The Cheltenham Festival is expected to start on stamina-sapping ground next week, following a steady fall of rain since Thursday. The going on all parts of the track was changed to soft at 4pm on Friday and another 5mm to 6mm of rain is expected to fall before racing begins on Tuesday.
After a dry spell of almost three weeks and warmer temperatures, there had been a widespread expectation that the Festival going would be considerably better than has been the case for much of the winter. But that no longer appears certain, with forecast low temperatures for next week meaning the course will have little opportunity to dry out.
“We’re a lot higher up than the track, so we always get more rain but it’s bloody soft here,” said the local trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, on Friday evening. “We’ve had 7mm today, it’s raining now and the water table was high to begin with.”
Frost covers are expected to be deployed around the chase and hurdles courses during the weekend, as well as the vulnerable parts of the cross-country track, and Twiston-Davies noted that the usual effect of such covers is to make the going more holding than before. “I think it’s going to be testing,” he said.
The trainer said deep going was unlikely to be a problem for his best chance of a Festival winner, The New One in the Neptune Novice Hurdle, as he has been running well on soft going all winter. “The one I’d be disappointed for is According To Trev in the Pertemps,” he said.
Twiston-Davies believes he is clear of the virus that caused three of his horses, including Imperial Commander, to be ruled out of the Festival earlier this week. “It’s been a difficult time, but I think we turned the corner this morning,” he said.
“On Tuesday, some of them worked badly, so we did some trach washes and they were bad. Today, everything worked well, there were no nasty surprises.”
Soft going may cause some late changes of mind about race targets for next week’s runners and led to speculation on Friday that Dynaste, the longstanding favourite for the RSA Chase, would now be switched to the shorter Jewson Chase. The horse’s trainer, David Pipe, is expected to announce a final decision over the weekend.
Pipe’s Grands Crus, meanwhile, was ruled out of the Festival altogether, one day after his owner suggested he was a likely runner in the World Hurdle.
The trainer told At The Races that the grey had “worked well” on Friday morning but that a subsequent scope had been unsatisfactory.
“He still worked the same at home as he always has done,” Pipe said. “There’s plenty more left this season and the worse scenario is he doesn’t run again this season. We’ll work towards Aintree and see how he goes between now and then. He’s basically OK but you want to be 110%.”
Big Buck’s, the winner of the World Hurdle for the past four years, will not race again until the same race next year, according to his owner, Andy Stewart. “If he doesn’t like it, or doesn’t get there, he’ll be retired,” said Stewart, appearing on Racing UK at Sandown.
“He could run at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting or we could go for the Long Walk or we could run in the Cleeve Hurdle, but we’re not going to do that. Paul [Nicholls, trainer] and I have decided today, having spoken to Ruby [Walsh, jockey], we’re going to go straight for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle in 2014.”
There are often injury scares, real and imaginary, in the last few days before a Festival and one such briefly sprung up around the Champion Hurdle contender Grandouet, who has had one race in the past 15 months. Trained by Nicky Henderson and no bigger than 8-1 with conventional bookmakers, he drifted to 40-1 on Betfair’s betting exchange on Friday before stabilising at just under 9-1.
Speaking at Sandown, Henderson offered no reason for concern. “Grandouet worked on the grass in the fog with Une Artiste and River Maigue,” he said. “They went a good gallop and it was all good. The ground was beautiful.”
The trainer said that Tony McCoy had been at his yard to ride Binocular on Friday morning, while Barry Geraghty had schooled Simonsig and Riverside Theatre. “They’ve virtually finished everything now,” Henderson said of his team’s preparation.