Knight still bullish over Somersby
Though every twig between Henrietta Knight's Oxfordshire yard and Cheltenham was thickly sugared in frost, she returned from a trip to Ireland yesterday afternoon to learn that a return to top-class jump racing is still thought highly feasible this weekend.
As a result, the recent frustrations she has shared with so many other trainers may yet be redressed by potentially her best horse since Best Mate.
After a light, but stirring novice campaign, Somersby might seem to stand at something of a crossroads. The way he stormed up the hill in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham last March, all but running down Sizing Europe, permitted no doubt that he is every bit as talented as Knight had believed.
But he could not match that form when turned out again at Aintree three weeks later, and managed only third when sent off favourite for a valuable handicap at Exeter last month. On closer inspection, however, that was a perfectly satisfactory resumption.
He went sweetly for a long way, just seeming to lose his rhythm as he tired, and Knight expects him to prove sharper when he returns to Cheltenham for the Tingle Creek Chase, salvaged from snow-bound Sandown last weekend.
"He ran perfectly okay at Exeter," she said. "It was just those fences along the top there. He didn't so much miss them out, as get too close to them. He wasn't very fluent and you do really need to flow along those fences there.
"He was a bit careful, perhaps, and we felt he needed that run to get his confidence back -- not because he'd become windy in his jumping, but because he had to get his technique back. He had jumped indifferently with 'Choc' Thornton round Liverpool, but things just didn't work out in general that day."
With a rejuvenated Master Minded in opposition, Somersby's performance should at the very least help to establish his best distance. "We've always thought he would stay, but every time we've put him farther he has rather disappointed," Knight reflected. "So, we'll keep at two miles for the minute. We're still very bullish about him. I do think he's a very good horse."
Somersby will again be ridden by Knight's new stable jockey, Hadden Frost, although their partnership is still seeking a breakthrough after just a couple of winners this autumn. The weather has hardly helped, of course.
Remarkably, however, the track remains raceable at Cheltenham -- beneath the frost blankets laid down during Sunday's brief thaw. They could not have raced yesterday, with a daytime temperature of minus six, but the forecast suggests sufficient respite for Friday and Saturday to allow the blankets to be removed for the afternoon.
Saturday's re-opened International Hurdle has attracted the anticipated classy field with Menorah and Cue Card among the nine entries.
Menorah, winner of this year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, entered Champion Hurdle calculations when landing last month's Greatwood Hurdle under top weight and his credentials will certainly be put to the test.
Alongside Colin Tizzard's immensely exciting novice Cue Card is the Paul Nicholls-trained Silviniaco Conti, a late-comer to the top table after three very easy wins this autumn.
Menorah's trainer Philip Hobbs has also entered Nicene Creed for the same owner Diana Whateley and is joined in the field by Clerk's Choice, Astracad, Der Spieler and Liberty Seeker.
Evan Williams may use the Grade Two to introduce Cristal Bonus, which stayed on to be second in a leading event in his native France a few weeks ago. The horse has only arrived with Williams and is now owned by Robin Geffen, head of Cheltenham sponsors Neptune Investment Management.
"The handicapper thinks Cristal Bonus' form is good because he has rated him 152," said the Welsh trainer. "We're giving weight away, which is going to be difficult for his first run here, but it makes sense to start him in a good race with not too many runners.
"We have had him no time at all, but he has come over and he is very fit and fresh so we will run him in the International and have a look at him.
"We have no clue about what he wants and doesn't want, but there aren't too many opportunities for horses like him, so we thought the best thing was to give him a run and have a little look at him.
"It's not easy for four-year-olds, but he has already shown that he has a certain level of ability and we will know a lot more about him at teatime on Saturday." (© Independent News Service)
StanJames.com International Hurdle, sponsors bet: 13/8 Menorah, 9/4 Cue Card, 5/2 Silviniaco Conti, 8/1 Clerk's Choice, 25/1 Cristal Bonus, 50-1 Der Spieler, Astracad, 100/1 Nicene Creed, 1000/1 Liberty Seeker.