They retain some kind of foothold in Osana, but otherwise the sure-footed ascent of Sizing Europe has once again left the British clutching at straws in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. Last year Afsoun became the only home candidate to make the frame at Cheltenham in three years, and anyone assessing the same horse at Sandown this afternoon will soon comprehend the gulf that now divides Sizing Europe from any credible resistance.
Afsoun faces just four rivals for the Totepool Contenders Hurdle, but you have to take a very charitable view of his last two performances – which contained alarming hints of regression – to give him any hope of beating Straw Bear. And that horse, in turn, seems doomed to a supporting part at best, once the Irish roll into town at the Festival.
Nor does Straw Bear offer much in the way of short-term rewards. His generous response to a classic ride from Tony McCoy at Kempton on Boxing Day warrants short odds today, but this horse has always been too fragile to come with any guarantees. All things being equal, however, he should certainly see off Afsoun – just as he did in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last year.
That race, a fortnight today, is likely to provide Osana with a chance to reiterate his standing as the nearest thing to a barrel of hot oil to pour over the besieged ramparts at Cheltenham. In so doing, however, he would emphasise the outstanding quality of the horse that beat him decisively at Cheltenham in November.
Nick Gifford (right), the trainer of Straw Bear, summed up the awe shared by all who saw Sizing Europe at Leopardstown last Sunday, coasting clear after sharing the brutal gallop set by those diehards, Hardy Eustace and Al Eile. "God Almighty!" he exclaimed. If his talented young trainer, Henry de Bromhead – himself a refreshing new presence – can get Sizing Europe to Cheltenham next month in the same sort of form, even odds of 5-2, the best now available, will take on the character of a minting machine.
Hero status awaits The Very Man
If the odds make Straw Bear of academic interest, then there should still be some rewarding bets on the same card. Certainly the powerful stables responsible for The Tother One, raised a whopping 23lb since his easy success over course and distance last time, and Vodka Bleu, ostensibly well treated on his recent revival over fences, should ensure a good price about THE VERY MAN (nap 2.35) in the Totescoop6 Heroes Handicap Hurdle.
Jonjo O'Neill, in contrast to Messrs Nicholls and Pipe, has had a fairly bleak midwinter but there have been heartening signs of renewal over recent days and the form of The Very Man's success at Lingfield looks solid. They went a good gallop that day and he disguised his superiority by idling in front.
With the John Smith's Grand National weights to be published on Tuesday, O'Neill rather shows his hand by allowing Butler's Cabin a chance to use his stamina in the Totesport Masters Handicap Chase. But Gungadu (next best 3.40) may have too many guns for him regardless, having travelled like a very well-handicapped horse in the Welsh National before fading late on.
Hobbs Hill (3.10) has looked one of the season's most natural novices and his bold jumping should get the rest in trouble over these demanding fences.
Channel 4 has also scheduled three races from Wetherby, along with the most valuable prize of the day in the William Hill Handicap Chase at Doncaster – where Lennon (3.0) looks good value, having shaped better than his finishing position last time. Both Yorkshire meetings are at the mercy of a Siberian forecast, however. Ruby Walsh will certainly be hoping to warm the cockles at Doncaster with Tidal Bay, who drops to two miles, and Celestial Halo, who finished seventh in the St Leger on his last visit to the track.
Irish cut a dash in their Sunday best
As a rule, Sunday racing in Britain retains a quotidian, functional flavour. In Ireland, by contrast, Sunday remains the No 1 raceday, from the Irish Derby in high summer to the Hennessy Gold Cup, at Leopardstown tomorrow week. Even fairly low key weekends, such as this one, provide a tempting use for the collection plate after Mass.
Among several Festival prospects drawn to Punchestown tomorrow is Captain Cee Bee, who won a bumper and then a maiden on the Flat before turning his attention to timber and is now one of the leading Irish candidates for the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices' Hurdle – a race the raiders have dominated in recent years.
Trained on the Curragh by Eddie Harty, Captain Cee Bee won both his starts over course and distance in the autumn, being particularly impressive when thrashing a useful sort on the bridle in November. Given a break since, he warms up for Cheltenham in the Byrne Group Hurdle, where his most notable opponent is Sophocles, runner-up in the Champion Bumper last year.
On the same card, Newmill tests the substance of Kicking King's excellent comeback at Gowran Park the other day. The three runners all finished close up that day, and Newmill should be too sharp now for Cailin Alainn, who makes a welcome return but will need more than two miles if she is to retrieve her best in the spring.
Turf chiefs burying heads in the sand
A Mephistolean pact with the bookmakers has condemned the British racing industry to value quantity over quality. Yesterday the British Horseracing Authority congratulated itself on stemming a £8.7m drop in the Levy yield last year, so that prize-money fell only to £98.7m from £104m in 2006. Yet nowadays the cake must be divided between over 1,300 fixtures and 15,000 horses – that is over 2,000 more of the brutes than in 2003.
Of course, we must thank the reckless greed of breeders for their contribution, too. They send mediocre mares to unproven stallions in search of a fast buck, and unsurprisingly end up with slow horses – which, lest we forget, cost as much to train as fast ones. And prizemoney is so thinly spread that even reasonably able runners seldom cover their costs.
Yet the expanded all-weather programme is conspicuously lacking in depth. Anyone fancy going to Lingfield today to see a three-runner seller? Or a maiden in which the resourceful Peter Grayson has seven of the 10 runners? There were two claimers at Kempton last night, drawing four and five runners respectively, and one of the handicaps drew only four runners as well. No matter how many bouquets are handed out, we will always have to pinch our noses over all this equine slurry.