The Cheltenham ‘Trials Day’ takes place on Saturday, and will once again attract a host of high-class horses, putting their Festival credentials to the test.
The meeting is always a classy affair, and this time has the bonus of the rearranged Cross Country along with the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase which was transferred from a frozen Ascot. The eagerly anticipated clash between Un De Sceaux and Ar Mad will sadly now not take place, as trainer Gary Moore decided against sending his young chaser to the Cotswolds.
When contacted by the BHA, and asked about the likely switch to Cheltenham, Moore is quoted to have said ‘It's not a fair track or a conventional racecourse’, and he suggested a move to Sandown would be best. Moore added: “If they run the race at Cheltenham I think they might get only two or three runners. I'd say it's unlikely we'd be one of them.”
Now there’s no doubting that Ascot has more in common with Sandown than Cheltenham, and Moore has a terrific record at his local track. But I’m amazed that he isn’t taking this opportunity to test Ar Mad at the recognised ‘Home of Jump Racing’. Kauto Star won a Tingle Creek at Sandown, a King George at Kempton and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, all within a four-month period. I don’t recall Nicholls saying that he’d give the Gold Cup a miss because of those awkward undulations and tricky fences.
Ar Mad is a hugely talented chaser with the potential of becoming a star of the sport. To do that, Moore will surely need to bite the bullet at some stage, and send him to Prestbury Park in search of the most prestigious prizes. We know the horse has a tendency to jump out to the right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t ‘win big’ at jump racing’s major festival. Captain Chris famously overcame such tendencies to win an Arkle in 2011.
In time, it’s possible that Moore will regret making such a hasty decision, as it appears he did when removing the horse from the King George at Christmas. As we approach February, the yard’s most talented horse has now run just once this winter. The ‘have a go’ attitude of Colin Tizzard has been one of the most refreshing aspects of this jump racing season. He sets an example that others may wish to follow.
Of course, owners and trainers have every right to send their horses wherever they wish, and many would argue that the obsession with Cheltenham is unhealthy for the sport. That’s a debate for another time I fancy.
In the absence of Ar Mad, Un De Sceaux will go off a short-priced favourite for the Clarence House. Willie Mullins appeared happy to take on the new challenge, when saying yesterday: “He is great and I could not be any happier with him. The travelling did not seem to take anything out of him and I am pleased with what I have seen from him at home. I am looking forward to the race.”
I don’t wish such a contentious start to the article to detract from the thrilling action that will take place over the coming weeks. This weekend we hope to see Thistlecrack, Faugheen, Min, Vroum Vroum Mag and the aforementioned Un De Sceaux. Willie Mullins, in particular, will be stoking-up the furnaces, with those spring festivals fast approaching. He’s also in the unusual position of having a serious challenge to his trainers’ crown.
There’ll be plenty of tension in the air at both Cheltenham and Leopardstown this weekend. Thistlecrack continues his education at the toughest jumps circuit, whilst Faugheen returns from injury, with racing fans hoping and praying that the ‘Machine’ can return to his former glory.
One major Mullins asset that will miss proceedings, is the wonderful mare Annie Power. Thought to be on the verge of a return, it seems she has been struck down by a leg injury, and may well miss the remainder of the season. It’s yet another setback for the master of Closutton, during a winter that has tested his disposition more than most.