Doubt over Sprinter should prompt a rethink for Cue Card
All the reports coming out of Nicky Henderson's Lambourn stable seem to suggest that everything is rosy in the garden again with Sprinter Sacre. But what if it's not?
An irregular heartbeat in horses is an intangible issue. It might be a one-off random occurrence, but it may not be. It took Denman a year to recover from a similar ailment, and even then he was never the same relentlessly dominant force of old, for all that his trademark magic returned intermittently.
When a horse like Sprinter Sacre stops like he did at Kempton for Barry Geraghty, it is not a good sign. Quite often, although it might not be evident externally, they will have burst a blood vessel. There has been no suggestion that is what happened to Sprinter Sacre, but it's not impossible that there was an internal bleed.
Either way, you'd like to see him go through the motions under the (normally inconsiderable for him) stress of a race situation before he goes into battle at Cheltenham.
If the most exhilarating two-mile chaser of modern times weren't to make the Queen Mother Champion Chase, or even if he were to go there under a cloud, everything changes.
Sire De Grugy is the obvious alternative, but for whatever reason Prestbury Park doesn't bring out the best in him. Sizing Europe is past it by now, and on the likely good ground Benefficient would probably be best suited by the five-furlong longer Ryanair Chase.
There is one horse, though, that surely has the class and form to take advantage if Sprinter Sacre were absent or below-par -- Cue Card.
After Colin Tizzard's star won the Betfair Chase in November, we highlighted an anomaly in the race times, which suggested that the Grade One hadn't -- as it was meant to be -- been run over further than three miles. That theory was borne out in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.
Having gone toe to toe with Silviniaco Conti, Cue Card winged the third-last under a motionless Joe Tizzard, and was nearly three lengths up on Noel Fehily's scrubbed-along mount crossing two-out. Then, on the run to the last, he began treading water, his head coming up as he gasped for air.
Some have suggested that he gained again on Silviniaco Conti on the run to the line, but he didn't. He was going backwards, and if it looked like he wasn't it was only because the winner idled.
Racing is all about dreaming the dream. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the ultimate Holy Grail, to the point that it often clouds the better judgment of many otherwise shrewd individuals.
Last year, Flemenstar had the Lexus Chase field on its knees at the last fence but could only finish third.
First Lieutenant led up the run-in in that and last week's Lexus, yet failed to see it out either time.
As is the case with Cue Card, some will try to make excuses and defend the indefensible, but an impartial observer will be less keen to explain away what happens right in front of their eyes.
Stamina isn't something a horse can acquire, improve or be taught. They have it or they don't, and, as Bobs Worth has showed, it is the most critical ingredient in a Gold Cup horse.
You can't will a horse to morph into a Gold Cup contender, because there is no hiding place up that pugilistic hill.
Cue Card just gets three miles, as did Florida Pearl and, maybe most pertinently, One Man -- a sensational dual King George and Hennessy Gold Cup hero that twice walked up the hill in the Gold Cup before reverting to two miles to record a breathtaking Champion Chase victory under Brian Harding.
Like those two, though, the extra quarter mile uphill in a Gold Cup will be his undoing.
Little went right for Cue Card under a welter burden on his Haldon Gold Cup return over two-and-a-quarter miles, but he made most of the running to win the same race in facile style last term. On his previous start, he was a clear second to the mighty Sprinter Sacre in the 2012 Arkle Trophy.
Last year's Ryanair Chase victor is a bold, fluent jumper that very few horses in training could live with over two miles. Of course, Cheltenham's newest championship event over the intermediate trip is the race that might represent Cue Card's best chance of winning at the meeting again.
However, the chance for real glory is still the preserve of the Festival's two traditional marquee events, and the Tizzards should consider only one as a viable option. The Champion Chase.
DONOHOE READY TO SEEK LEGAL ADVICE
Co Cavan handler Shane Donohoe was denied the opportunity to run course specialist Star Links at Wolverhampton on Friday night after the stewards ordered the horse to be withdrawn because its trainer refused to be body-searched.
The British Horseracing Authority was acting on "intelligence" it received in requesting Donohoe to visit the stewards' room prior to his six-time course winner's participation in the seven-furlong handicap.
There, Donohoe was shown a letter pertaining to the tip-off, at which point he was reported as saying he was "like a rabbit caught in the headlights", explaining that he is dyslexic.
He refused to allow the search, so the horse was withdrawn and the matter referred to the BHA for further investigation. Donohue says that he is now seeking legal advice.
CORK'S TEAM OF LOCALS OUTSHINE MULLINS
Willie Mullins was denied a very tasty double when Blood Cotil fell at the second-last fence in Saturday's beginners' chase at Cork, where the local handlers most certainly stole the show.
Dermot Weld's classy Waaheb (7/4) took the opener in fine style for Mark Walsh and Paul Townend steered the odds-on Wicklow Brave to an emphatic victory for Mullins in the maiden hurdle.
After that, Bandon-based James Dullea watched 6/1 shot Benrouge get up by a short-head in the hands of Robbie Power.
It was Dullea's first success for Batty and Mary Hayes, owners of the 2006 champion chaser Newmill, which Dullea looked after at John Murphy's and trained himself later on.
Bryan Cooper guided Avondhu Lady (6/4 fav) home off a favourable hurdle mark for Fermoy's David Fenton, before Castle Wings (7/2) capitalised on Blood Cotil's spill to score for Jimmy and Pat Mangan.
Tom Foley then saddled the 11-year-old Playing to a second win in eight days under Kevin Sexton in the handicap chase, before Robert Tyner's Kinsale outfit completed the rebels' quartet when Vicangelome landed a gamble (11/2 into 2/1 fav) in style for David O'Leary in the bumper.
WINTERS' STARS SET TO SKIP CHELTENHAM
Mick Winters has reiterated that neither of his stable stars are likely to run at Cheltenham in March. Missunited is being prepared for a Flat campaign ahead of her bid to retain the Galway Hurdle, while last year's Galway victor Rebel Fitz is likely to be aimed at domestic targets in the spring.
Tweet of the weekend
Very sad news that former champion jockey and the legend that was Terry Biddlecombe has passed away, thoughts with Hen and his family. RIP.
-- Perennial champion AP McCoy pays tribute to one of his most revered predecessors, Terry Biddlecombe, who died yesterday aged 72.
Renowned as one of the first jumps jockeys to pull up his irons short and a three-time champion in the 1960s, Biddlecombe's endearingly bucolic manner was one half of a celebrated double act that was complemented by his well-to-do author wife Henrietta Knight.
A Gold Cup winner aboard Woodland Venture in 1967, Biddlecombe enjoyed renewed fame courtesy of Best Mate, whose jockey Jim Culloty said yesterday:
"I would rather celebrate his life than mourn his death."
8 Times that Sandown has been unable to hold the Tolworth Hurdle due to the weather since 1991. Abandoned on four occasions, the Grade One will be run elsewhere for a fourth time when it forms part of next Saturday's Kempton card after the Esher course fell to waterlogging on Friday.
4 Winners that Cork-born Aidan Coleman rode for Venetia Williams at Plumpton yesterday.
The Inishannon native's only other ride slipped up when staying on in second turning for home.