Alan King has his horses in much better fettle now than in the first half of the season, but he is evidently not quite out of the woods yet. The Barbury Castle trainer yesterday decided not to declare Mille Chief, the JCB Triumph Hurdle favourite, for an intended engagement at Huntingdon today after discovering grounds for anxiety when the horse was scoped after working.
In fairness, with the biggest string of jumpers in the country under his supervision, King will always find varying graph-lines in their respiratory profiles. And King was certainly looking on the bright side. "Had we not had him tested, we would have run him at Huntingdon," he said. "And he would have got beaten, and left the Triumph Hurdle behind. Galloping five furlongs under no pressure is so very different from a race – he could have travelled for most of the journey at Huntingdon and then bang, he'd have hit the wall. So it is better to find out before the dress rehearsal, as no damage has been done."
That final audition has now been postponed to Kempton on 27 February. King had favoured Huntingdon largely because any intervention by the weather at Kempton, just a couple of weeks before the Festival, would leave Mille Chief critically short of match practice.
As it happens, Huntingdon itself must pass an inspection this morning, and likewise Taunton. In the absence of Mille Chief, the Chatteris Fen Juvenile Hurdle is contested by just half a dozen runners – including Sang Bleu, who was sent off odds-on for a Grade One race at Chepstow after Christmas, his first start since joining Paul Nicholls. On the face of it, he was a little disappointing that day, but he went strongly on the bridle for a long way only to tire badly after a mistake two out. He meets another French import, Stars Du Granits, who could hardly have been more impressive – albeit in lesser company – on his recent debut for Venetia Williams at Plumpton.
Bothy has meanwhile won both his starts over timber, so a pretty decent level of form is likely to be achieved by a decisive winner today. In what is proving by no means a vintage crop of juveniles – Mille Chief himself owes his status as much to his trainer's reputation with horses of this type, as to anything he has done on the racecourse – it could yet prove a significant little race.
Stars Du Granits has not been given a Cheltenham entry, but not quite all roads lead to the Festival. Jagoes Mills, for instance, could well end up one of the Irish season's very best novice chasers but his rehabilitation after injury remains too recent for him to have been given any Festival targets following another striking success at Fairyhouse yesterday. He is trained by Thomas O'Leary, whose skilled handling of Preists Leap has already convincingly demonstrated his competence for the big stage. This horse could go a long way yet.
One horse who may well take his chance at the Festival is Heathcliff, winner of the beginners' chase at Ludlow and now being aimed at the RSA Chase by Richard Lee. Heathcliff ran well in a handicap at last year's meeting – still hanging in there, when hampered and unseating on the home turn – and his trainer reckons he might well have won. "All he does is stay," Lee said. "We went from almost having a Cheltenham winner to having a jockey in hospital that day, so you could say Cheltenham owes us one."
He would not be alone in that, mind you.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Granakey (4.50 Southwell)
Returns to the scene of all her previous wins after hinting at a revival at Kempton last time. Her only other starts for this stable had been over an inadequate trip and she is now very leniently handicapped.
Galoshes (3.40 Huntingdon)
Looked an improved performer on his debut for this stable last month, going strongly before hitting the second last.
*One to watch
Palomar (N G Richards) has lost his way over fences but there was a clear silver lining back over hurdles at Musselburgh on Sunday as he cruised through the field only to be given the slip by a better-treated rival.
*Where the money's going
Penitent, lightly raced in his first campaign for William Haggas, was yesterday made 10-1 favourite by the sponsors for the William Hill Lincoln at Doncaster next month.Reuse content