cheltenham tomorrow.
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