It is no trite ambition, seeing such good horses venture onto such awful ground, to ask only that the likes of Long Run and Finian’s Rainbow complete their comebacks tomorrow in one piece.
For if a loss as harrowing as the one endured by Noel Meade today can occur in such innocuous circumstances, then Nicky Henderson will surely settle for seeing two of the top steeplechasers in Britain back at Seven Barrows tonight with their heads in the manger.
Meade watched dumbstruck as Go Native, probably the best horse in his care, broke a leg in the course of a routine canter up a freshly harrowed gallop. It was only last Sunday that Go Native had walked serenely away from far more obvious peril, having fallen at the last as he challenged Hurricane Fly at Punchestown. That run had deceived Meade and his patrons that their patience with Go Native, sidelined for two years after starting favourite for the 2010 Champion Hurdle, might yet be rewarded back at Cheltenham in March. “We’re all in a state of shock,” Meade said. “Completely devastated.”
Against that tragic backdrop, you can only pray that the Betfair Chase at Haydock sustains the life-affirming quality of storylines that stretch across the spectrum – from Henderson’s hugely powerful stable, in the Corinthian partnership of Long Run and his amateur rider, Sam Waley-Cohen; to the tiny one of David Bridgwater, whose opinion of The Giant Bolster was vindicated by that spectacular second in the Gold Cup, at 50-1.
Whether either of these horses can be at their peak, in such demanding conditions first time out, is questionable. Long Run has been beaten on his reappearance in the last two seasons, and just needs to lay down some kind of marker for those who perceived an incipient decline in a somewhat less dominant campaign last winter.
As Waley-Cohen himself has remarked, Long Run is in transition from pretender to old guard – but one thing never seems to change. For Paul Nicholls is once again on his case. This time he brings Kauto Star back only on parade, but he hopes that his retired champion could yet be emulated by SILVIANICO CONTI (3.05).
Still only six, this horse began his second season over fences in impeccable fashion at Wetherby, and his accurate and aggressive jumping will permit Long Run little margin for error if conditions start to take their toll. There have been times, in what remains a light career, when Silviniaco Conti has hinted at elite potential – and it may simply be that he is piecing everything together now.
One of those occasions was when he won the Coral Hurdle at Ascot, two years ago. Oscar Whisky will be short odds for the latest running, having looked sure to go close when falling at the final flight last year, but a turn of foot could be a decisive asset for RAYA STAR (2.45) on this ground, and in this small field.
Henderson continued his intimidating form with a treble at the track yesterday, but these remain no more than early skirmishes for his big guns. Finian’s Rainbow, for instance, is much the best horse in the Amlin Chase but giving 10lbs to CAPTAIN CHRIS (2.10) in conditions so inimical to his brilliance will not be easy.
Back at Haydock, the Betfair Fixed Brush Handicap Hurdle has once again been targeted by David Pipe, who saddled Grands Crus and Dynaste to win the last two runnings. Katkeau and Knight Pass are new recruits who could also prove ahead of the game. Barafundle is also interesting, just 3lbs higher than when he chased home Grands Crus, but SAPHIR RIVER (2.30) made a good start for his new yard the other day and was placed in Grade One company in France at this trip only a year ago.
Nap: Annelko (9.20 Wolverhampton)
NB: Quartz De Thaix (2.0 Haydock)