Knowing the way they have always done things round here, it is safe to assume that yesterday's date has long been circled in red on the office calendar – and that any such prompt had precious little to do with an invasion of film crews and reporters. For by the time David Pipe hosted his pre-Festival open morning, he had already completed the most significant clerical chore of the entire year. Entries for the Cheltenham handicaps closed at noon, and the dozens submitted from Pond House surely included at least one that will get the job done next month.
Of the seven Festival winners saddled by Pipe since taking over the yard from his record-breaking father, Martin, six have been in handicaps. He reckons things are rather harder, nowadays, as horses require a relatively high rating simply to make the cut. What will never change, however, is the focus and discretion vested in each horse – whether miles ahead of the handicapper, as when Junior won by 24 lengths last year; or simply primed to run for his life, as when old Buena Vista won his second Pertemps Final that same afternoon.
There was never any danger yesterday of Pipe making a premature commitment on a Festival target for his stable star, Grands Crus. A more practical priority, then, was to record any handicap clues on offer – each, needless to say, cheerfully deplored by Pipe Snr.
Perhaps the most positive view was formed of Our Father, impressive at Ascot in December, albeit Pipe scrupulously avoided specifying his preferred option. Indeed, he has even been dignified with an entry for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. Assuming, however, that all remains well with Big Buck's – whose trainer, Paul Nicholls, has cancelled an equivalent event today on account of coughing in his yard – Our Father will contest either the Coral Cup or the Pertemps. Though "he took a while to get over Ascot", the fact that he will go to the Festival with just four races under his belt suggests his trainer has waited to see the whites of the handicapper's eyes before plunging the bayonet. "The form has been franked," Pipe allowed, before the customary caveats. "But he's been raised from 129 to 148, and he's a big, old-fashioned steeplechaser in the making."
Another intriguing prospect is Salut Flo, though his options diversify over both hurdles and fences. Making only his third start for the yard, he was cruising when all but falling three out at Cheltenham in December. Again, Pipe promptly put him away for the Festival, and his only caveat is that the import remains a little too "French" – that is, almost perilously economical – in his jumping.
Great Endeavour, a previous Festival winner, is another to have been freshened up since Christmas. His merit is well established, and Pipe fears he may fall between two stools, namely the Ryanair Chase or top weight in a handicap.
Buena Vista, heading for his eighth consecutive Festival at the age of 11, will be suited by drying ground. "He's been amazing," Pipe said. "And though he's been out of sorts this season, he ran a better race at Newbury last week and we know he rises to the occasion."
As favourite for the John Smith's Grand National, Junior has still bigger fish to fry. Pipe was pleased with his comeback spin at Newbury and could give him his Aintree prep in the Gold Cup, though cannot yet say whether Grands Crus would join him. The alternative is to keep Grands Crus among novices, in the RSA Chase, and Pipe may find himself with a casting vote between the joint-owners. Asked who might have the final say, he declared: "My mum!"
He has horrible memories of the loss, in the 2000 Gold Cup, of another precocious novice, Gloria Victis. "I was there and it was a very sad day," he said. "But you take every horse as an individual. Can Grands Crus travel at the pace of a Gold Cup? I'd say yes. Can he jump at the pace of a Gold Cup? That's the only issue. But his jumping has been very good so far. We're still open-minded, and we'll sit down and have a chat a week or so before Cheltenham."
He does seem genuinely uncertain. But one or two other Festival projects, you fancy, have been determined months ago.
BHA takes sting out of whip rule
Sweeping changes to the controversial whip rules were agreed by the British Horseracing Authority board yesterday. From early next month, rather than it being an automatic breach when a rider uses the whip eight times on the Flat and nine times over jumps, the figures will become the trigger point for the stewards to review the ride in question. Under a revised penalty structure, which will take effect tomorrow and be retrospectively applied to bans still to be served, one strike too many will still warrant a two-day ban, but two more will now incur a four-day suspension, rather than five days as at present.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Malin Head (4.15 Ludlow) Former point-to-pointer proved a different horse switched to fences for his first handicap.
Distime (4.05 Doncaster) Lightly raced and, though unable to exploit good mark in first handicap, can do so now he steps up in trip.
One to watch
The Jigsaw Man (Rebecca Curtis) will soon exploit a diminishing mark judged on Newbury last Friday.
Where the money's going
Medermit is 7-1 from 10-1 with Stan James for the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham next month.