Various disruptions to the racing programme since Christmas have left a very brief window in which horses can get a run, while retaining time to freshen up, before the Cheltenham Festival next month. Some of the best around, either side of the Irish Sea, will be undertaking their final rehearsals at Newbury and Leopardstown on Saturday – but in the meantime novices, in particular, are being urgently pressed on to lesser stages to redress a lack of experience.
Every day is duly bringing its bonuses, albeit some horses inevitably end up demeaning themselves in terms of performance rather than company. Step forward New Year’s Eve, beaten only by Champagne Fever in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at last year’s Festival and a promising second on his debut over timber at Kempton on Boxing Day. Sent off at 2-7 to win a maiden hurdle at Ludlow, he flattened the second last and then wandered badly as Ptit Zig saw him off by half a dozen lengths on the flat.
The disconcerting behaviour of the favourite, once off the bridle, makes it difficult to know quite what to make of the winner. The French import, receiving 10lb as a four-year-old, had not been given an entry for the JCB Triumph Hurdle by Paul Nicholls.
The champion trainer starts another juvenile recruit, Brinestine, in what could prove an instructive trial for that race at Huntingdon today. Last seen winning a Curragh handicap by eight lengths in October, he tests the Festival water against four previous winners in the 32Red Chatteris Fen Hurdle.
Nicholls introduced another costly youngster later on the Ludlow card, Mac’s Return having changed hands for £165,000 since winning an Irish point-to-point. But he tired badly in the testing ground and it was Nicholls’ title rival, Nicky Henderson, who instead saw One Conemara extend an unbeaten start to his own career. He took time to hit top gear but ultimately won going away.
There were also some promising sorts on view at Carlisle, where Eduard reiterated the impression that he is one of the top novices in the North by coasting home 29 lengths clear. Davy Russell, who had travelled over from Ireland for the mount, seems very taken with Eduard while predicting his eventual fulfilment over fences. The five-year-old’s trainer, Nicky Richards, with due circumspection, is inclined to sit out Cheltenham and head for Aintree via a good prize at Kelso.
Chris McGrath’s Nap
Norwegian Reward (5.05 Wolverhampton) Clearly not himself last time but had previously proved well ahead of his handicap mark for his new yard and a very promising partner clinches the deal in this apprentice race.
Aragorn Rouge (5.35 Wolverhampton) Has become a little frustrating but the drop in trip and fitting of blinkers could prompt this strong traveller to click at last.
One to watch
King Massini (Evan Williams) Showed some ability at Ludlow yesterday and, now eligible for a rating, is in good hands to progress in handicaps.
Where the money’s going
John Gosden’s Lahaag has been chalked up as the 8-1 favourite with the sponsors for the William Hill Lincoln Handicap at Doncaster on 30 March.