When Saturday comes is when it always used to matter for such as Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson, until the demands and rewards of television scheduling came along. Those two football men must, this week, wait until tomorrow for the next instalment in their season. Their racing equivalents, though, know that with the exception of one occasion a year, today is the day.
For the second successive campaign Paul Nicholls, six-times and reigning champion jumps trainer, and his chief rival, Nicky Henderson, are slugging out a premier league battle every bit as intriguing as that being decided in the nation's football stadiums. Henderson has finished second for the past three seasons, in the most recent one narrowing the gap to the closest finish since Martin Pipe fended off Nicholls, then the rising star, for the last of his 15 titles seven years ago.
On Thursday, Henderson became the first to notch a century this term and he goes into today on 101 winners to Nicholls' 87, at a superior strike-rate of 29 per cent. The title, though, is decided by prize money, with Nicholls more than £350,000 ahead at this stage. That is small enough change with more than £5m to be played for over the four weekdays of the Cheltenham Festival in March. But by the end of the season in April every pound may count. And for the two most powerful stables in the country, the valuable Saturday prizes become six-pointers.
This afternoon Nicholls, based in the cosy Somerset village of Ditcheat, will deploy 12 runners at the day's three jump meetings. Henderson, whose team trains on the high Berkshire downs near Lambourn, provides 10.
In five races the two operations will go head to head, notably for the day's richest purse, the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot. The Grade One contest is worth £60,000 but there may also be some psychological advantage to be gained. There were signs yesterday, in the form of two impressive winners from three runners at Chepstow, that Nicholls' customary mid-season lull is over.
The champion has won the past three runnings of the Victor Chandler Chase, two with the now retired Master Minded and one with the ill-fated Twist Magic. Today he fields one of his rising young stars, Al Ferof, against more experienced opposition headed by, as far as the market is concerned, the Henderson inmate Finian's Rainbow.
The two horses have similar profiles, albeit a season apart. Both were classy novice hurdlers who progressed straight to fences. Though both at one point in their careers finished third in the same Grade One hurdle at Newbury, the seven-year-old Al Ferof was slightly the better over the smaller obstacles, with a Cheltenham Festival victory, is unbeaten in two runs over the larger and is one of the favourites for the Arkle Trophy. The nine-year-old Finian's Rainbow's only defeat in his first season over fences came when he was second in the Arkle and he resumed with a victory at Kempton on Boxing Day.
The older horse is putting his prospects for the senior two-mile title on the line today; he is third favourite, behind the Irish-trained pair Sizing Europe and Big Zeb, for the Champion Chase. Intriguingly, the younger may be as well; his prime target is the Festival's novice crown and, although today is very much about giving him experience it is also something of a fact-finding mission about how his raw talent might stack up in open company. It may be significant, too, that he was chosen for today's task ahead of a more streetwise stable-mate, Kauto Stone.
There are some solid enough yardsticks in the race and one of them, Forpadydeplasterer, while probably not being enough of a Tottenham or an Arsenal to think of victory, could provide the best each-way value for those wanting to bet rather than just watch. The Irish raider may be one of life's serial losers, with just two victories over fences to 11 second places. But eight of those runner-up spots came in top company and he will be suited by a strongly run stiff two miles.
Nearly all the Gold Cup horses are now locked safely away until their day of days in March, but those bound for the Grand National the following month are still performing. Weather permitting, a selection will be out at Haydock this afternoon, in the Peter Marsh Chase.
The three-mile contest will provide a gruelling examination of stamina and although the 2008 Aintree hero Mon Mome is, of course, already proven, and he has slipped down the ratings since his greatest victory, there may be more effective younger legs on the park today. Nicholls, likely to have had a penalty-kick with Celestial Halo earlier on the card, can net another with Take The Breeze.
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