So this is what they mean by cold comfort. To many racegoers, the principal merit of a "bumper" is the chance to beat the traffic out of the car park. To trainers, however, the National Hunt Flat race – the regular postscript to an afternoon of jump racing – offers a vital opportunity to educate naïve young jumping prospects. During the big freeze, then, an unprecedented card of seven bumpers on the Fibresand at Southwell yesterday offered horses and trainers alike a priceless chance to relieve the cabin fever.
Nicky Henderson has one of the most patrician stables in the land, but was thrilled to let six of his rawest charges sample a surface habitually abandoned to the Flat's very lowest caste. The sleet came miserably down, then the snow, but even Barry Geraghty, who had just returned from a Parisian honeymoon, seemed pleased to be there. Sure enough, Henderson and his stable jockey won three races, in the process confirming that the big freeze has not petrified the great run of form they have enjoyed since the autumn. It was tough going for all three winners, admittedly, but this is a notoriously unflattering surface, and Henderson was plainly happy to settle for any port in a storm.
He paid due tribute to the whole Seven Barrows team. "The last fortnight has been pretty testing, and everybody's been brilliant," he said. "Some of it has been quite good fun, but some of it has been horrific. Everyone has had to work their socks off."
He also expressed gratitude to the sport's administrators, whose flexibility nowadays has extended to a further innovation at Kempton on Saturday – this time a card of bumpers, six of them uniquely confined to horses already operating over hurdles or fences. Henderson has made an entry for Punjabi in a race that also features his Smurfit Champion Hurdle victim, Celestial Halo, though the odds are evidently against an exotic reunion. For one thing, marvellously, Kempton has not yet despaired of staging the scheduled, conventional jumps fixture instead, and will hold another inspection this afternoon. But Henderson suspects that there may be better options regardless for Punjabi, who palpably needed his comeback at Cheltenham last month.
"Everybody wants to know where he's going – and so does the trainer," Henderson said. "But I have no idea. Kempton is a great initiative, but I don't think he'll go there. I'd really like to go to Haydock [a week on Saturday]. Then there's Ireland the weekend after, and races like the Morebattle at Kelso could come into it. But I need Punjabi to have a run now so he can still go to the Kingwell, because he does need two runs [before the Festival]."
Matters are complicated by the need to accommodate Henderson's other elite hurdlers, Zaynar and Binocular. "I don't want them all meeting at this stage of the season, as it seems rather unnecessary," he said. "But we keep running out of races and the problem becomes more acute."
He indicated that Zaynar could yet end up on duty at Leopardstown, in the Toshiba Irish Champion Hurdle, while Binocular is being aimed at a race at Sandown on 6 February. He meanwhile remains desperate to get more experience into his novices over both birch and timber, not least Punchestowns, who impressed on his chasing debut at Newbury but was not risked in borderline conditions at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. "Last year's cold snap was in February," Henderson remarked. "Another week of this would be a disaster, but at least it's January not February. There's a lot to look forward to. But at the moment it's how we get them to Cheltenham. Their preparations will test us all."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Premier Lad (3.20 Southwell) Ridden to conserve his stamina when stepped up to this trip at this course on Tuesday, tactics that allowed a couple of others first run; did more than enough, however, to confirm he is now attractively handicapped.
Vertigo On Course (2.50 Southwell) Clearly goes well fresh, having won after 11 months off in September; that was her debut for this stable and both subsequent efforts implied more to come.
One to watch
The Scorching Wind (S C Williams) showed the benefit of a recent comeback spin with a career best over 7f at Lingfield on Saturday – his sustained finish suggesting that he can defy his revised mark when returned to a mile.
Where the money's going
Seven Is My Number and Duc De Regniere are the sponsors' 7-1 joint-favourites for the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster on 30 January.Reuse content