The weather over the next 10 days could prove the determining factor in whether some of the leading fancies for Cheltenham are able to fit in a final prep race. With the Festival starting five weeks today this next week is absolutely critical for those trainers who aim to finish their preparations a month or so before the Festival.
David Pipe and Ferdy Murphy are amongst those whose horses often run well at the Festival after a break of 30 to 40 days. We're smack in the middle of that period right now.
Others, such as Nicky Henderson are already looking at options for their major stars. The Contenders Hurdle at Sandown, which Binocular has won in the last two seasons has already been lost, and the trainer is now eyeing up next week’s Morebattle Hurdle at Kelso all the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on 18 February for his star. He also wants to get another race into Grandouet, who may end up going to Ireland for the Red Mills Trial at Gowran Park.
The first three days this week will see no jump racing at all taking place in Britain, while Doncaster's Thursday card has already been cancelled and Huntingdon looks likely to go the same way. Prospects at Taunton are a little better, but of course the races scheduled for that meeting are not necessarily suited to those horses needing a final tuneup before the Festival.
There are a couple of rays of sunshine peeking through the gloom. Richard Osgood, Newbury's clerk of the course is optimistic that Saturday's important meeting will go ahead. He said, “I think you can go a bit dotty trying to look at all of the different forecasts, but most of them are saying 3C or even 4C as the daytime temperature for Saturday and that would obviously be welcome. There is a band of wet weather forecast to come through on Friday which could start with snow and then turn to rain as warmer weather comes through. We've been out today to have a look under the covers and it all looks very positive. It was better than I might have expected in that respect."
If it does then Long Run, Sprinter Sacre and Grands Crus should all run as planned. If not, they could be amongst a host of top quality horses heading north to Musselburgh, as the British Horseracing Authority has agreed the track can stage a "Festival trials" card to replace the one that was lost to whether last Sunday.
Course manager Bill Farnsworth was delighted that the track would have a second opportunity to run its trials day. He said, "It was very frustrating as we were so close on Sunday – the track was raceable by the end of the day. Between all the various parties we've got £75,000 prize money to offer and it depends on what the BHA decide to put on. We started off on the basis that we would run the same races, although the conditions might have to be tweaked slightly so we're not stepping on anyone else's toes. But we want to be staging races for horses which might end up at the big festivals and hopefully the trainers will be supportive again."
Newbury's loss would be Musselburgh's gain, but in either case it does look as though this weekend will see a number of Festival trials taking place.