Meade joy on perfect school day
In the fortnight dividing jump racing professionals from their defining test, all they expect is for things to go wrong.
For punters, equally, fresh positives for the Cheltenham Festival will be few and largely inconsequential.
It would be wrong, however, to treat absolutely every racecourse gallop as stage-managed, every pronouncement of optimism as bland or meaningless. And Noel Meade, for one, surely deserves to be taken at his word, after working Pandorama at Leopardstown yesterday morning.
Here is a horse whose emergence as Ireland's best Cheltenham Gold Cup hope, at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, had been promptly followed by another of the depressing setbacks that have so tormented his trainer at Cheltenham over the years. A month ago, Meade was rating Pandorama only "50-50" to make it to the race.
But his verdict yesterday was unequivocal. "Everything went perfectly," Meade said. "He worked great. I was delighted with him, absolutely thrilled. He went almost two miles, with six others, Realt Dubh as well -- and I was very happy with both of them. I might give Pandorama a school over fences at some stage this week, at home, and then it's all systems go."
Meade, who confirmed that the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy will "almost certainly" be the option favoured for Realt Dubh, has long set the caveat that Pandorama will need yielding conditions. In principle, however, he represents another good reason -- along with Long Run and Diamond Harry -- why the three previous winners converging on the race must look to their laurels.
But the most accomplished steeplechaser in Ireland remains Big Zeb and he, too, was among those taken to Leopardstown yesterday.
Barry Geraghty schooled the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner, a much more proficient jumper nowadays, over six fences. Trainer Colm Murphy pronounced himself well satisfied, and likewise with Raise The Beat, which did a piece of work. Having impressed on faster going at Naas in November, Raise The Beat was put away for the winter and brought back to the boil for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.
Murphy decided not to take Quito De La Roque to the Foxrock venue but the Grade Two winner is still on course for Cheltenham, where he holds entries in the RSA Chase and National Hunt Chase, as long as the ground is suitable.
Meanwhile, Ruby Walsh was back riding out at Paul Nicholls' stable for the first time since he broke a leg at Down Royal in November.
Ireland's champion jockey was in action in schooling sessions on several stable stars at Ditcheat yesterday and is set to return to the saddle at Newbury on Friday.
"I feel grand, 100 per cent," he revealed afterwards. "I feel no effects from the injury since I have come back to work and we have decided that I will be back riding at Newbury on Friday. Paul wants me to ride Niche Market on Saturday as well."
Walsh has had ample time to study the entries for the Festival. The Kildare rider is 6/5 favourite with William Hill to be champion jockey over the four days. But he would not identify any horse in particular as being special among his book of rides.
"Willie Mullins and Paul have many serious chances for Cheltenham and, to be frank, I can't wait," he said. (© Independent News Service)