It’s hard to read clues when they come covered in mud but Alan King is not complaining. On Cheltenham ground so heavy that cancellation had seemed likely early in the morning, he won three consecutive races at this Festival Trials Day and made his afternoon complete by winning two more up at Doncaster including the featured Sky Bet Chase.
No standing water was visible but the last fence and two others were still too saturated to jump but none of this stopped Smad Place setting up a repeat performance of his marvellous front running display in the Hennessy Gold Cup. When he is in a rhythm like this he can press others into mistakes as Gold Cup favourite Djakadam found out to his cost when not getting high enough at the tenth.
There was a collective gasp at the odds on shot’s departure but the race’s interest only quickened as Grand National winner Many Clouds loomed up and even headed Smad Place coming down the hill. It was a great effort from last year’s Aintree hero but Smad Place outgunned him up the hill and Many Clouds’ trainer Oliver Sherwood was thrilled with the chance of taking jumping’s biggest prize a second time.
But this was billed as a Gold Cup trial and Smad Place had previously been seen as more of a Ryanair Chase candidate so his Gold Cup odds were quickly cut from 8-1 from 33-1″If I was confused before, I’m even more confused now,” said Alan King. “It certainly doesn’t do his chances in the Gold Cup any harm. That was a joy to watch and Richard Johnson gave him a great ride. I was blown away by the Hennessy and I’m slightly blown away again today but not for poor Wayne (Hutchinson) who would have ridden but for hurting his foot in a fall on Friday.
There much more joy to come for Alan King as Annacotty dug deep to beat off Tenor Nivernais in the next and then little short of revelation as Yanworth toyed with what had seemed one of the best bunch of novice hurdlers yet gathered this season. At the finish the unbeaten Shantou Village and the hugely promising Champers On Ice were trailing by 7 lengths and 12 with Barry Geraghty peering back through his legs for danger.
Yanworth was quickly cut to 5/2 favourite for the Neptune and this coming half an hour after the unbeaten Barters Hill had confirmed himself at the top of the Albert Bartlett, at last brought a bit of confidence back for the British defense against what had seemed an all-powerful Irish invasion force at the festival.
Alan King has said that he has never had anything like Yanworth before and Colin Tizzard is beginning to say the same about his staying hurdler Thistlecrack – and that is despite having Britain’s best Gold hope Cue Card in his stable. Yesterday’s test for Thistlecrack was the Cleeve Hurdle and to say he passed it would be an understatement.
Camping Ground did his best to test him from the front, Petit Zig loomed up threateningly but once Tom Scudamore asked him, Thistlecrack powered away as if he had another gear entirely. He is a magnificent looking individual and is now as short as 6/4 for the World Hurdle. As he walked back jockey Tom Scudamore said, “it’s easy to yap away after races. But you saw what he did. That’s enough.”
The next six weeks will see a few more clues and a lot more talk before we all reconvene here for the Festival itself. Plenty of that talk will have to come from Djakadam’s ownerRich Ricci whose portfolio of star Willie Mullins horses is such that when includes Champion Hurdler Faugheen, Arkle banker Douvan, Supreme Novices favourite Min, star mare Annie Power and Vautour who has now replaced Djakadam as favourite for the Gold Cup itself.
When Rich Ricci first arrived on the racing scene the loud check suits, wide dark glasses and pulled down trilby made him look like an archetypal hate figure from the crumbling banking world from which he came. But with the glasses and hat removed he has emerged as highly informed and engagingly enthusiastic about his horses and jump racing in general.
His charm offensive was up a gear yesterday as he was promoting the sponsorship of the GB/Ireland battle for winners at the Festival by Bet Bright of which he is chairman. His input has already been a welcome addition to this year’s excitements but for one thing he cannot be forgiven. Last week he was repeating the fashionable canard that what happens in here each March is “The Olympics of Jump Racing.” The Cheltenham Festival is many things but the one thing it cannot be is a once every four year Olympics. That’s settled then.