Imagine the horror when they woke up in the morning to the bombshell news that overnight rain had saturated the course, which was waterlogged in places, and a late 10 am inspection was needed to ward off abandonment.
While visions of standing water on the hallowed turf conjured up memories of Desert Orchid’s Gold Cup Day back in 1989, they also threw up a dilemma for racegoers already on their way to Prestbury Park. Should they re-route to Doncaster, where a similarly fascinating card was sure to beat the weather? Some of us travelling by train even felt the need to decamp at Derby and wait for the inspection before deciding whether to continue our journey south-west or north.
In the end, the panic-button had been needlessly pressed. This was, after all, Cheltenham we were talking about. Iconic Cheltenham. Home of dreams and legends. We should have had faith. The goods were indeed delivered.
No matter that the ground was as testing as Cotswolds nature allowed. No matter that a cluster of fences were omitted. The meeting not only survived but also succeeded in re-igniting the Jumps season with a characteristically captivating day of action that laid to rest the very ordinary fare of elsewhere through the previous month.
When my fraught trek had finally reached its destination, clerk of the course Simon Claisse confessed to me it had been a close call. “It was a very sweaty morning!” he joked. But in truth, the track did not ride that badly and supplied the usual posse of clues for a Festival that is creeping ever closer.
It was also a day fit for A.King. Alan King, to be exact, who saddled three of the seven winners, not to mention the big-race victor at Doncaster too. In a campaign that has seen so many leading UK trainers toil, most notably David Pipe, Jonjo O’Neill and Donald McCain, and one in which even Paul Nicholls has got bogged down in the midwinter mud, King has stood alongside West Country Philip Hobbs as a beacon of admirable consistency. And in SMAD PLACE, he provided the highlight of Cheltenham’s day with a spectacular return to winning ways in the Gold Cup trial, the BetBright Chase.
Reverting to the front-running exuberance that landed him the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November, the increasingly popular nine-year-old grey led an elite field a merry dance, making a mockery of the bizarre decision to abandon such tactics for the King George on Boxing Day. His display fitted the strengths of stand-in jockey Richard Johnson like a glove, and the relentless reserves of stamina he dug into to see off Grand National winner MANY CLOUDS on the long run past the bypassed second-last made it impossible for King to resist a second tilt at the Blue Riband in six weeks’ time.
Of course, Smad Place’s task was made easier by the fall of DJAKADAM, last season’s Gold Cup runner-up, at the tricky downhill fence that heralds the second circuit. The hot favourite was travelling with customary comfort at the time of his tumble, which set the tone for a rare off-day for his trainer, Willie Mullins, who drew a blank from four runners on these shores.
I was quite surprised that Mullins later announced he will not try and squeeze another race into Djakadam before the Gold Cup. It’s never the wisest to go to the Festival on the back of a fall except, of course, if your name happens to be DAWN RUN, winner of the greatest Gold Cup of all after she herself had come a cropper in this very same prep race back in 1986 when trained by Mullins’s late father, Paddy, and ridden by his brother, Tony.
With VAUTOUR’S suitablity for 3m-plus set to be tested again at Newbury a week on Saturday, Mullins’s number one candidate to break his Gold Cup duck might yet turn out to be the durable DON POLI. And the one they all have to beat might yet turn out to be the revitalised CUE CARD, whose trainer Colin Tizzard is apperently losing little sleep over Saturday’s trial. On greeting his rising star THISTLECRACK after his dazzling dominance of the Cleeve Hurdle, Tizzard was interviewed in the winner’s enclosure and asked what he thought of Smad Place’s triumph. Wihout sounding remotely arrogant or complacent, but rather full of matter-of-factness, the wily Tizzard replied: “Well, we beat him 15 lengths in the King George. I think that answers that question.”
The Dorset handler will be going to bed every night between now and the Festival more excited than most of us, dreaming of a magnificent double because Thistlecrack looks every inch a World Hurdle hero in waiting. As strong a banker as any of the Mullins battalions.
Mullins will also need to pull out the stops to take the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle because YANWORTH, trained by King and owned JP McManus, was a gobsmackingly impressive winner of Saturday’s Cheltenham trial. The six-year-old toyed with a quality field on the bridle and while he looks like a potential chaser, he is improving at such a rate of knots over timber that it would be no surprise to see him mature into a Champion Hurdle prospect next year.
Yanworth, Thistlecrack, Smad Place. Thank goodness I got back on that Cheltenham train!
OTHER CHELTENHAM HORSES TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Other horses to catch the eye at Cheltenham on Saturday included:
CONSUL DE THAIX -- the juvenile hurdle was won by a stablemate, but Nicky Henderson’s scopy French-bred, owned by JP McManus, could well be a better long-term prospect.
KING’S ODYSSEY -- pray that the assessor isn’t too harsh on Evan Williams’s winner of the 2m5f novices’ handicap chase because he’s developing into a class act.
SHANTOU VILLAGE -- Neil Mulholland’s novice hurdler surrendered his unbeaten record in bowing to Yanworth, but could still make his mark at the Festival if stepped up to 3m.
CLEAN SHEET -- satisfactory seasonal bow for Nicky Henderson’s lighty-raced hurdler, who is being primed for a major handicap pot.