All the rehearsals are taking place elsewhere, a final, agonised series of gallops at every point of the compass over the next dozen days. For now, the great theatre itself remains idle. Yesterday Ian Williams surveyed a deserted Cheltenham racecourse, its familiar acres spreading somnolently beneath Cleeve Hill, and summoned up the tumult of his first professional visits here. "I was fortunate to be here with both Jenny Pitman and François Doumen when they won Gold Cups," he said. "It's all you could ever want, as a National Hunt trainer, to win races at the Festival. But when you work with people like Jenny and François and Martin Pipe, it almost becomes just something that happens, rather than something you wish would happen."
With such magisterial references on his CV, Williams has long been ambitious to know that feeling for himself. Perhaps the breakthrough beckons with Weird Al, "potentially the best" he has trained – and arguably the most exuberant novice chaser in the land.
Certainly, the way Weird Al goes about his work is expressive of the unprecedented vigour suffusing Williams' stable over recent months. Hence his presence here yesterday, for the publication of the weights for the 11 Festival handicaps. "We've never had a season like it," he confirmed. "Last year was our best on the Flat, and while we have won a lot of mediocre races, we have done so with mediocre horses. Our strike rate on the Flat has been 30-odd per cent, and over jumps 20-odd. We moved in 12 years ago with 10 horses; now we've about 75. We've had some highs and we've had some lows. But the lows never stop you wanting to be successful."
In three starts over fences, including two at Cheltenham, Weird Al's jumping has been electrifying. And while he must be counted unfortunate to find Punchestowns and Long Run in the same crop, he is unlikely to permit them any margin for error in the RSA Chase. "It does look a very strong race this year," Williams acknowledged. "But our horse represents good value. He's so lightly raced – he has only had five races in his whole career – and as he gains experience and stature I hope he could keep improving."
Williams fast-tracked Weird Al over fences after just one start over hurdles, at Warwick, which proved both a triumph and a disaster. Having come home an impressive winner, the horse suffered alarming breathing difficulties and disappeared for a year. "But his problems have been more about immaturity than anything else," Williams said. "We gave him a long time to get over it, and a couple of racecourse gallops to make sure it wasn't on his mind. Both jockeys who have ridden him since say he has an amazing ability to recover after a race. We knew we had to keep off the gas, and he has grown and matured."
None the less Weird Al faces a fresh challenge, having so far met an aggregate of 12 rivals in three small fields, and only tried three miles for the first time at Wetherby last time. "It never was an issue, but we needed to see him go over the trip," Williams said. "And he's a very amenable horse. We've dropped him in, run him from the front, and he's jumped fantastically."
For the stage hands, these remain trying times. Simon Claisse, the clerk of the course, hopes that Mother Nature can redress some of the recent privations visited on the track. "There was snow on top of Cleeve Hill until 11 days ago and the average temperature in January was just 1.7 degrees," he said. "We've had a lot of cold, and not a lot of growth. Nothing thrives in conditions like that and it has been challenging. We're probably a couple of weeks behind, but if it keeps improving I'm fairly sure we'll start the Festival in pretty good shape."
The forecast for the coming days is largely dry, but for now the official going is soft, good to soft in places. In the longer term, meanwhile, it is worth recording that Edward Gillespie, the chief impresario here, confirmed that shifting the Festival, to finish on a Saturday, could be "possible" for 2011.
A world away, if closer to hand, the "Super Thursday" card at Meydan today offers valuable reconnaissance to several horses with the Dubai World Cup meeting in mind. Top of the bill is Cavalryman, last seen finishing third to Sea The Stars in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and since transferred to Saeed bin Suroor.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Guydus (3.30 Ludlow) Improved when stepped up in distance at Southwell last time, outstaying an in-form rival to win going away. Still unexposed and an 8lb higher mark looks manageable.
Wetherby Place (6.50 Wolverhampton) Set plenty to do by an amateur rider when finishing strongly here last time, suggesting continued improvement for her new trainer, and this extra furlong might make the difference.
One to watch
Kandari (N Meade) Was fifth as a novice in the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last year and his first run since, in midfield at Leopardstown on Sunday, strongly implied that he might go well again this time round.
Where the money's going
The Package was cut to 7-1 from 14-1 by the sponsors for the William Hill Handicap Chase at Cheltenham following publication of the weights yesterday.Reuse content