28 January 2007

It was the sound that asked a question: the deep, wet-earth, thudding sound of horse hooves getting through the Cheltenham ground on the way to the start. By the end of the afternoon Black Jack Ketchum, Our Vic and even the racecourse itself had come out on the wrong end of the answer.

Black Jack Ketchum finished fifth after weakening dramatically in the Byrne Bros Cleeve Hurdle, Our Vic hung on to be a legless second to Exotic Dancer in the Letheby and Christopher Chase, and Cheltenham were left to wonder whether even this magnificent card is worth the damage done to the turf with just six weeks to go to the Festival.

You can’t fault the track for trying. All week they have been battling the prospect of snow and frost by covering the course with the world’s largest blanket. But the ground that emerged to face an almost spring-like January afternoon was one of the most unattractive surfaces that horses have to race on, saturated enough to have hooves sinking almost hock deep in places but dried out enough to make the process of pulling them out quite exhausting.

We knew where we were as the horses jumped, or attempted to jump, the last flight in the first race. Tony McCoy on the hot favourite Wichita Lineman drove in, up and over with a flourish but Robert Thornton on the battling Zilcash was not so lucky – clipping the hurdle with legs too tired to hold him up on landing. The somersault that followed was more spectacular than life-threatening but as he lay winded you knew that this going was going to take as much a toll of the horses as of the turf.

In these conditions it is only the winner that comes out unscathed and even he returns with a tank close to the empty mark. For the beaten horses there is no freewheeling home when empty comes and while this day was rightly hailed as one of Cheltenham trials, for too many it meant ‘trials’ in the ordeal sense rather than for any clues to their big targets at the great showdown here in March.

For none was this more true than Black Jack Ketchum as his eight-race unbeaten streak came to a halt with worrying abruptness on the long run to the last hurdle. One moment he and McCoy were the poised and deadly combination that has ruled the staying hurdle world, the next they were floundering also-rans as Thornton changed his luck on the gutsy Blazing Bailey, who had been swept aside by Black Jack last time out.

“He was going really well until then and I still wouldn’t swap him for any other ride in the World Hurdle,” said McCoy loyally afterwards before adding the cautionary proviso. “I hope it was just the ground that stopped him.” This sort of going – the second-last hurdle was omitted because of bogginess – is always going to mitigate against a classy mover like Black Jack. But you never like to see a horse capitulate so completely. With just six weeks left you have to worry whether the experience will have left a scar, either physical or mental.

If you had seen Our Vic easing his great frame wearily round after his Letheby and Christopher Chase ordeal you would be concerned that the same would apply to him. He is a huge horse, a full 17 hands at the shoulder, and going to the last fence he had ducked in behind Exotic Dancer as if the whole thing had become too much. But at that stage he was entitled to exhaustion. He had just had a battle with the birch that would have knocked out a lesser quadruped.

It was at the second last, the 20th fence of a race in which he had jumped all the others with majestic power up in the van. For the last mile he and the grey Neptune Collonges had duelled impressively up front. At the third last the Irish mare Cailin Alainn had turned over when still a threat and now the leading pair were joined by McCoy, who had finally crept up to challenge on the course specialist Exotic Dancer.

On most horses when you get this far, you have to commit. Both Timmy Murphy on Our Vic and Ruby Walsh on Neptune Collonges pumped in and hard to ask for take-off. Both horses were too tired to answer right. The impact turned Neptune and Walsh cartwheeling into a mercifully soft landing. Across the fence Our Vic hit the obstacle even harder. It was like a boxer getting a full-on blow to the chin. Somehow he didn’t even take a count.

Yet it fixed him. That left Exotic Dancer, the horse McCoy rides with an almost personality-changed cautious persona, to nip neatly over the last to claim a place in the Gold Cup line-up.

The afternoon had other dramas: our top novice Katchit held off French challenger Good Bye Simon in the juvenile hurdle, the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase had a massive fence reduction due to the dazzling sun, and, in the last, the two-mile chaser Ashley Brook came back from a 420-day lay-off to run a hurdle field ragged. But for horse and for course, the biggest worry must remain whether we should have raced at all.

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