Festival puzzle takes tricky turn
Cheltenham scene has been clouded by holiday results, says Ian McClean
In compiling a mid-term report the one thing you know about racing is that you never know. Notwithstanding the peremptory withdrawal of Davy Russell's priority boarding at Gigginstown House, the remainder of racing's jigsaw after the frenzied Christmas encounter is epitomised more by dark than light.
As we seek answers to racing's Damascus of the spring festivals, the expected crystallisation of the holiday exchanges has instead, like a botched chemistry experiment, left us with murky waters at best.
You could reasonably argue that the destiny of all four keystone races at the Cheltenham Festival is less clear now at the halfway point of the season than at the very beginning of the campaign.
Beginning with the World Hurdle: we couldn't have more bafflement if we'd live-paused an episode of Sherlock mid-stream for a tea break. The sidelined spectre that is Big Buck's continues to cast an ever-lengthening shadow on the ante-post market where he still occupies favouritism. As his rehabilitation reaches overdrive, a final racecourse gallop is being considered before his putative return to the track in the Cleeve at the end of this month. By then the dark colossus won't have raced since December 1, 2012 and will have already seen out his 11th birthday. Like Cúchulainn, nobody will believe his demise until the raven actually descends, but there is quite a flock gathering already for the Cleeve itself and should they all make it then we could have Reve De Sivola, More Of That, At Fishers Cross (if returning in time from his Discover Ireland holiday), and (dare I say it) Annie Power amongst the opposition. In that event, the 18-time consecutive race winner will not have encountered such stern opposition since he faced down Punchestowns and Kasbah Bliss in March 2009.
The Annie Power mention leads into territories I will explore further in future weeks -- the Cheltenham headaches unique to Willie Mullins that most trainers would trade their licence and private hack for: What do I do with an unbeaten nine-from-nine mare which could probably win at any distance? Or a novice chaser which could ostensibly win any of the three Grade Ones from two to three miles on any given day? The conundrum of Annie Power has forced a discreet Paddy Power market on which race she will compete in at the Festival -- the World Hurdle, by the way, is favourite at 2/5.
Stablemate Hurricane Fly, of course, acts as a home-grown deterrent and will, barring calamities, be lying in wait in the Champion Hurdle -- a race simmering up into a proper little pot-boiler after the various volleys of the Christmas. The old warrior Fly himself stripped bare any doubts emerging from those who made him odds-against domestically for the first time since December 2010 and seems as good as ever.
Nonetheless, the vanquished -- Jezki and Our Conor -- from the Ryanair Hurdle will not be without optimism of revenge, and will be looking ahead to the Irish Champion as a means of building on what was already accomplished on December 29.
Meanwhile, there was hardly a whisker to divide The New One and My Tent Or Yours at Kempton in the Christmas Hurdle and it hardly helps to clarify the whole picture when the oracle that is Timeform rates the Fly, Jezki, The New One and My Tent Or Yours within four pounds of each other at this stage.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase should be sponsored by the Magic Circle given that before we even consider the race itself through the customary lens of form and ability, we must first answer two critical questions to which whatever your chosen flavour of cosmic determination alone knows the answer: Will Sprinter Sacre turn up on the day? And if he does, will he have the heart for the fight?
The race amongst the Big Four with the least obvious density or mystery at this midway stage appears to be the Gold Cup. Bobs Worth posted a highly worthy effort in disposing of his Lexus opponents with the type of stout aggression we have come to associate with a horse that has never been beaten over jumps in a race where he has put his nose in front.
In defeating bridesmaid First Lieutenant and a selection of Gold Cup pretenders, Bobs Worth dismissed any notion of decline raised by his feeble Haydock reappearance.
The Lexus discouraged, furthermore, any idea that last year's novice crop could sing to the same tune as their elders -- Lord Windermere and the well-backed Unioniste looking like backing vocals at best, as opposed to lead singers on the day. With first Flemenstar and now Sir Des Champs sadly roughed off for the season, and Cue Card as likely to opt for the Ryanair, it seems that Silviniaco Conti could be the main one to put it up to the defending champion and try to avenge his unfortunate fall when travelling ominously well last year. And with Barry Geraghty's emphatic assertion that the better the ground the better Bob likes it, I'm guessing the weather on the day could well have the greatest bearing of all on the outcome there.
Finally the vicissitude of horse racing is rarely more clearly highlighted than in the case of fallen icon Long Run. A Gold Cup winner (with a defeat of Denman and Kauto Star) at six with the world apparently at his feet -- his first 26 races in high quality company saw him never once finish out of the first three. Yet in his last three runs now he has finished unplaced. Where once they needed earplugs to curb his enthusiasm, now even a visor can't recover it.
Still only nine, the talk is now of a Grand National. With the release of the weights in about four weeks, it is likely the handicapper will attempt to lure Long Run in with a mark in the high 160s. It is probably a mark similar to what the evergreen 13-year-old Tidal Bay will be alloted for the same race.
The Wylie horse's herculean effort under top-weight in the Welsh National represents yet another gravity-defying act from the Sinatra of steeplechasers and is in marked contrast to Long Run's tame unseat-in-retreat at the last in the King George.
The National as we know comes with its very own laws of physics -- and heaven knows how either of these idiosyncratic Goliaths might respond -- but should both turn up on the day then new sponsor Crabbie's won't believe their luck.