Last year, an equivalent postponement after two horses had been electrocuted in the parade ring could only alter the tone, six days later, from macabre to melancholy. This time round, the card scheduled for Newbury last Saturday was lost merely to snow and frost, and the silver linings are dazzling. For one thing, entry today is free. And the goodwill that has secured this boon extends to the sponsors' injection of extra funding, despite the loss of a weekend profile, to guarantee the Betfair Hurdle's status as the richest handicap of its type in the calendar. Before that prize is won and lost Channel 4 viewers will already have seen one of the most exciting novice chasers of recent seasons, in Sprinter Sacre, and Long Run's rehearsal for the defence of his Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.
After consecutive, unceremonious defeats by his ageless predecessor, Kauto Star, the pressure is on Long Run and his amateur jockey in the Betfair Denman Chase. Sam Waley-Cohen has this winter been obliged to endure a fatuous loss of faith, in some quarters, and it must be hoped that his flair and confidence have not been unworthily diminished as a result. For there are certainly one or two banana skins lurking in a race with a habit of producing shocks, an odds-on favourite having been turned over in each of the last three runnings. Twice, curiously enough, it was Denman – most notably two years ago when he unseated three out, at 1-6, already firmly under the cosh. Kauto Star, moreover, had to be driven right out to win by a neck at 2-9 in 2007.
In each case, they proceeded to run out of their skins at Cheltenham, so premature alarm should be resisted if Long Run happens to make heavy weather of conceding 10lb to What A Friend – only 11 lengths behind him, after all, in the Gold Cup last season. The Giant Bolster, equally, at last got it all together at Cheltenham last time, while Long Run's own stablemate, Burton Port, would be no pushover if anywhere near his best after a long absence. It would be no mean tonic, then, if Waley-Cohen could finally ride a first winner of what has proved an exasperating campaign under Rules.
Whatever happens, Nicky Henderson's throat is unlikely to feel so dry again during his teetotal February. For he will already have saddled Sprinter Sacre for what may well prove – given various issues subsequently discovered with his beaten opponent, Peddlers Cross, at Kempton last time – the toughest test of his chasing career to date. Certainly, Sprinter Sacre meets some rather more seasoned rivals today, but his jumping hitherto has been simply astounding.
Relative lack of experience is perhaps more of an issue for Zarkandar in the Betfair Hurdle, albeit the subsequent achievements of his JCB Triumph Hurdle victims demonstrably leave him on a very good mark. In fairness, he coped readily with the hustle and bustle at Cheltenham, but the odds allow little margin for error if he is at all rusty. His stablemate, Empire Levant, is arguably better value now, having hacked up here on his own return and then been lured out by the chance to run without a penalty just two days later. Desert Cry could also outrun bigger odds, now that he finally gets a stronger gallop, but Zarkandar is not the only Champion Hurdle entry in this field. Final Approach was astonishing in the County Hurdle last year and, having meanwhile failed three times to last longer trips, coasted home back over two miles at Cork last month. Even in such a competitive field, he can prove a bet worth all the waiting.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Final Approach (1.15 Newbury) Still nearly last two out before winning a similar big handicap, the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last year, and it is significant that his flourishing stable has given him a Champion Hurdle entry this time round.
Gullinbursti (2.25 Newbury) Bumped into a rising star when beaten by Rocky Creek at Doncaster last time but maintained his own progress and looks extremely well treated if able to reproduce that form on his handicap debut.
One to watch
Salsify (Rodger Sweeney) confirmed himself Ireland's rising force for the Christies Foxhunters Chase at Cheltenham next month when impressing at Leopardstown last Sunday.
Where the money's going
Sadler's Risk is 6-1 from 7-1 with Paddy Power for the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Festival next month.Reuse content