The glamour of a "plot" horse has so rubbed off on the Cheltenham Festival handicaps that trainers nowadays need all the artistry of old merely to guarantee a run. Of no fewer than 195 entries for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle, for instance, even some rated within 5lb of the weights ceiling are not yet certain to make the final cut of 24 runners.
On the face of it, with the vast majority of Cheltenham horses now keeping their powder dry, the main focus either side of the Irish Sea today is on the John Smith’s Grand National.
Almost time, then, to pull up the drawbridge and count the ammunition. The Cheltenham Festival is now only three weeks away on Tuesday, and few trainers will want to leave the candidature of horses contingent on a hard race in the meantime. So while a handful will still be seeking late admission, some of the final trials of strength are staged on Saturday.
However conscientiously they strive to improve the odds in terms of safety at Aintree – a greater imperative than ever, after trauma and tragedy in each of the past two years – the one thing they will never provide is a level playing field. Even so, some felt that the dice had been unfairly loaded in favour of one horse in particular when the weights for the John Smith's Grand National were published.
Kauto Star and Silviniaco Conti shared the applause at Haydock yesterday, the former as he led the parade of runners before the Betfair Chase, the latter after he picked up the baton from his now-retired Paul Nicholls stablemate by winning the Grade One three-miler. And the old superstar should have thoroughly approved both the result and its execution as the young pretender Silviniaco Conti followed in his hoofprints in consigning Long Run to second spot with a virtually flawless round of jumping.
For Kauto Star to be retired yesterday, just 11 days after another paragon, should prompt due circumspection in assessing his own place in the Turf pantheon. Certainly, those who glibly saluted Frankel as "the greatest ever" on the Flat will surely feel abashed in according Kauto Star equivalent status in the history of steeplechasing, even with the customary rider "since Arkle". The sport incorrigibly anoints its latest champion as the best. In at least one respect, however, Kauto Star's career can be soberly acclaimed as an enduring benchmark – and "enduring" is very much the word.
Though some European raiders will show the beginnings of a winter coat, the return of the Breeders' Cup to Santa Anita this time entails a still more abrupt change of climate for those arriving from the East Coast of the United States. For while one planeload of New York horses did manage to hasten west today, even as Hurricane Sandy closed in, another seems likely to be grounded today. With bridges in their home city likely to be closed by the Port Authority, several leading fancies in the care of the record-breaking trainer Todd Pletcher are unlikely to make their scheduled departure.
The first Classics of the Flat season are imminent, but it is not just the jump racing weather that is proving hard to shake off. A sport still smarting from its ghastly experience at Aintree last month must defer judgement on alterations that might yet be made, but for now the British Horseracing Authority has decided that neither of the fatalities that tarnished the John Smith's Grand National could have been anticipated. A review of veterinary and television evidence yesterday concluded that the loss of both Synchronised and According To Pete was attributable to "factors one could neither have foreseen nor prevented".
One of the year's most spirited sporting rivalries may be settled today, though neither participant has ever broken sweat against the other in spikes or with bat, club, racket or ball. The most strenuous activity for a racehorse owner may be signing a cheque or walking to the winner's podium and J P McManus and Michael O'Leary have done plenty of both.
When Kauto Star was preserved from further risk you could sense the sport’s sigh of relief
This year's meeting is dominated by short-priced established stars and precocious talent, writes our award-winning tipster Chris McGrath
Kauto Star will bid for a third Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup victory after delighting connections in an “awesome” schooling session at his Ditcheat base.
The theory that the jockeys' championship is nowadays a brute measure of stamina and consistency, rather than a proof of essential class, has this week been roundly rejected by the Maktoum family. On Tuesday, they hired Silvestre De Sousa to ride for Godolphin; and yesterday Sheikh Hamdan filled his impending vacancy, as retained jockey, with the only man to top De Sousa in last year's standings. For Paul Hanagan, the appointment is a gratifying breakthrough even after consecutive titles in 2010 and 2011, which had seemed to consummate long, uncomplaining service away from the big stage.
Last year, an equivalent postponement after two horses had been electrocuted in the parade ring could only alter the tone, six days later, from macabre to melancholy. This time round, the card scheduled for Newbury last Saturday was lost merely to snow and frost, and the silver linings are dazzling. For one thing, entry today is free. And the goodwill that has secured this boon extends to the sponsors' injection of extra funding, despite the loss of a weekend profile, to guarantee the Betfair Hurdle's status as the richest handicap of its type in the calendar. Before that prize is won and lost Channel 4 viewers will already have seen one of the most exciting novice chasers of recent seasons, in Sprinter Sacre, and Long Run's rehearsal for the defence of his Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.