With Ascot's high-quality jumps card the victim overnight of the sort of weather that is a dream on seasonal greetings cards but a nightmare for anyone involved in the racing industry, the day's fare has switched from being an elegant tray of mouthwatering pre-Christmas appetisers to a plate of bread and butter.
Still, for those with a hunger for just the punting side of things, Haydock, Lingfield and Wolverhampton will serve. A winning bet on a six-furlong claimer pays for just as many gifts as one on a Grade One hurdle race.
Jumpers have the stage to themselves at Haydock, where officials are cautiously optimistic the afternoon's sport will survive a morning inspection. In the absence of Ascot's Long Walk Hurdle, the day's richest obstacle race becomes the Tommy Whittle Chase, a contest which was once a credible target for Grand National horses – 11 years ago Suny Bay beat Earth Summit, for instance – but which has slipped down the glamour scale rather.
There are a few putative Aintree candidates in today's field, seeking not just a cut of the £30,000 purse, but also the hike up the ratings victory would bring. The National is becoming more difficult to get into and, although trainers traditionally complain about handicap marks being too high, there are times that the reverse is true.
Take Charlie Longsdon, who fields Palypso De Creek. The ex-French six-year-old scored nicely over hurdles at Towcester on his British debut and followed up last month with a fourth place over the National fences in the Becher Chase. To his trainer's surprise, that Aintree effort lowered him in the handicapper's eyes.
"We'd actually like him to be going the other way with the Grand National in mind," Longsdon said yesterday, "but I suppose, off his current mark, everything is in his favour for this prize. The trip and the ground should be fine, he's been running over three miles for most of his life and, although the ground will be testing, he's handled it fine in the past in France."
Famously, J P McManus and Tony McCoy have yet to win a National and one youngster who went into a few notebooks as a likely type to one day break their ducks was Can't Buy Time (Haydock 2.20), after he ran third in this race last year as a progressive, but still relatively callow, six-year-old. The gelding duly took his chance in the big one, but found it all a bit difficult and came down at the start of the second circuit.
This season he is seen as a much more likely candidate and his seasonal comeback run at Ascot last month was much better than a 10th place implied. He slipped going to the second fence, prompting a remarkable display of self-preservation from McCoy and, although the ground thus lost was too much to make up, he stayed on steadily and will be much better for the run.
If there is a Cheltenham star of the future on display at the Lancashire track it could well be Quwetwo (Haydock 12.40), who makes his much-awaited debut over fences in the opener. The giant gelding won two of his three hurdle races after his transfer to the Graham Wylie silks last term but has always been a chaser in the making. His very size and scope, though, have been problematic for his trainer, Howard Johnson.
"He's been busting for a run for a while," he said, "but the trouble has been finding the right track for him, with his long stride. Somewhere like Ayr or Newcastle would have been better – the bigger the fence, the better he jumps – but we've just got to get him out so Haydock it is. The soft ground should help, as they may just go half a stride slower."
This afternoon's most valuable race is – probably appropriately, given the all-weather Flat game's original role as a winter fallback – at Lingfield, where eight vie for the £40,000 on offer for the Listed 10-furlong centrepiece.
Hopes were once much higher for Tranquil Tiger (Lingfield 2.30), related to some of the best products of Khaled Abdullah's breeding empire, but his day job during the summer with Henry Cecil was leading his celebrity fellow-colourbearers, like Twice Over, on the gallops. On the racetrack he has found his level and earns his keep and will be a warm order on a cold afternoon to follow up last month's defeat of Presvis, since third at the top level in Hong Kong, over the same course and distance. The one for the forecast could be Suits Me.
The Long Walk Hurdle, in which Big Buck's was expected to continue Paul Nicholls' royal Saturday progress, will be added to Newbury's card on Tuesday week. Under the ill-wind heading, the transfer of the Grade One race will suit his connections fine, as the marathon champion is better going left-handed.
And, as for that six-furlong claimer, try Tamarind Hill (Lingfield 12.20), who returns to the scene of his good second earlier in the month, in the opener at Lingfield.
Mongol Derby tests outer limits of endurance across the steppes
If anyone thinks that slogging round Haydock on a cold winter's day in the mud is hard pounding, then they have clearly never heard of the Mongol Derby, one of the latest additions to the worldwide racing calendar. The race's only links with the event run at Epsom in June are the name and the fact that equids take part, and it has no standing in the eyes of any formal racing authority. But as nonetheless a contest it will test all the perceived sporting attributes of fitness, endurance and fortitude, both physical and mental.
The course is 1,000km (625 miles) across the wild, wide-open spaces of Mongolia on the small, tough Przewalski-type native horses who can, and do, cope in the wild with temperatures from -40C to 30C. Riders change mounts, supplied by local breeders, every 40km at relay pit stops attended by back-up teams, vets and welfare experts. Twelve days are allowed for completion of the race; this year's inaugural winner, South African Charles Van Wyck, did it in eight.
The race is a charity fund-raiser (the first one brought in over £70,000) open to the whole horse world and applications for just 35 places close next month. With some understatement, the organisers, The Adventurists, describe it as "one of the most ambitious equestrian events on the planet". Before starter's orders in August, riders will attend a three-day pre-race training session. The former champion jump jockey Richard Dunwoody attended and advised at this year's camp and found the Mongolian steppes much more to his taste than those of an American Smooth.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Bawaardi (1.20 Wolverhampton)
Expensive yearling who was cast off cheaply by one of the big Newmarket yards and is on a low-key upward curve since having his sights focused on all-weather contests. Can hit the target after a couple of near misses.
Wymott (Haydock 3.25)
Experience will be a huge benefit in today's conditions and this stoutly bred five-year-old has already proved himself on testing ground.
*One to watch
Wolf Moon (M Keighley) was only eighth in a competitive handicap hurdle at Cheltenham last week, but lost his chance through no fault of his own and races off a lower mark in future.
*Where the money's going
Cloudy Lane has received significant support for the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown on Monday week, 20-1 from 33-1 with Paddy Power.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
Tamarind Hill (12.20 Lingfield)Reuse content