Tasheba takes top billing for Henderson
Here it is again, at last. After the loss of more than 60 meetings during the past month, either side of the Irish Sea, the snow has finally begun to thaw and exotic patches of vegetation are emerging on our racecourses.
And enough has now appeared for jumping fans to quit climbing the walls, and settle down in front of the television to watch horses finally leaving the ground in anger.
For a sport that has just celebrated one of its greatest years, and anticipating fresh converts from Kauto Star and Denman in just eight weeks' time, 2010 has so far been a pretty exasperating affair.
Every yard will have its war stories. Anyone who has been around stables on cold mornings knows the evocative sight and smell of a steaming muck heap. Over recent days, however, the soiled straw has instead been spread across icy walkways, to preserve the delicate limbs of precious thoroughbreds and their stoical escorts. The daily grind of manual labour has, meanwhile, acquired unwelcome variety, with many new rituals prompted by frozen standpipes and blocked gallops.
Corresponding toils on the all-weather circuit have ensured some kind of stimulation for betting shops, but other tracks will look back on the big freeze as red, not white, when it comes to their end-of-year accounts. The sport as a whole will do the same.
For the real fans, at any rate, the silver lining comes now. Trainers will be desperate to retrieve lost ground in the preparation of their Cheltenham horses -- novices, in particular. Any track staging a beginners' chase or hurdle can now expect even drab midweek cards to be dignified by elite prospects, eager for extra sparring.
Some trainers will have been more successful than others in keeping their horses on the move. Certainly, there seemed little sign of rust in Nicky Henderson's three winners on that unique, all-bumper card at Southwell on Wednesday.
At the best of times, Henderson feels a particular affinity with Kempton and he will reliably make his presence felt there this afternoon. Perhaps no trainer in the land has a stronger hand of novice chasers and Mad Max (12.55) has every right to prove another ace. Beaten only once, when not at his best at the Festival, he had previously seen off the classy Karabak over hurdles and certainly has the physical scope for fences.
Henderson also saddles the two top weights for the day's most valuable prize, the Lanzarote Hurdle, and riding arrangements imply greater expectations of Tasheba (2.45).
Though raised 8lbs for a narrow success at Sandown, he can find more improvement now that his stamina is tested, having been campaigned very much as a stayer on the Flat. He remains less exposed than all these bar Triggerman, which caught the eye in only his third start over hurdles last time.
Tasheba's victim at Sandown, William Hogarth, in turn races off a 6lbs higher mark in the last race. His trainer believes he retains huge potential, but for now he might do well to give weight to Triggerman's stablemate, Marchand D'Argent (3.45), which twice looked a proper machine during a light first season.
Keith Goldsworthy, trainer of William Hogarth, has another potential heir to Hold Em -- the star of his over-achieving stable, which was victim of a tragic accident at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. Kennel Hill (1.30) has been transformed by the switch to hurdling, beaten only narrowly at huge prices in Graded events, and the odds might not be as short as they should be.
Kempton is by no means the sole source of succour. Officials at Huntingdon are optimistic of passing an inspection this morning, while Ffos Las is all set to race tomorrow.
Perhaps the most interesting runner of the weekend at home is Cousin Vinny, one of the best young hurdlers of last season, which goes to Fairyhouse to put right an odds-on defeat in his first novice chase.