Sunday Supplement: Cheltenham Prospects Aplenty…

tony_stafford

tony_stafford

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

We came, we saw, he conquered. Just five days after I’d turned away in the nearest thing I can manage to anguish after Darlan’s horror fall at Doncaster, I was at Newbury on Saturday and thoroughly enjoyed My Tent or Yours’ domination of the Betfair Hurdle so-called puzzle.

The only interruption to watching the coronation of JP and AP’s replacement for the putative king of hurdling was to scan back to see old Punjabi’s white face plodding along in 14th place, 42 lengths behind the winner.

It would have been easy – and probably most people have – to make the assumption that the 2009 Champion Hurdler has dropped off the scale, but then Saturday’s combination of problems also proved equally testing for such as the well-fancied trio Baby Mix (15th, another 16 lengths behind), Cause of Causes, 16th and Pearl Swan, 17th of 18 finishers.

Be dogmatic if you will and declare the winner, a novice of 149, a potential champion and Cotton Mill, second off 145 on this comeback and the previously-unbeaten Swing Bowler as possible Festival  winners all, but there must be a serious caveat.

In the days leading up to the meeting, there were encouraging noises about the state of the going by clerk of the course Richard Osgood, with good to soft firmly in his predicted range. Heavy rain all the way from London and an unbroken grey canopy set in for the day, precluded any chance of that, and in the event, 4.7 was the arduous going reading for the hurdles track.

It was reckoned to be good to soft for last year’s race won by the smart Zarkandar. Saturday’s, won in such style by My Tent or Yours, took an extra 18 seconds to complete. If the rains desist in the next month, then Cheltenham will offer a markedly different problem for horses and assumptions made definitively after Saturday could well end up being wide of the mark.

I’ve never known jumping ground like this season’s in all my years’ watching racing. In the old days I used to think that when it was muddy I had my best results tipping-wise, but that instinct was rather dashed when a close colleague said I do best on good.

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Some trainers – especially those with 100-plus horses that all cost around 100 grand – just seem to bash on regardless and often get away with it. Once again on Saturday it was the Henderson, Nicholls and in Ireland, Willie Mullins show, but for all the publicity regarding their dominance, I admire trainers who simply refuse to risk their horses in extreme conditions.

It must be galling – the knowledge that if you keep insisting to owners it’s wisest to wait, these often impulsive characters will be looking out for the postcodes for Seven Barrows or Ditcheat before long. It’s a bit like footballers struggling on 50 grand a week awaiting the call from Manchester City, United or Chelsea.

The obvious observation, once the heavy going card has been implanted in the equation, is that My Tent or Yours will still be dangerous wherever he runs, but that the Champion Hurdle would probably be a bit fast for Cotton Mill. That said, he’ll get a hike – I reckon the handicapper will set the race level between third and fourth home – so around 153 might be strong for the Coral Cup for John Ferguson’s horse.

Fergie has got a load of Cheltenham entries, especially in the three all-aged novice races, but such has been the paucity of action this winter, and hard to define merit levels, that several of his horses have two, two miles five furlong and three miles entries.

When we get this close to the Festival, there’s no chance for more than a single prep race for serious contenders and John will probably have been a little disappointed with the runs of Ruacana (third) and Buthelezi (43 lengths fifth) in their races on the Leopardstown under-card. The former could still have a shot at the Fred Winter.

Talking of the Festival, I’ve had a couple of annual dates recently on the Preview circuit. My long-standing Bedfordshire Racing Club date with Howard Wright, official handicapper David Dickinson and Corals’ Ian Wassell  goes ahead as usual on the eve of the opening day, but Bridlington has been replaced by newcomers Billericay.

My co-performers at this charity do for a young girl who died tragically early, will be the Quinlans, trainer Noel and jockey Jack, and the latter can update us about Cotton Mill, on whom he had been unbeaten before Saturday’s excellent second place. Barry Dennis will also be joining us on Sunday March 3 and hopes his great friend David Johnson – owner of Swing Bowler and like Barry a local – might be able to come along too.

My own agenda, looking at the recent exploits of Raymond Tooth’s “jumpers”, on the Flat at Lingfield and Kempton, had I owned the beautifully-bred daughter of champion sire Galileo and admirable jumping mare Lady Cricket, would be to look for a Flat race to get some proper black type. I’m sure the Daves, Johnson and 40-year-old trainer Pipe junior, have already thought it through.

For the Tooth team, though, it’s back to Lingfield on Wednesday with soft-ground hating Cousin Khee, who will appreciate the step up to 13 furlongs for his second proper Flat run. Thank God Hughie Morrison took him out of the Betfair overnight or he’d have still been running!

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