The unofficial going report at Newbury yesterday, as in most of the country, was crisp and even. But it was not deep, and course officials are by no means downhearted about the prospects of staging what must, this year, be counted much the most important meeting in the run-up to the Cheltenham Festival. Less than three years after they became the first in the land to beat a heavy frost with a special horticultural fleece, the course officials nowadays feel a good deal less helpless than was previously the case.
They could not have a more powerful incentive to save Saturday's meeting, both Denman and Master Minded having duly appeared among the five-day entries yesterday. The Aon Chase will be Denman's first start not only since winning the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, but also since receiving treatment for a pulmonary disorder during the autumn.
On the face of it, admittedly, the clerk of the course surveyed a bleak panorama as dusk approached yesterday. "The track is covered with snow," Richard Osgood said. "But it's actually not too bad at the moment, just two to three centimetres, nothing like they've had elsewhere. And, so far as the temperatures are concerned, I'd like to think we got the covers on early enough. We flicked a couple back earlier today and the ground was still OK underneath.
"The forecast does keep changing, so I'm just going to take it one day at a time. If anything, however, having snow on the covers improves their efficiency. When you have snow on grass, it acts like a big blanket. If it comes down to it, and there is plenty of snow on them at the weekend, we will just have to chuck labour at it."
In the past Osgood, with 40 men, has managed to roll away the covers in around two hours, but he acknowledges that a bigger gang would be necessary to clear snow as well. "Compared with our situation not so long ago, at least we have another string to our bow," he said. "We've certainly got more of a chance than we would sitting on our backsides, watching."
Sadly for Sam Thomas, that is the brief he is likely to have on Saturday. When Denman won the Aon Chase last year, Thomas was given the mount in anticipation of Ruby Walsh, stable jockey to Paul Nicholls, favouring Kauto Star in the Gold Cup. Walsh could yet persevere with Kauto Star in March, but Nicholls has left Thomas so far out in the cold this winter that there was never the remotest chance of anyone but Walsh riding Denman on Saturday.
Nicholls is breezily presenting the situation as a routine reflection of Walsh's seniority in the yard, but the fact remains that he has repeatedly criticised Thomas's performances when Walsh has been unavailable this winter. Christian Williams, ostensibly below Thomas in the champion trainer's pecking order, has been conspicuously been given better opportunities of late, compounding the impression that Thomas is being frozen out.
Yesterday a resourceful Irish bookmaker, Paddy Power, did make Thomas odds-on to retrieve the mount on Denman at Cheltenham. In a chicken-and-egg scenario, however, Nicholls may yet find himself wondering whether Thomas's confidence has become too perilously eroded. Power quotes Thomas 1-2 to ride Denman in the Gold Cup, and Walsh 5-2. Tony McCoy is 5-1, with Williams and Barry Geraghty 20-1.
As things stand, McCoy's most obvious Gold Cup mounts are Exotic Dancer and Albertas Run, both trained by Jonjo O'Neill and entered for the Aon Chase. Exotic Dancer is more likely to return to Leopardstown on Sunday for the Hennessy Gold Cup, where his chief rival is again set to be Neptune Collonges. Yet another string to Nicholls's bow – and another horse, therefore, needing a jockey at Cheltenham – Neptune Collonges fell two out when Exotic Dancer won at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting.
McCoy has had to put the champagne on ice, the weather having interrupted his quest for the two winners he needs to become the first jockey to win 3,000 races over jumps. Even the all-weather meeting at Wolverhampton was eventually abandoned yesterday – much to the disgust of trainers who had sent horses to the track, the course having initially been declared raceable after three inspections.
Sedgefield elected to give their meeting today "every chance" by scheduling a 7.30am inspection, despite the track being covered in snow. To some, of course, the glass is always half-full. Certainly it must be hoped that optimism will be justified at Newbury – even if one young jockey is probably not just viewing the glass as half-empty, but the bottle as well.
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