The Cheltenham Festival claimed its first high-profile casualties yesterday: those brave or foolish punters who had backed last year's Irish Cesarewitch winner Minsk to favouritism for the Triumph Hurdle before he had left the ground in public. After the gelding was beaten a neck at Fairyhouse on Saturday on his debut over obstacles, his price expanded from 5-1 to 16-1 for the four-year-old crown, but at least the investors were at that stage getting a run for their money.
Twenty-four hours on, though, trainer Dessie Hughes announced that Minsk, who had led going to the last but failed to extend on the run-in, had been harbouring an infection and will not be at Prestbury Park two weeks on Friday, or indeed any jumps course until next season. "He was disappointing," he said, "so we had him scoped and found he has an inflamed throat. His lungs are clean but he's starting to get a cold and the vet said there's no way he could have finished the race strongly with that."
The son of Dalakhani was transferred from John Oxx to Hughes by owner Barry Connell to launch his career as a jumper and was soon given rave reviews for his technique in his new discipline which, combined with his progressive Flat talent, prompted the Cheltenham gamble. He will return to Oxx for another Flat campaign, with the Irish St Leger as his main target, before resuming over hurdles.
Minsk's place at the head of the Triumph Hurdle betting has been taken by the Alan King inmate Grumeti, who was ridden by Robert Thornton for the first time on Saturday when he made it three from four over hurdles at Kempton. And Thornton liked what he felt. "I would not think there is a tougher four-year-old physically anywhere in the country," he reflected yesterday. "He is so strong for one so young, but he is a stuffy individual and I should think he could improve again. And he is street-wise – he had two seasons on the Flat. He seems to have everything you would look for in a Triumph horse."
Fontwell yesterday gave some of the players in Cheltenham's lesser contests the chance to put their cases, none more persuasively than last year's Triumph Hurdle seventh Third Intention, nine-length winner of the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell. The five-year-old, with the assistance of a first-time tongue tie and a step up to two and a half miles, coasted home under his trainer Colin Tizzard's son Joe in the Grade Two contest, and has a return to handicap company scheduled, in either the Coral Cup over a furlong more or the County Hurdle over three less.
Barbers Shop, once third to Kauto Star in a King George VI Chase, was less impressive as he scraped home in the hunterchase from a horse having his first run for nearly five years. But at least he has now qualified for the Foxhunters at the Festival.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Ruacana (5.00 Wolverhampton)
Will have learned plenty from his debut over course and distance last week, when he ran green early but finished strongly once the penny dropped.
Next best: Speed Steed (4.15 Plumpton)
Has improved since joining his present stable and, after two good apprentice-ridden efforts off today's mark, now has more experienced hands taking over.
One to watch: Casual Mover (John Best) got off the mark in handicap company on his step up to 10 furlongs 12 days ago at Lingfield, and with few miles on his clock surely has more to offer.
Where the money's going: Seabass was cut to 16-1 from 33s by Stan James for the Grand National after his seventh victory in a row in yesterday's Grade 2 two-miler at Naas.