The exceptionally dry weather this winter is testing the skill and judgement of Simon Claisse, clerk of the course at Cheltenham, to produce the good to soft going which is always the aim for the Festival.
The course has been watered from time to time throughout the winter, and that will continue over the next fortnight. During February barely 1/8th of the usual amount of rain fell on the course, and with no more than 6 mm forecast before Friday next week, Claisse and his team will draw considerably more than the 1.2 million gallons of water they have already taken out from the tracks private reservoir.
Claisse was confident that he had access to sufficient water to ensure good to soft going, even without any further rain. He said, "The difficulty is trying to make the judgement on the basis of the forecast ahead of you. We won't want to take the risk of it ending up to quick. Which does mean, of course, if we water on the basis of the forecast and then we get a whole lot more than was forecast, we could end up with ground that was significantly slow."
Paul Nicholls said he was confident that the ground would be no quicker than normal. "I'll have better results for all of mine if the ground is good, rather than if it's soft. As long as it's safe, that's all that matters and you can guarantee Cheltenham will make sure it is."
At the moment the going on both the Old and New the courses is good all round, and on the cross-country course it is good to firm, firm in places. And the question of safety on the cross-country course provoked a little spat at a media event at the track on Wednesday.
Phil Smith, the senior handicapper, claimed that British trainers didn't take the cross-country race as seriously as the Irish. That provoked trainer Henrietta Knight to say, "It's not surprising people won't run on that ground. They're going to ruin their good horses. The Irish might be prepared to take a chance. It's not the sort of ground that people wish to risk their horses on."
Claisse will be keen to ensure that there are no firm patches on the cross-country course on the first day of the festival, as that would lead to an automatic visit the British horseracing authority's course inspectorate. He did not allow himself to be drawn into the debate, and after saying that they would be watering the cross-country course this weekend added that, "priority has to be the 450 horses that are running in chases and hurdles races. We water the cross-country before and will do so again but we won't allow that to prejudice what we're doing on the Old and New courses."