12 February 2006

After Newbury’s loss, eyes look to Ireland today for Gold Cup clues.

While Monkerhostin chews hay in his box down in Somerset after yesterday’s abortive trip to Newbury, his fellow Gold Cup favourite Beef Or Salmon should be able to actually put his chances on the line in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown.

All week the Newbury executive knew that a frost forecast for Friday night was likely to put racing at risk. But prior knowledge and extensive covering was no protection against temperatures that dropped to -4C. By 10.30am it had only risen to 1C and walking on it an hour later under a chilly and cloudy sky it was still unraceable. With rising temperatures and an emerging sun, the authorities delayed until a final inspection with leading jockeys and trainers at 12.45. But the shaking of heads from trainers Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, plus jockey Mick Fitzgerald, indicated the worst and the only big winners were those pessimists who backed the abandonment at 3-1 when the temperature began to climb.

Most professionals were initially understanding of the racecourse’s dilemma but late-arriving racegoers seeing a green track under a sunny sky could be forgiven for wondering if in 2006 there cannot be some way of protecting the ground better. And by 1.30 trainer Ferdy Murphy had become extremely critical. “I think it’s an absolute disgrace,” he said. “I have just exercised my Aon Chase runner Joe’s Edge and in my opinion the ground is perfectly raceable. Mark Kershaw (Newbury’s Chief Executive) is pulling his hair out, for the abandonment is really down to the jockeys refusing to ride.”

Kershaw himself added: “I am very disappointed the stewards did not take the chance to put the meeting back half an hour. It was 6C in bright sunshine and perfectly raceable.” However premature the official decision, the first problem to be overcome is how to keep a better cover of turf. Yesterday’s grass was so short and bare in many places that any frost would immediately take hold. The featured races, the Totesport Trophy and Monkerhostin’s event, the Aon Chase, are likely to be re-routed but it is Beef Or Salmon’s effort in Ireland that is going to give us the next clue in what has become one of the most confused and confounded Gold Cups for many years.

As Monkerhostin’s trainer Philip Hobbs was racing to catch an earlier flight for his annual skiing holiday, Beef Or Salmon’s handler Michael Hourigan was walking out to saddle two horses in the first race at Naas and eager to give an upbeat bulletin on his stable star. “He’s in great shape,” Michael said. “He still walks a bit stiff when he first comes out of the box but it eases at once and we really have not had any problems with his back this season.”

In the past the Beef Or Salmon verterbrae have been some of the most worked upon items in the whole racing parish. It was already fairly creaky when I first visited his Limerick base soon after he won the 2003 Hennessy Gold Cup and the crashing fall he then took at Cheltenham in that year’s Gold Cup only made matters worse. Since then the massively- haunched chesnut has remained the great enigma of the jumping game, winning impressively three times on the flat ground of Leopardstown (including that memorable defeat of Best Mate in the 2004 Lexus Chase), but always looking a vulnerable jumper over the undulations of Cheltenham where he was pulled up behind Kicking King last year.

But old horses find their own system. Michael Hourigan has clearly got his champion in good condition and victory today will have many believing that this could be his year. Yet the suspicion remains that the actual parabola of Beef Or Salmon’s jumps will always make him vulnerable around the Cheltenham slopes. Let’s hope he proves me wrong.

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