Talking of Cheltenham...

The charity preview is now a Festival ritual where punters attend to the horse's mouth. Chris McGrath hears some expert opinions
Click to follow

The signpost outside the front door alleges that it is only nine miles to Athenry, which comes as a particular surprise to anyone who has walked from the Tube station. Inside, however, directions are being sought to another field of dreams.

Some of the people in the Claddagh Ring are surely lost. Alan King, for instance, has found his way to north London from the Wiltshire hill fort where he trains the biggest string of jumpers in the country. It is, admittedly, not quite so incongruous to find Noel Chance here, among so many compatriots; and Paul Carberry has also been known to find his way to a tavern, if not always to find a way out.

But that is what the Cheltenham pilgrimage does. It brings people together, if only to argue. The talking finally stops tomorrow, albeit they have long since run out of lozenges. Perhaps no other sporting carnival is anticipated quite so garrulously as the Cheltenham Festival, where people part with only one thing as willingly as their opinions – and that is their money. Hence the most successful of modern Festival rituals, the charity preview night. This one, at an Irish community pub in Hendon, is in aid of the Injured Jockeys Fund. It is standing room only and the panel, which also includes Mark Johnson as chairman and a loquacious pundit in David Duggan, go the full nine rounds.

Carberry, admittedly, says as little as manners permit. Notoriously reticent in public, he is sticking scrupulously to water after recently serving a 30-day suspension for a failed breathalyser test. What he does say, however, is worth heeding. He has reservations, for instance, about both the favourites saddled by Dermot Weld on Wednesday. Rite Of Passage, indeed, would be "the lay of the meeting" in the Neptune Investments Novice Hurdle. "Peddlers Cross is the one for me," Carberry says. "I know Jason Maguire thinks he's the best he's sat on." In the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, meanwhile, "Elegant Concorde is only a four-year-old, and Flat-bred – and I think you need a good staying horse to win that race."

King reckons his own Neptune candidate, Manyriverstocross, is "huge value each-way." Chance, meanwhile, makes "an announcement" that somehow contrives to be both cryptic and emphatic. "If Alan's horse wins, there's free beer all evening." It is not clear whether this reflects scepticism, or a substantial bet.

After a difficult winter, King draws attention to other neglected horses in his care. Voy Por Ustedes has come to life in blinkers and remains "the class act against glorified handicappers" in the Ryanair Chase, on Thursday. And then there is Katchit, who joins Karabak in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle on Thursday. "I'm very, very excited with Katchit," King says. "He hasn't been in form like this for 18 months, and he's great, great value. In his last three bits of work he has destroyed Karabak."

Never mind the forgotten horses, though. As trainer of two Gold Cup winners from a small stable, Chance must be the most mysteriously overlooked operator in the business. In fact, there is a horse running in the Bumper named after Chance by Tom Keating, his consignor: De Forgotten Man. The last thing he needs, perhaps, is such a talent for self- deprecation, joking that in his stable the precocious Long Run would probably run "first time out in a bumper as a six-year-old".

As it is, the bookmakers reckon that Long Run's only danger in the RSA Chase is Punchestowns, likewise trained by Nicky Henderson. "But I don't think Punchestowns jumps well enough," Chance says. "I couldn't look beyond Long Run. I saw him in France and he has a serious class."

King offers an intriguing insight into Long Run's experimental run over two miles at Warwick last time out. "I saw Nicky five minutes after he had won, and he said: 'My mind's made up – he's definitely not a two-miler.' Deep down, I suspect he was doing his damnedest to keep Long Run and Punchestowns apart. Long Run's homework is supposed to be unbelievable. But he got a bit lit up, going back in trip at Warwick, and I just worry he's going to do too much."

Duggan is, meanwhile, keeping things lively – most memorably in suggesting Imperial Commander would not win the Christie's Foxhunter Chase, never mind the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.

Billed as a decisive showdown between those famous neighbours, Kauto Star and Denman, the Gold Cup is a one-horse race to a man who should know. "If the real Kauto Star shows up, it's game over," Chance declares. "After Denman fell at Newbury Tony McCoy apparently came in and said he had emptied on him. Even after he won the Hennessy, Ruby said he needs blinkers. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if the horse refused to jump off."

King agreed that Denman had become Jekyll-and-Hyde. "He's hugely talented, but there is this question mark about him," he said. "If he does bring his A game to Cheltenham, we're in for one hell of a match. But I adore Kauto Star."

Perhaps King's strongest recommendation, however, is for Bensalem in the William Hill Handicap Chase tomorrow. "I was pleasantly surprised by a mark of 143," he admits. "And I'll be disappointed if he isn't rated quite a bit higher in a year's time." Mind you, the last bet King had on one of his own horses was Pouvoir, for the JCB Triumph Hurdle three years ago. "I thought he was a superstar," he remembers. "And Katchit won it."

Comments