The fact that those who manage the underfoot conditions at Cheltenham racecourse are due to start watering the track this morning to prevent it drying out too much may be astounding news to many who have endured one of the wettest, coldest winters on record but less extraordinary to any familiar with the peculiarities of the microclimate that seems to exist in the famous sporting amphiteatre in the shadow of Cleeve Hill.
One such is the clerk of the course Simon Claisse, whose brief it is to produce safe ground for the Festival that starts a week tomorrow, with or without the help of nature. "Ten days ago the ground was very soft," he said yesterday, "and now it's good in places. According to the outlook there is no rain in sight and we have a cold, easterly wind, typical early March drying conditions."
The site under Claisse's jurisdiction is huge, the chase, hurdles and cross-country courses comprising 65 acres of racing surface, and its maintenance is military in its precision. "We want to maintain the ground in its current state of good-to-soft, good in places," he said. "We plan to put on eight to mine millimetres but that will depend on the strength of the wind.
"It will take us until Thursday to complete that; there are forecast overnight frosts so that will mean a later start to the watering each day. We will take a view then and check the forecasts before deciding on any further plans. But the track does dry very quickly here."
The quickening of the conditions will be balm to the ears of trainers whose charges have coped with, rather than revelled in, the gluepot conditions that have prevailed for the past few months. Like Edward Harty, who sends Captain Cee Bee to the fray in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy tomorrow week. On his last visit to Cheltenham, two years ago, the nine-year-old won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and, after missing all of last season through injury, he returns as favourite for the two-mile novices' chasing crown.
His two-from-three record this season has been on heavy going. "Good ground will bring out even better in him," Harty said. "The quicker they go at Cheltenham, the better he'll jump, or I hope he will. I think he's improved since his injury; perhaps not any faster but he is no less fast and is stronger than he was two years ago."
Captain Cee Bee's only blip over fences came when he fell at the last at Leopardstown on Boxing Day when challenging the eventual winner Sizing Europe. "I think that was just loss of concentration, he was going so easily" Harty added. "He cleared it in front and just caught his stifle, and knuckled over. I wouldn't be worried about his jumping.
"He's in great form. He schooled last week and did his last strong work this weekend. We just hope everything now goes according to plan."
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Souter Point (2.00 Stratford)
Consistent Flat runner who did not get home on his hurdling debut at Sandown and should do better on a sharper track and better ground.
Harouet (4.35 Ffos Las)
*one to watch
Ryde Back (N Henderson) looks sure to live up to the promise of her debut hurdles win when she races on good ground or better.
*Where the money's going
Get Me Out Of Here was trimmed yesterday from 7-1 to 6-1 second favourite by Paddy Power for the Cheltenham Festival opener, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
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