Definitly Red certain to go for Gold
It is amazing how often fate conjures up a poignant winner in racing but, five days after his trainer Richard Woollacott died, Beer Goggles was unable to repeat his giant-slaying effort at Newbury in December at Cheltenham in January, eventually finishing a well-beaten fifth in the Galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle.
The race, often an informative trial for the Stayers Hurdle, was actually won by the heavy ground specialist Agrapart, ridden by Lizzie Kelly, after a terrific duel with Wholestone. The winner is not even entered at the Festival because, according to trainer Nick Williams: "It's never heavy there these days."
Beer Goggles, saddled by Woollacott's widow Kayley, travelled very strongly and made the running for a long way but he looked an awkward ride through the last mile when he was inclined to want to go right-handed which meant Richard Johnson, who did his best to keep him straight, had to take the outside route home.
Without that he might have been a lot closer but, as the jockey pointed out, after being so straightforward at Newbury this was indicative of some sort of physical ailment. "He's still run a lot better than where he was at 18 months ago though," said Johnson.
Kelly is as eloquent off a horse as she is effective on one. "We're all heart-broken about Richard," she said afterwards. "He trained just down the road (in South Molton) and, in fact, the only outside winner I ever had was for Richard in a ladies' race at Huntingdon. He was a great neighbour.
"Nothing I can say is going to make it any better, that's the awfulness of it, the finality. But it opens the door for an open conversation about mental health, to be aware of it and be aware that people can hide it so well."
If that was not very informative for the Stayers' Hurdle, at least the Betbright Trial Cotswold Chase produced a winner who will go forward to the Gold Cup in Definitly Red, a horse who got his name when his original trainer in Ireland wanted to enter him in a point-to-point and shouted out across a pub: "How do you spell 'definitely?'"
Back in the 1980s, though, northern trained horses won the Gold Cup more often than not but since Jodami won it in 1993 it has pretty much been split between the south and the Irish.
At 25-1 Definitly Red, trained in Malton by Brian Ellison, may be regarded as an outside shot for jump racing's blue riband but if it comes up wet at the Festival, the north has a serious contender.
Yesterday the nine-year-old disputed the lead for most of the last mile before he began to assert round the last bend to come home eight lengths clear of American with a disappointing Betfair Chase winner Bristol de Mai, in what should have been prime conditions for him, a further two lengths away in third.
"He doesn't need this ground because he's a really good moving horse," said Ellison. "What he doesn't like is tacky but it's nice to have a winner at Cheltenham and to have a runner in the Gold Cup is what you work for, it's great."
He continued: "It was always the plan to come here and if he got beat we'd aim for Aintree (he was nearly brought down at Becher's first time). He was very impressive at Aintree last time - he's a good 'oss."
For the first time in Apple's Shakira's career something actually made a race of it for her but, having won her first three starts readily, she showed plenty of resolution off the home bend after Look My Way had tried to steal the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial by nipping on after the second last.
However Nicky Henderson's filly gathered her rival up at the last and drew eight clear cementing her position as favourite for the real thing in March, her next stop.
"After her last start Barry (Geraghty) said find better ground for her but I think, after the rain, we've ended up with worse going," said Henderson who also won the Ballymore Classic Novice Hurdle with Santini.
"She's always gives a buck and a kick and squeal at home but when you work her you wonder how she ever won a race - she shows you nothing at home."