On the day when British horseracing measured its resilience against recession, publishing record attendances in 2011, racegoers were given every incentive to get the turnstiles clicking again at Cheltenham on Saturday. Entries made yesterday for the Festival trials card appear to guarantee at least one new favourite for the real thing, in March, with the three horses sharing the top of the JCB Triumph Hurdle market all lined up for a dress rehearsal. Even so, no race will be more instructive than the Argento Chase, perhaps the last opportunity to prevent the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup becoming another straight duel between Kauto Star and Long Run.
Synchronised may yet get involved, when returning to Leopardstown for the Hennessy Gold Cup next month, but for now the Argento most obviously provides a platform for Grands Crus. Connections are tempted to fast-track their novice to the Gold Cup, after just three starts over fences to date, and intend to test the water on Saturday.
The defeat of Al Ferof at Ascot last weekend shows how even top-class hurdlers, who have demonstrated an immediate aptitude for their new calling, must raise their game against more seasoned opponents. But with his main rivals having so far hesitated to make a breakthrough of their own, this represents a perfect test of the feasibility of a Gold Cup challenge for Grands Crus. Coral make the grey 9-4 favourite, from Diamond Harry and Time For Rupert on 5-1, and Captain Chris on 11-2.
Grands Crus was a brilliant winner of the Cleeve Hurdle on this card last year, only to find Big Buck's too relentless at the Festival. This time round, the champion will himself be taking in the Cleeve, having been kept fresh for March in the past two seasons, as he attempts to extend his unbeaten spree to 15. Only an act of God would seem likely to stop him, with Timeform granting him 17lb and more in hand of 10 other entries.
As for the juveniles, it remains worth remembering that the last two Triumph Hurdles were won by French imports, Zarkandar and Soldatino, who delayed their British debuts until Kempton barely three weeks before the Festival. Their profile corroborates the theory that the provision of a handicap alternative for juveniles, since 2005, has altered the complexion of the Triumph. Grumeti, Sadler's Risk and Baby Mix have so far completed only one hurdle race in Britain apiece. But Alan King, who has a fine record in this discipline, remains anxious to give Grumeti more experience after his fall at Newbury last week.
Figures released by the Racecourse Association show a third consecutive increase in attendances, to 6.15 million raceday visits in 2011. Admittedly, a climb of 6.6 per cent largely reflects better weather in winter months, compared with 2010, but an aggregate of six million had last been achieved in 2004. The biggest gains, predictably, were posted during Racing For Change's free racing initiative in April, expanded last year from one week to a month.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Even Stevens (2.50 Southwell)
A genuine class act on this surface, better than ever on his latest visit, and likely to take all the beating once again off his revised mark.
Next Best: Don't Tell Sailor (3.40 Leicester)
Remains lightly raced over fences and improved again when pushing another well treated novice all the way last time.
One to watch: Ballyfoy (Gary Moore)
Well handicapped for his new yard and the way he rallied for fourth in a Newbury chase last week suggests that he will be competitive given a stiffer test.
Where the money's going: Hurricane Fly
Hurricane Fly is set to resurface at Leopardstown on Sunday, is 7-4 from 2-1 with Paddy Power to retain the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.
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