Pipe's Grand Crus on Gold Cup trail
On the day when British horseracing measured its resilience against recession by publishing record attendances of over six million for 2011, racegoers were given every incentive to get the turnstiles clicking again at Cheltenham on Saturday.
Entries made yesterday for the Festival trials card appear to guarantee at least one new favourite for the real thing in March, with the three horses sharing the top of the JCB Triumph Hurdle market all lined up for a dress rehearsal.
Even so, no race will be more instructive than the Argento Chase, perhaps the last opportunity to prevent the Cheltenham Gold Cup becoming another straight duel between Kauto Star and Long Run.
Synchronised may yet get himself involved, when returning to Leopardstown for the Hennessy Gold Cup next month, but, for now, the Argento most obviously provides a platform for David Pipe's Grands Crus.
Connections are tempted to fast-track their novice to the Gold Cup after just three starts over fences to date and intend to test the water on Saturday.
The defeat of Al Ferof at Ascot last weekend shows how even top-class hurdlers, which have demonstrated an immediate aptitude for their new calling, must raise their game against more seasoned rivals.
But, with his main rivals having so far hesitated to make a breakthrough of their own, this represents a perfect test of the feasibility of a Gold Cup bid for Grands Crus.
Paddy Power make the grey 5/2 favourite, from Captain Chris on 7/2, Diamond Harry on 5/1 and Time For Rupert on 11/2.
Grands Crus was a brilliant winner of the Cleeve Hurdle on this card last year, only to find Big Buck's too relentless at the Festival.
This time round, the champion will himself be taking in the Cleeve, having been kept fresh for March in the past two seasons, as he bids to extend his unbeaten spree to 15.
Only an act of God would seem likely to stop him, Timeform granting him 17lbs and more in hand of 10 other entries.
As for the juveniles, it remains worth remembering that the last two Triumph Hurdles were won by French imports, Zarkandar and Soldatino, which delayed their British debuts until Kempton barely three weeks before the Festival.
Their profile corroborates the theory that the provision of a handicap alternative for juveniles since 2005, has altered the complexion of the Triumph.
Sure enough, Grumeti, Sadler's Risk and Baby Mix -- pending a possible showdown on Saturday -- have so far completed only one hurdle race in Britain apiece. But Alan King, who has a fine record in this discipline, remains especially anxious to give Grumeti more experience after his fall when cruising clear at Newbury last week.
Meanwhile, Binocular will again have his Champion Hurdle prep race at Sandown on February 4 -- rather than in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown this weekend.
Nicky Henderson's eight-year-old, which triumphed in the championship event at Cheltenham in 2010, has, in the eyes of many, failed to recapture his sparkle.
Nevertheless, the JP McManus-owned French-bred landed the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on his last start.
Binocular has won the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown for the past two seasons -- last year as a 1/10 favourite -- and connections have decided to keep to their tried-and-trusted routine, rather than take on Hurricane Fly in Ireland.
"I'd say he'll run at Sandown," said Frank Berry, McManus' racing manager. "It's worked for us in the past, so I think we'll stick to it.
"We'll get Sandown out of the way first before we start thinking about Cheltenham. He's back in good form, though, we've been very pleased with him since Kempton.
"AP (Tony McCoy) said he wasn't quite giving him the same feel, but he won a Grade One nonetheless." (© Independent News Service)