Fleming considering Flat plan for Starluck
Champion Hurdle candidate Starluck may have his final run before Cheltenham on the Flat after the loss of the Kingwell Hurdle, the last recognised big-race trial, at frozen Wincanton at the weekend.
The grey's trainer, Alan Fleming, will learn today whether a replacement for the abandoned Grade Two contest will be staged at Kempton on Saturday, but may opt instead for a mile all-weather race there the following Wednesday.
Starluck should have clashed with reigning title holder Punjabi at Wincanton, but Fleming is not keen on a head-to-head that bit closer to the festival showpiece, to be run three weeks tomorrow.
"The horse does need a race, but really only a good blow-out to sharpen him up, he's in great shape otherwise," Fleming said. "I'm not sure we'd want a battle at that stage; we wouldn't want to leave the Champion Hurdle behind and if he took a knock there's that much less time to recover."
Andrew Wates' five-year-old, fourth to Zaynar in last year's Triumph Hurdle, is a 14/1 shot for the Cheltenham crown. His latest outing was in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on St Stephen's Day, when he went down by just a short-head to Go Native, currently 4/1 Champion Hurdle second favourite.
Punjabi's trainer Nicky Henderson was disappointed by Wincanton's fairly inevitable abandonment as late as Saturday morning, as by then it was too late to move the Kingwell Hurdle to Ascot, which survived the freeze.
"It was disappointing to lose the race when it would have suited everyone to run it and everything was in place to transfer it," he said. "But if Kempton put on a two-mile hurdle at the weekend, Punjabi will run in it."
Henderson ended a trying week for his Cheltenham hopes on the right note with a four-timer at Ascot. The trainer passed 100 for the season through Finian's Rainbow, Lush Life, Burton Point and Sprinter Sacre. Three of Henderson's winners were ridden by the in-form Barry Geraghty who also won the day's feature, the Betfair Ascot Chase, aboard Monet's Garden, while Ruby Walsh stepped in for the mount on Lush Life.
Monet's Garden rolled back the years with a vintage master class of jumping. The grey scored in this race in 2007 but had not made his mark in top-flight company since April of that year when winning the Melling Chase at Aintree.
Nicky Richards' gallant 12-year-old finished midfield here in November but fared much better after a 91-day break and he soon shook off the attentions of Herecomesthetruth over the first couple of fences. Geraghty's mount had matters sewn up before the turn for home, the 11/2 chance still going strong as he crossed the line a length and a half clear of Albertas Run, with The Sawyer finishing well for third.
"Barry and him get a great tune from each other and any jockey would be happy sitting on top of him," Richards said. "He is now into the veteran stage so he will tell us when he is ready to run again. All being well, and if he is fit, we will be back here again next year."
Lucinda Russell is eyeing a crack at the Scottish Grand National with Silver By Nature after the dour stayer provided the Tayside handler with the biggest win of her career at Haydock.
Having finished second to Dream Alliance in the Welsh National, the grey was sent off a 7/1 chance in the Blue Square Gold Cup under Peter Buchanan.
David Pipe's veteran Our Vic set a strong enough gallop in the conditions and had seen off most of his rivals inside the final circuit. But it was Silver By Nature who powered clear up the home straight to win by 15 lengths. Welsh National third Le Beau Bai filled the same spot as the 5/1 favourite.
"His owner Geoff Brown also bred him and he is not keen on the Aintree National, but he would love to win the Scottish National," said Russell.
The rest of the card was stacked with potential Cheltenham Festival clues, headed by Nick Williams' Me Voici, which boosted his big reputation in the bluesquare.com Victor Ludorum Juvenile Novices' Hurdle. Sent off the 11/10 favourite to oblige under Daryl Jacob, he had little trouble in seeing off Diktalina by nine lengths. However, a tilt at the Triumph has still not been confirmed.