For all the captivating properties of the Festival, the jump racing community unquestionably veers towards an unhealthy obsession with Cheltenham. With just 10 days to go, many professionals are on irritable tenterhooks. How edifying, then, to find some prepared to look at the bigger picture.
True, a readiness to think outside the box is also required of the viewing public – literally so, as they will have to be resourceful to catch the most intriguing race of the day. For while Channel 4 have cameras at Doncaster and Newbury, where Kauto Star will be exhibiting some of his new dressage skills, arguably the racegoers most to be envied are those convening at Kelso.
You might justly consider that to be so, regardless of the quality of the card, such are the charms of the Borders track. Vestiges of grandeur may be fading in the Georgian grandstand, though it retains wrought-iron balconies and an open fire in the members’ bar. But local patrons still take due relish in their privileges – from the rolling hill country itself, to a sporting diary that might otherwise see them spend Saturday on the banks of the Tweed, or on touchlines once crossed weekly by authentic greats of international rugby. To spend an afternoon at Kelso races is to renew a wholesome distaste for those shallow, hasty priorities nowadays urged by so many other environments.
But the card today also commands attention on scrupulously objective grounds. Emerging forces over both hurdles and fences contest its two most valuable prizes, wisely chosen by their trainers as a rung on the ladder more conducive to reaching the top, in the long term, than the mind-blasting crucible of Cheltenham.
Eduard (3.40) is expected to confirm himself one of the best novice hurdlers in the North, while the Totepool Premier Chase has the potential to prove the most important race of the year for two trainers both entitled to goodwill, for contrasting reasons. Kim Bailey views Harry Topper as a horse equipped to redress his stable’s injurious neglect since the days it housed horses good enough to win a Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle at the same Festival. Bold Sir Brian, meanwhile, represents Lucinda Russell, herself no stranger to adversity in the last year but rallying splendidly to consolidate her status as Scotland’s No 1 trainer.
These two horses arrive with an identical official rating, but neither has yet reached the ceiling of his potential. True to his word, Bailey brings Harry Topper to Scotland rather than risk a demoralising experience down the road from his Cotswold base. Winner of all three starts over fences to date, this is a strong stayer who loves soft ground and it may just be that he lacks the brio, at this trip, to deal with the energetic Bold Sir Brian (4.15).
Though he took a horrible final-fence fall when testing the water at Cheltenham in January, and did look shattered at the time, Bold Sir Brian had actually shaped very well through the race. After an admirably patient grounding, this was his first experience of the hustle and bustle of a big handicap, but he had cut smoothly through the field into second – behind Katenko, who is heading for the Gold Cup – when palpably faltering on the run to two out. By the time he reached the last, he was legless. Something had plainly gone amiss. This horse has required so few excuses hitherto that he surely warrants another chance.
Further interest is provided by Ballabriggs, second here two years ago before his great win at Aintree. The John Smith’s Grand National is also the priority for Join Together, who has his trial in the William Hill Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster. He looks sure to go close but drying ground makes Calgary Bay (2.55) look good value off a mark just 2lb higher than when winning here last season. His career record at Town Moor reads 211.
Join Together’s trainer, Paul Nicholls, looks set for a productive afternoon regardless. Like Calgary Bay, Toubab (2.20) is likely to be transformed by this going while Aaim To Prosper (3.30), a late recruit to hurdling after winning the Cesarewitch twice, looks very fairly treated for his handicap debut over a trip that will now bring his stamina into play. Another novice, Lord Wishes, is an attractive each-way option.
Heading further south, Garynella (3.50) in the Stan James Greatwood Gold Cup looks the outstanding bet at Newbury. He shaped well for a good way on his debut for a yard now in tremendous form, and is expected to last longer in a tongue-tie. Off a very low weight here, he could do with a penalty if he is to take up one of various handicap entries at the Festival.
As intimated for a while, Long Run is likely to wear cheekpieces there after schooling well in them yesterday. It was a harrowing day, meanwhile, for David Probert, banned for 28 days after briefly dropping his hands on the favourite in the seller at Lingfield, only to be caught on the line.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Garynella (3.50 Newbury)
Marie Des Anges (5.00 Newbury)