Restless for the big 'off'

Four-day Festival of jump racing starts at Cheltenham tomorrow with rain threatening to send the mud flying
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The Independent Online

Simon Claisse, director of racing and clerk of the course at Cheltenham, stood on the steps of the weighing room yesterday, exactly 48 hours before the raising of the tapes on tomorrow's Festival opener, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. His is the task of trying to predict the underfoot conditions for the start of jump racing's mother of all extravaganzas, with its £3.65m prize money and £600m of punters' cash at stake, and a thankless one it can be.

"Look," he said, pointing directly overhead and shielding his eyes, "blue sky and sunshine. And look over there," he added, with a gesture towards a glistening pewter curtain moving across the track's imposing backdrop, Cleeve Hill, "it's chucking it down, just half a mile away. What happens nearby often bears no relation to what's happening here."

After rain at various points during the day added up to a three-millimetre sprinkling, the Prestbury Park ground was good to soft. But, if most forecasters have it right, it will have eased more by tomorrow, courtesy of a band of rain tonight. "Depending on when it arrives, and its intensity, and our microclimate," Claisse said, "we could start the week on soft ground."

The covering of grass on the racing surface is more than adequate but nothing like as prolific as in previous years. "This winter has been colder than most and growth is not nearly as forward," lamented Claisse. "Last year our daffodils were over before the Festival; now they're hardly even out."

Lush or not, the grass found favour with not only Champion Hurdle contender Harchibald as he nibbled in the sunshine after exercising, but also Nicky Henderson and Alan King as they checked it on behalf of their charges. "Beautiful," was the verdict of Henderson, responsible for tomorrow's big-race favourite Binocular. "Perfect," said King, who sends last year's winner Katchit back to the fray. And the professionals' view surely has more weight than the illiterate, boorish, anonymous opinions currently given space on so many websites.

If the mysterious old adage about the bigger the field, the bigger the certainty is right, then Henderson, Tony McCoy and JP McManus, the team behind Champion Hurdle favourite Binocular, must be the happiest of bunnies. Twenty-four horses are scheduled to line up, equalling the largest-ever fields of 1964 and 1991.

Henderson, who also fields Punjabi and Sentry Duty, dismissed Binocular's drift in the betting yesterday, prompted by the massive field and the deteriorating forecast. "He's been on soft before," he said. "Even a lot of rain won't affect him."

The three who followed Katchit home – Osana, Punjabi and 2007 hero Sublimity – are set to try their luck again, and the presence in addition of Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace sets a precedent. For the first time, four previous winners of the title will be in opposition. Dominic Elsworth has picked up the spare ride on Brave Inca. The Colm Murphy-trained 11-year-old's usual partners are otherwise engaged – Tony McCoy on Binocular and Ruby Walsh on second-favourite Celestial Halo.

Ten of the Champion Hurdle field hail from Ireland with Noel Meade, like Henderson, three-handed. Harchibald, Muirhead and Jered will represent Meade, who will be absent as he recovers from back surgery.

The vagaries of the weather can foil the best-laid plans, as officials at Naas discovered to their dismay yesterday when the meeting had to be abandoned because of snow. Blustery conditions are expected at Cheltenham today and tomorrow, but the situation is much less fraught than it was 12 months ago, when a gale eventually blew away the Wednesday card. The only storm so far this week has proved one in a teacup.

A box of carrots accompanying one of the early Irish arrivals, the horse's special treat, went missing from the racecourse stables. "We offered them £2 to go and buy some more, but they would have been the wrong sort, apparently," said Claisse. "They wanted to go through the footage of all 36 of the security cameras. But eventually they turned up where they'd put them, in the wrong stable.

"By this stage I've usually gone beyond box-walking," he added. "Frozen with fear would be more like it, but if the great carrot theft proves to be the worst problem of the week, we'll be fine."