The grandstand stood eerily deserted, and the racecourse dozed in watery sunshine. It was hard to imagine the tumult of noise and emotion that will overwhelm the place on Tuesday week.
But most of the trainers who gathered at Cheltenham yesterday were already nervous wrecks. Nicky Henderson brandished his phone unhappily. Every time he recognises a call from his stable, he stops breathing. A dozen more days of this; a dozen sleepless nights. Nor was Jonjo O'Neill exactly the man to soothe his nerves. Overnight one of his better young horses, Backspin, had dropped dead in his stable, having apparently suffered a heart attack.
Henderson should have sought out Philip Hobbs instead. He would have found him exuding the same benign calm as always. After all, they were only here for the publication of the Festival handicaps, followed by a spot of lunch and a stroll over the course. It was hardly the Spanish inquisition. Yes, it helps that Hobbs had won two big races at Kempton on Saturday, suggesting that his Somerset stable approaches the Festival in good fettle. But both Quinz and Captain Chris had presented him with the sort of dilemma that might have reduced some of his rivals to stammers and yelps.
Hobbs's choice, however, has reliably proved a matter of phlegm and pragmatism. Many assumed Captain Chris would be kept apart from the yard's other leading novice chaser, Wishfull Thinking. Richard Johnson, their jockey, is among those taken aback by the possibility that both will go for the new Jewson Chase. "They're in the same ownership, and you'd rather finish first and second in that race than win neither of the others," Hobbs shrugged. "It gives Richard a big difficulty. I did mention it to him yesterday, and he didn't know which way to go. If the Arkle or the RSA Chase happened to cut up, things might change. But while Richard thinks Captain Chris would be effective over two miles, the Arkle does look a much hotter race. Wherever he goes, he'll definitely benefit from the experience he has had, and from good ground, too."
As for Quinz, it now sounds as though the Racing Post Chase winner will head for the John Smith's Grand National after all. "He's gone up 9lb so he'll probably run, provided the ground isn't soft," Hobbs said. "He is a young horse, but he's very tough and brave and you'd like to think that it wouldn't be to his long-term detriment if things didn't work out at Aintree."
Quinz will sit out the Festival, where the stable's standard-bearer remains Menorah in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Menorah was given a winter break, owing to his distaste for testing ground, so Hobbs took him to Exeter on Tuesday for a gallop. "If anything, he looks slightly too well," the trainer said. "But that's the better way to be, and he'll have plenty of graft at home over the next week or so. We're very happy with him, and I'm confident he'll be at his best. He's got some pretty serious opponents, of course, who have all come through their trials. But it's all positives with his form, and he has won all three of his races here."
Another with a good Cheltenham record is Snap Tie, who ends an 18-month absence in the County Hurdle. "He has a very good record fresh," Hobbs said. "While there is the obvious possibility that he may have deteriorated, his work at home wouldn't suggest that." Only one horse has beaten Snap Tie first time out and that was Imperial Commander. He also finished third to Captain Cee Bee and Binocular here in their novice season. That should be enough to raise any pulse – except, of course, that of his trainer.
Prince Of Denial (4.20 Taunton) Has gone up 6lb after pulling clear with an unexposed rival over course and distance last time, but promised better still with the way he travelled until hitting the third last.
The Boss (3.20 Taunton) Stayed on pluckily for third in a stronger race at Chepstow, but has somehow ended up 2lb lower.
One to watch
Sunshine Always (Michael Attwater) has been competitive off higher marks and went with gusto on his debut for a new stable at Lingfield the other day, badly hampered but managing a close fourth.
Where the money's going
Blackstairmountain is 12-1 from 16-1 with Totesport for the Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle at Cheltenham.Reuse content