A Veritable Banquet

We may be living in the age of technological change and advancement but racing is still at the mercy of Mother Nature, where even the purported “all weather” courses have fallen victim to the harsh winter conditions.

Of course it’s the turf racing which is suffering most of all and if it isn’t snow and frost throwing the racing program into disarray then it is standing water from the melting snow and subsequent heavy rain – racing doesn’t seem to have a chance in the battle with Mother Nature at the moment.

There was some respite yesterday when, following a Herculean effort by groundstaff, Cheltenham was able to stage its Festival Trials Day. A meeting which was the brainchild of Edward Gillespie and one which has grown in significance year by year. This year all the cancellations helped the day even more as, with the dearth of racing, many of the big guns were not able to avoid one another.

The day before the meeting a friend of mine called the Cheltenham card “the feast after the famine” as, with due respect to Ayr who managed a mid-week turf meeting, us National Hunt Fans had been deprived of our staple diet.

As it turned out the feast description turned out to be somewhat understated, it wasn’t a feast at all, it turned out to be a veritable banquet.

I have to admit the day did not start well from a form perspective. In the opener we saw a defeated odds-on shot in the shape of Irish Saint, although it has to be said his vanquisher, Rolling Star, was a worthy winner.

It was in the second race where it looked as though it was going to be “one of those afternoons to forget” and everything was going to go wrong. The Novices’ Chase went to the most unexpected winner, in the shape of Vino Griego, a win that left most observers speechless as the horse who has been called so many bad names in the past, sluiced home in the testing conditions.

Were we going to be destined for an afternoon of shock results as the weather, once again, seemed determined to play havoc with our sport?

The answer was no as the card really picked up. Katenko confirmed his recent Sandown win was no fluke, even prompting trainer Venetia Williams to suggest he may have a go at the Gold Cup.

Potentially overshadowing that victory was the fall of Lucinda Russell’s rising star Bold Sir Brian who was beaten when falling at the last. One of those incidents which makes your stomach knot, with the horse was motionless on the turf and the screens were quickly erected.

One of those falls where you instinctively fear the worse - but there was hope as the screens remained up and the van which removes stricken horses remained resolutely where it was parked up.

Then the screens wobbled, came down to show Bold Sir Brian had risen Lazarus like from the turf, hopefully to fight another day, with the crowd applauding as his handler took him back to the stables, a cheer that would not have disgraced the winner of a race.

It lifted the atmosphere greatly even in the press room, usually the most cynical place on the racecourse, there were smiles as the horse walked back.

Next up was the bonus race, the Victor Chandler Chase, postponed from a snowed over Ascot the previous week.

One of the things about racing is we are always looking for the “next big star” and the VC featured one in the shape of Sprinter Sacre. Nicky Henderson’s charge was an impressive winner of last years Arkle and has taken to chasing like a duck to water. Beating a high class Tingle Creek field last time out this was to be his first run on heavy ground.

I suppose the sign of a good horse is he treats all conditions equally and he certainly showed no problems with the testing conditions as he sluiced home to a 14 length victory, giving him an aggregate winning distance of 95 lengths in his seven chase runs. His “narrowest” victory being a “mere” six lengths.

The appreciative crowd knew they were watching a star and he was roared home.

The roar that greeted Sprinter Sacre was absolutely nothing, compared to the roar which accompanied the finalé of our next contest, the Argento Chase, considered a Gold Cup trial.

Imperial Commander is something of a fragile horse. Runner up to Kauto Star in the 2009 Betfair Chase at Haydock, a race which many will say produced the most epic finish ever and winner of the Gold Cup in 2010, he hasn’t been seen in a competitive race since pulling up in the 2011 renewal of national hunt's Blue Riband.   

Yet despite a 680 day lay off he cleared the final fence of the Argento in front and it looked as though we were going to be in for a fairy-tale result at the course Imperial Commander loves.

It’s an oft used cliché  but the roar from the crowd was deafening. Certainly nobody in the stands could hear Richard Hoiles describing the finish.

Maybe it was the cacophony of noise, maybe it was being off the course for 680 days, maybe it was the testing conditions, maybe a combination of all three but the Commander was tiring on the tough run-in and, as the form book will attest for time in memorial, he had no extra in the dying strides as Cape Tribulation edged past him to deny him a perfect return.

Indeed Imperial Commander looked so tired, for a brief moment, I though his rider Paddy Brennan would jump off him straight away.

It was a brave performance and if the race has not taken too much out of him he must again be a serious contender for the big one in March.

It wasn’t just the horses who stole the limelight. Multiple champion jockey AP McCoy once again showed why he is the best we have ever seen with two totally contrasting victories.

It is often said McCoy will somehow get a horse home where others wouldn’t and At Fishers Cross was a perfect example. The New One is another of those touted about rising stars and he looked set to take the novices’ hurdle and without McCoy being around he may well have done.

However McCoy managed to get something extra out of At Fishers Cross and with a late final thrust he got his mount home by a neck.

By contrast he rode Mr Watson from the front in the final contest of the afternoon. By the final flight it looked as though Kings Lad was going to pull off a shock as he came upsides.

Some jockeys would have panicked, not McCoy, he knew exactly what he had under him and on the run-in he opened up the throttle a little bit more and won pulling away.

It was a sublime afternoons racing, it is what racing is all about.

It was “only” Festival Trials day, in truth it wasn’t “only” anything – it was an afternoons racing which would have been worthy of The Festival itself – those of us fortunate enough to be there were able to feast at the top table.           



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