Ian McClean: Uncertainty leads chasing pack on countdown to Cheltenham
Doubts linger over some of National Hunt's star names, says Ian McClean
Eight weeks and counting. Three elements conspired last week to train our collective lens on Cheltenham, setting the crosshair on that second Tuesday in March: the final passing of the mid-season Christmas and New Year Festivals; the announcement of entries for the three major championship steeplechases; and the beginning of the demise of significant members of the all-star cast that endanger making the many-splendoured thing that is Cheltenham a little less splendoured.
Simonsig exited the stage before Christmas, thereby robbing the Festival of arguably its most intriguing act. I say arguably because the main challenger for that accolade is stablemate Sprinter Sacre -- himself now left with far dicier prospects of an appearance after his emergent heart condition at Kempton.
Add to those A-listers the roughing off of Sir Des Champs and, most recently, defending World Hurdler Solwhit and we are faced with the remorselessly harsh reality of the National Hunt metier. The only certainty over the next eight weeks is that there will be more, indeed many more, major equine attractions to falter along the way.
And perhaps the most intriguing ditty for debate is destined to be the Sprinter Sacre dilemma. If the almost undefeated chaser does indeed make it to the Festival at all, it will certainly occur without another race in between -- which means infinite scope for speculation that is likely to become more obscure and bizarre as the media struggles for fresh angles to Cheltenham's biggest conundrum closer to the event.
Trainer David Elsworth added an interesting angle when comparing Sprinter Sacre's affliction to the hiccup suffered by his dual Champion Chase winner Barnbrook Again, which also dominated the two-mile division back in the late 1980s. The similarities are striking. Barnbrook Again won his first Queen Mother in March (of 1989) and, like Sprinter Sacre, was making his seasonal reappearance later that year. The venue, remarkably, was also Kempton. "It was the only blip in a run of about 19 races and he either won or was placed in all the others," the trainer recalled. Favourite in a field of three (4/6), the defending Champion Chaser was already in big trouble when he fell at the 12th fence.
"He jumped the fence well and just collapsed on landing," said Brendan Powell, now a trainer but a top-flight jockey at the time. Powell's recollection is that Barnbrook Again took five minutes to rise to his feet.
"As soon as he came back, he was obviously distressed," Elsworth said. "All the Nat Gould readers were thinking he'd been got at. But we listened to his heart and he had an irregular heartbeat. It righted itself, we didn't have to do anything to him. When we got him back home the next day, it was OK. We monitored it for a few days but we never had another problem with it."
The real rub here is that -- times being what they were then -- Barnbrook Again returned to the track just 10 days later. "I remember thinking, 'God, he's had a heart murmur and Elsie's running him already'," Powell said. "But he broke the course record at Newbury carrying 12 stone."
That record stood for 23 years until Sprinter Sacre broke it in 2012. Barnbrook Again went on to win the Champion Chase for a second time in 1990, four months after his Kempton collapse.
The 26 entries for the Queen Mother Champion Chase represent a 50 per cent increase on the number from last year, reflecting the opportunism amongst other trainers to capitalise on the perceived frailties of racing's Special One. Speculative entries for novices like Hinterland and Dodging Bullets will be gambling that the Barnbrook outcome doesn't repeat itself on March 12.
There are now just 36 horses eligible to win the 2014 Gold Cup and Nicky Henderson will be hoping the afflictions to his stable stalwarts stops at the door of Simonsig and Sprinter Sacre. His four entries in Cheltenham's Blue Riband are spearheaded by favourite and defending champion Bobs Worth which, barring all ills, we are highly unlikely to see again until March 14 after his impressive return to form in Leopardstown's Lexus. The Gold Cup's £550,000 -- the richest prize for a non-handicap in Britain -- will go a long way to influencing the final outcome of the UK trainers' championship.
Henderson's entry is trumped numerically by arch-rival Paul Nicholls' five -- amongst them second-favourite and King George winner Silviniaco Conti. Nicholls has won the Gold Cup four times, first with See More Business back in 1999, as opposed to Henderson's twice, but the race still eludes master-of-all-else Willie Mullins despite ten previous attempts. Mullins came close last year with Sir Des Champs, now sadly on the casualty list, and his best chance would appear to lie with Rubi Ball.
The French import ran a corker on his fencing bow in Ireland in the Lexus, with his jumping especially assured. He would appear hard to beat in a soft-ground Hennessy back at Foxrock next month and although not witnessed in recent times, a heavy-ground Gold Cup would put him in the mix.
Perhaps the most intriguing entry is Philip Fenton's Last Instalment -- absent since his victory in the Grade One PJ Moriarty nearly two years ago with a tendon injury. The trainer reports: "It's a bit too early to talk about Cheltenham for Last Instalment, but he will have his first run back in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles (January 16). He has been pleasing in his work so far and everything has gone very satisfactorily with him, but I'm sure he will improve for his first run as we haven't pushed him at home."
Winner of all his four chase starts, Last Instalment had beaten First Lieutenant by six lengths in the Topaz at Christmas in the run before the Moriarty (Bobs Worth beat the same horse a length-and-a-half in the Lexus). It's a major 'if' and highly tenuous contrasting form-lines two years apart, but . . .
And horse racing would be a hollow pursuit without 'if' and 'but'.