Sun stopped play briefly here at Cheltenham today before spoiling the finale of the novice chase and it threatens to do the same in tomorrow’s Paddy Power Gold Cup, the highlight of the three-day Open Meeting.
The fences in the home straight, two on each circuit, were omitted in the delayed 2.25 at the request of jockeys, concerned about jumping into the low sun, resulting in a run-in of about half a mile and an unsatisfactory conclusion to what had promised to be a thriller.
This development took Simon Claisse, Cheltenham’s Head of Racing, completely by surprise and left him hoping for some cloud cover (by no means likely, according to the forecasters) when this afternoon’s centrepiece gets under way at 2.30.
He said: “We have never omitted fences as early as this because of the sun – a study identified the time to avoid in the winter as between 2.40 and 2.55, which is why we don’t schedule chases then. I thought it looked OK from where I was standing, but once the jockeys asked us, we had no choice.
“We have looked at the options and we can’t change Saturday’s race times at this late stage, so if the jockeys makes the same request in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, we will have no option but to omit the fences again.”
Philip Hobbs, trainer of the first and second, the exciting Champagne West and the ultra-frustrating Colour Squadron, had no problem with the decision. “If the jockeys said they couldn’t see, they couldn’t see,” he said. “Health and safety must come first.”
Ironically, the main weather topic of conversation earlier in the day had concerned the heavy early morning rain and the significance of the resulting softening of the ground for the Paddy Power Gold Cup.
Martin Pipe saddled the winner of this race seven times in 10 years, but son David, who carried on the family tradition with Great Endeavour in 2011, was one of several trainers less than enamoured with the altered state of the going.Easter Meteor is running for the stable for the first time and can be given a good chance on the pick of his form, but Pipe said: “It’s testing out there and his owners say he won’t like it.”
Irish raider Shanpallas, a more impressive winner when gambled on at Limerick last time than the narrow margin of victory suggests, might not be happy on the going either, but it should bring his proven stamina into play and he remains one for the the shortlist.
Persian Snow (2.30 Cheltenham) definitely handles soft ground and he makes considerable appeal after his pleasing comeback at the course last month. He stood out as an attractive each-way shot even before his trainer Hobbs and rider Richard Johnson stole the first-day show with a treble.
No Grand National winner has gone on to win another race of any sort under rules since the 2002 victor Bindaree added the Welsh National the following year. At 11, Pineau De Re would not seem an obvious candidate to buck the trend following his Aintree triumph last April, but he does have a useful second string to his bow – he warmed up for his big day by finishing third in the Pertemps Hurdle Final at Cheltenham.
But this looks a fine opportunity for last month’s Cesarewitch winner Big Easy, also trained by Hobbs. Big Easy (3.00 Cheltenham) needs a stiff stamina test and he has not really had one over hurdles since winning here off tomorrow’s mark in April last year.
The Triumph Hurdle Trial does indeed usually provide a good pointer to the big juvenile race at the Festival in March and most eyes will be on Nicky Henderson’s French import Hargam (3.35 Cheltenham), co-favourite for the main event before he has even raced over hurdles.
Master Neo (1.50 Cheltenham) has been plying his trade in lower grades, but trainer Nigel Hawke believes he has a good race in him and tomorrow could be the day for this soft ground specialist following his easy win at Market Rasen last Sunday.
Balthazar King, who completed the Hobbs-Johnson three-timer, was winning the Cross-Country Chase for the second year running and it was also his eighth course victory, one short of the all-time record.
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