The stopping train to Cheltenham reaches its last significant stations this afternoon at Kempton and Haydock. Most of the main players are on board already, but there are grounds to believe some serious candidates will book their tickets in the leading contest of the day, the Racing Post Chase at Sunbury.
This event did not have particular significance as a Festival pointer until 12 months ago, when four of its contestants - Antonin (Ritz Club), The Fellow (Gold Cup), Elfast (Mildmay of Flete) and Fighting Words (Fulke Walwyn, Kim Muir) - went on to victory at Prestbury Park.
For the fourth time this season, One Man, the favourite, goes into a race in what Americans would call a must-win situation. The well-handicapped grey, like Jimmy Osmond, was a tip for the top from an early age, but may end up going the same way as the long haired lover from Liverpool if he does not deliver this afternoon.
One Man, who cost 68,000gns at the Arthur Stephenson dispersal sale, paid back a chunk of that when winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in November. But he then unseated Tony Dobbin at Wetherby over Christmas, his first sign of frailty this season.
The gelding is owned by John Hales, the boss of a toy firm, and trained by Gordon Richards, whose last winner until Extra Special scored in a hunter chase at Haydock yesterday was Ninfa at Carlisle 40 days ago. As he breakfasted yesterday morning, the trainer could look back on a disastrous fortnight during which he had sent out 15 runners and gained not even a place.
A place will not be sufficient today. One Man is called `Solo' in the yard, and that is how he will have to come home this afternoon if he is a pretender to championship class.
The main danger in a race where there are doubts about many of the runners may come from Whispering Steel, who kept the Sandown fence-builder's body sweaty for several days after his third behind Deep Bramble at Esher earlier this month. "If he'd even jumped moderately that day I'd have gone very close," Norman Williamson, his jockey, says.
Antonin, last year's winner, has yet to recover from a journey home from Ireland earlier this season, while there are also factors against two other travellers. The Franois Doumen pair of Algan, the King George VI Chase winner, and Val D'Alene enjoyed the sort of passage on Thursday that once beached the Swiss Family Robinson.
For the same reason, it is difficult to trust the third musketeer this weekend, Bog Frog, who runs 30 minutes later. The Rendlesham Hurdle has a bizarre shape in its current format as a limited handicap. The top weight, Cyborgo, is the only runner who will compete off his right mark. Allegan and Bog Frog join him on top weight as they have not run three times in a British handicap, while Top Spin and Cabochon will compete from out of the handicap.
Among those who will appear before Derek Thompson greets us are Viking Flagship and Taos, a one-time favourite for the Derby. One horse who actually ran in the Classic last June, Plato's Republic, appears later on the card, when he should be among the retinue chasing the Triumph Hurdle favourite, Silver Wedge. The Pendil Novices' Chase contains one of the most unpredictable jumpers in training, Dancing Paddy, who fluctuates between the fluent vaulter which disposed of Gales Cavalier at Ascot and a horse who throws himself to the floor in home schooling work.
At Haydock, the formidably named Black Death Vodka Chase indeed has the appearance, like many races at the Lancashire course, of an event that has been visited by the plague. Just three of the eight entries stand their ground, which should make things easy for Sweet Duke. The Greenalls Gold Cup is mercifully a little more competitive, with Earth Summit attempting to continue his climb against some good old boys including Party Politics and Just So.
Danoli's pre-Champion Hurdle tune-up has been put back yet again with the news that the Red Mills Trial Hurdle will not be held at Fairyhouse tomorrow. Gowran Park will inspect on Monday to see if they can stage the event the following day (if this procrastination continues Danoli may have to miss the Festival to take in his trial race).Reuse content