Racehorses will never give you an answer when they can come up with a new question instead.
Taken at face value, Flemenstar’s performance at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting seemed to settle pretty definitively the debate over his eligibility for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup. Though ridden with more restraint than usual, trying three miles for the first time, he jumped and galloped with his regular gusto only for the fuel to run abruptly dry on the run-in. The rallying First Lieutenant seized his chance, only to be collared on the post by Tidal Bay, with Flemenstar just half a length down and Sir Des Champs breathing down their necks in fourth.
The immediate temptation was to wonder how Flemenstar might fare if dropped to two miles, for a showdown with Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. But connections have instead wondered whether things might have turned out better, had they played their hand a little differently. Sure enough, today they bring him back to the same course and distance in the hope of settling the matter, once and for all, in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
As ever with this horse, it is hard to see things objectively. In a sport increasingly dominated by wealthy patrons of the very biggest yards, romantics have been enchanted by his emergence from a tiny stable supervised by that mischievous veteran, Peter Casey. The principal aspiration for today, then, must be that Flemenstar can end all equivocation over the best deployment of his tremendous gifts at Cheltenham next month. Paradoxically, it might yet prove that he was undone last time by precisely the circumspection that seemed prudent in experimenting with his stamina. Flemenstar had relished positive tactics over shorter distances and will probably be permitted to flow along this time – an approach that could well pay off in this small field.
But even success for Flemenstar (3.20) today would not necessarily disqualify Sir Des Champs as Ireland’s best hope for the Gold Cup. This is the pair’s third consecutive skirmish and, with March his priority throughout, Sir Des Champs is shaping as though he will take a step forward each time. There remains scope to sharpen up his jumping, and Willie Mullins, his trainer, will doubtless be satisfied simply to see him attack his fences, and finish off the race strongly.
Mullins, as Goliath to Casey’s David, is predictably the man to beat in each of the other Grade One races on the card. At least John Ferguson is showing the enterprise that reliably eludes more established British trainers, by daring to take on Mullins in his back yard with two good novices of his own.
All in all it is a big day in the parallel career of Sheikh Mohammed’s bloodstock manager, who has exhibited corresponding nerve in holding back Cotton Mill (3.35) for the valuable Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. Whether or not he could have held off Simonsig, Cotton Mill was still going strongly when veering left and unseating two out at the Festival last year. He remains completely unexposed at this shorter distance, and there is something highly purposeful about the way Ferguson has kept his powder dry with a possible Champion Hurdle challenge in mind.
The favourite, My Tent Or Yours, represents a trainer with a fine record in this race and brings a similar profile to Darlan, who was poised to win when crashing out last year. He has plenty of weight for a novice, however, and Cash And Go appeals as better value. Either way, their stable could certainly do with a tonic after the tragedy that claimed Darlan at Doncaster on Monday.
At least that will place minor irritations in due perspective for Nicky Henderson. Two weeks after a poor scope ruled Bobs Worth out of his Festival trial, he has similarly had to scratch Simonsig from his intended rehearsal on this card. With Long Run, meanwhile, sitting out the Betfair Denman Chase, top billing instead goes to Silviniaco Conti (2.25), who has found an ideal warm-up for the Gold Cup. This race has sometimes presented top-class steeplechasers in a fairly unflattering light, and Paul Nicholls warns that the favourite will “improve enormously” after his break, but it would be surprising if he failed to outjump these rivals.
For two smaller yards, the biggest race of the weekend looms at Exeter tomorrow where success for Puffin Billy or Melodic Rendezvous would respectively renew or amplify the reputations of Oliver Sherwood and Jeremy Scott.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Fire In Babylon (12.50 Lingfield)
Barrakilla (3.25 Uttoxeter)