Midnight to make bold appearance
Just as the man without a tie should not be automatically disparaged as a cad – a truth that continues to elude certain racecourses in the 21st century, notably Ascot last weekend – so the jockey who "slides tamely" from his mount must not be treated as a crook.
Those who take a reds-under-our-beds view of the Turf, whether punters or regulators, will doubtless have discovered a righteous thrill in news that the British Horseracing Authority is examining the unseating of a 7lb claimer in a selling hurdle at Musselburgh a couple of weeks ago.
Steven Gagan, the rider in question, is 28 and has mustered just 13 winners in seven seasons. The trainer of his mount that day, Ian Williams, reported Gagan's performance to the BHA, expressing concern for his well-being and welfare. The horse, Kickahead, had been weak in the betting, but Gagan strongly contested any malicious inferences in the Racing Post. "You only need to go on the Injured Jockeys' Fund website to see jockeys in wheelchairs," he protested. "If a jockey is willing to jump off a racehorse in a race, he must need his head seeing to."
And, unless some substantial evidence demands otherwise, he must emphatically be taken at his word. The affair, none the less, renewed memories of one or two notorious unseatings in years past. A couple of seasoned horsemen, reflecting on these, were adamant that you would only ever bail out when the alternative is still more frightening. One was bolted with on the gallops, when his reins broke; he did not jump even when his mount approached a road, hoping that it would pull itself up. As a result, he condemned himself to landing on asphalt when spotting a bend in the road, skirted by stout fencing. Sure enough, as soon as he had smashed up his legs, the horse drew himself sadistically to a halt.
The perils of judging by appearances had been reiterated at Ascot, where the iniquity of a primeval new dress code for the premier enclosure – for a midwinter jumps card – was crassly compounded by the application of an orange sticker to the lapels of offenders. But there need not be the slightest correlation between your wardrobe and your behaviour. Manners maketh man, and all that: a thug in a tie is still a thug.
Grands Crus, in contrast, finds himself all dressed up with no place to go after connections – if not necessarily unanimously – declined to test the water for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup on the Festival trials card today. You can certainly sympathise with the more conservative course, albeit no decision on his Festival target is expected until he has contested only his fourth steeplechase, at Newbury a fortnight today. He will only be eligible once for a novice championship, after all, and Long Run and Kauto Star set a vintage standard in the open one.
In his absence, the Argento Chase as usual looks likely only to produce a supporting player for the Gold Cup. It's a tricky race, in fact, with Diamond Harry having underlined a reputation for fragility when a late defector from the King George. Nor is everyone convinced that he is as effective round here as on flat tracks, whereas the reverse seems true of Time For Rupert – who adores this hill but has yet to threaten to break into the steeplechasing elite, as Diamond Harry did in last season's Hennessy.
Captain Chris, meanwhile, produced a fairly ambivalent exhibition in the King George, while Tidal Bay is getting a bit elderly for even Paul Nicholls to be achieving a transformation. You can at least envisage him seizing the bridle in the closing stages, but perhaps the value is Midnight Chase (2.35). He loves this track, as he showed when fifth in the Gold Cup, and looked to be coming to hand when third under a big weight at Wetherby on Boxing Day.
Of course, the real star turn today is Big Buck's, whose metronomic brilliance makes him odds-on for a 15th consecutive success since Nicholls switched him to hurdles three years ago. It will only be when this spree is ended, by some accident or latent frailty of the type that intrudes daily on the careers of most thoroughbreds, that we will properly grasp its magnitude.
Perhaps the most instructive rehearsals will be the novice hurdles – where Alan King appears to have a strong hand. Grumeti (12.55) is patently a classy juvenile, and his stablemate Batonnier (3.10) merits a second look despite less obvious prospects.
The latter caught the eye with a stylish move here on New Year's Day, before flattening out as a recent break told on his fitness. Superficially, four placings and no wins over hurdles might appear to suggest distinct limitations. As always, however, we should be wary of leaping to hasty conclusions.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Hell's Bay (2.05 Cheltenham)
Had looked poised to challenge here last time until blundering three out and, well treated on his best novice form, is worth backing at big odds now that he is tried in blinkers.
Galaxy Rock (2.50 Doncaster)
Another who must be forgiven a poor run last time but conditions were dreadful and the form of an emphatic win at Cheltenham on his previous start had worked out well.
One To Watch
Maybe I Wont (James Moffatt) is eligible for handicaps after again showing a taste for hurdling in his third novice spin at Musselburgh.
Where the money's going
On His Own, impressive on only his second start for Willie Mullins at Gowran on Thursday, is 16-1 from 25-1 with Paddy Power for the John Smith's Grand National.
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