13 March 2005

Hope, and a touch of fear — that’s what everyone carries with them as Cheltenham closes in. The fear is of not making it to The Festival — if Best Mate can burst a blood vessel, so can we all. The best guides are those who have been there before. Earthmover will be going for the fifth time this week. He first won the Foxhunters Chase back in 1998, and did it again last year. He’s 14 but you would never think it as we winged up Paul Nicholls’ gallop alongside Champion Chase outsider Armaturk.

It was a crisp sunny morning down in Dorset and hope sparkled like champagne bubbles. The Nicholls routine is a happy mix of modern methods grafted on to country assets. The main anvil of fitness remains the steep bank of Ditcheat Hill, but first the horses wind their way through the sleepy village and farm yards to where a flat 4½-furlong Polytrack strip runs white-railed alongside a cow field. It puts wings on them.

To be specific it lets the horses use their speed without strain. We whizz down to the end in single file, team up two by two and then rocket back past the watching trainer. Earthmover may be getting on in years but he is still a racehorse and, as he set his chesnut neck out straight, you could feel the belief as well as the power in him. His Cheltenham rider, Rilly Goschen, looks on approvingly as he pulls up. They won their warm-up race impressively at Fontwell. Age may not wither him next week.

“The old boy is in great shape,” said head man Clifford Baker. “Mind you, we are lucky to have a really strong team this year. You would not want to rule many of them out.” Baker is on Cornish Rebel, who puts a decent record on the line in the Sun Alliance Chase. Cornish Rebel is a brown, slightly narrow horse whose head reminds you of someone. Then you remember his brother is Best Mate. From the flat gallop we trek in a sort of equine crocodile to where the Polytrack sets off up the saddle of Ditcheat Hill. It’s only short but, after a furlong, the slope is steep enough for a horse to put his head down and work into the climb. If you ever wonder where Nicholls’ horses get their resolution, try jogging up yourself. It’s no place for the soft-hearted.

The second lot sees the biggest guns of all. First out is Gold Cup hope Strong Flow, tall, dark and hard after the long tough grind back to fitness following his career-threatening knee injury last season. He was a fit-looking 560kg when he rejoined the Nicholls yard in October, 522kg when he finally made it to track for a hurdle race in January and 512kg, right on his best racing weight, when he ran in the Aon Chase at Newbury last month.

“We have put a lot of graft into him,” said Nicholls in his open, uncomplicated way. “He was doing an hour on the horse walker morning and afternoon and he was going four times up the hill. We do flex that knee 30 times before exercise in the morning but there are no excuses. He’s fit now. We wouldn’t want fast ground but I think he has a great chance.”

The one concession to Strong Flow’s past injury is avoidance of fast work on the level. While he sets off for the hill the rest of us walk down through the village again and Baker relates the one real drama in Strong Flow’s comeback bid, the morning he sliced his hind leg schooling in early February. “You have never seen so much blood,” he said, “it just pumped out, it was everywhere, even on the road as we walked back. It broke out again in the afternoon but amazingly it hardly set us back at all.”

Baker is on Azertyuiop, the reigning champion two-mile chaser, an absolute picture of shining fitness confirmed by his drawing just 490kg on the scales. He is not as tall as Strong Flow but it takes even longer to get the weight off him; at 550kg after his summer break he was still 500kg when clearly outpointed by Moscow Flyer at Sandown in December. It is on that edge and on the more aggressive way he will be ridden at Cheltenham that hopes rest for what is the showcase race of the meeting. From what I could see from the gleaming, galloping grandstand that was old rival Cenkos, (set for his fifth Festival and fourth Champion Chase on Wednesday) Azertyuiop will take some cracking.

But such thoughts didn’t get much credence out beyond the moon on Monday. Well, it’s actually spelt Moone, and it’s the village in County Kildare where Jessica Harrington trains the brilliant Moscow Flyer, set to continue his 17-race unbeaten run over fences. Unbeaten, that is, when he has completed. He turned over twice in his first season, and on three other occasions has lost his jockey, most recently when challenging Azertyuiop in the Champion Chase last March.

“His jumping is not really a worry to me,” says head man Eamon Leigh from the champion’s back. “It has been very good this year. He’s a horse with great class. After all, he beat Istabraq over hurdles and won six others before he went over fences.” Leigh has the easy, unhurried authority of one who has been with racehorses since he rode a pony into Johnny Harrington’s yard 35 years ago and asked for a job. Jessie Harrington hasn’t been with her husband quite that long but, as a former Olympic event rider, she doesn’t have to baffle you with boasting.

“My horses do the same thing every day,” she said, as we trot round the slightly soggy sand ring outside the old farm-style stables. “They are creatures of habit. They know what they doing. They don’t pull or get stressed.”

It’s also something of an autobiographical statement. Jessie herself still rides cool and loose in the saddle every morning. She leads us out on to a quarter-mile sand circle round which a big promising staying chaser Well Presented lugs me for 2½ circuits. We walk down to the side of the hill and do two winging spins around the side of it. These are very fit horses, too.

By now my Cheltenham odyssey was getting a hint of fever about it. Stopping at The Curragh on the way to the airport gave me the chance to watch Harrington’s Champion Hurdle hope Mac’s Joy work a full 10 furlongs under Barry Geraghty with Irish Lincoln hope Liffey and two other stablemates. Afterwards a smiling Geraghty said: “He’s in great shape.”

At Exeter next day the smiles were not so easy to come by. Tony McCoy took a good kicking from a heavy fall in the Devon National. Timmy Murphy stood by the last fence a race later, a blush of flaxen bleach in his hair from a quick suspension opportunity trip to Dubai. “It’s a difficult week this,” said Murphy, talking of Celestial Gold and Well Chief, his horses for the Gold Cup and Champion Chase. “Cheltenham is just around the corner but a lot can still go wrong. The great thing,” he ended with the musing, relish of someone who has escaped from the darkest of pits, “is to be there.”

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