12 March 2006

Everyone wants to know. Some people ought to know. But how much should they let you know? Britain’s leading owner, David Johnson, sat among a score of friends at lunch on Wednesday, a smile on his face, but the wine untouched. He told us a lot. But did he tell us everything?

The conspiracy theory is the bane and the boon of racing. It justifies endless searching for a supposed missing link while excusing all misjudgments as the machinations of others. Johnson was splendidly open on Wednesday but he didn’t tell us that the next day’s headlines would be about his Gold Cup hope Celestial Gold galloping at Devon and Exeter. Ah, so there was a plot hatching all along.

The truth is that no-one really knows, it’s just some are better informed, they are the ones you should cosy up to before Cheltenham. Even if the Blackberry on the table in front of Johnson had left him a message about Celestial Gold’s gallop, what difference would it have made? What he said about Celestial Gold was that Martin Pipe was pleased with the horse, that he had been trained for the race, and in what looked like a moderate Gold Cup, he had to have an each-way chance. Nothing that happened in the Devon gloom that morning would seem to change that.

The information that got us – and should get you – really interested was Johnson’s view on his novice chasers. At the same lunch a year ago he had happily confided that his best chance was Contraband in the Arkle. As the horse stormed home at 7-1 the rest of us were quite pathetically shouting “who else knew?” This time the Johnson green and blue colours (chosen as Robert Sangster’s in reverse) will be carried by the ex-French horse Don’t Be Shy in the Arkle and by the ex-Irish Commercial Flyer in the longer Sun Alliance Chase. If you really want to know, David fancies both of them.

Both are also living proof that plenty of racing is not necessarily a career threatener. Over in France, Don’t Be Shy ran no fewer than 12 times in 14 months from March 2004, and when he ran out an impressive winner at Lingfield last time he was already racing for the sixth time this season. Commercial Flyer has an even more extraordinary record. He was the horse who won five times in four weeks last season before finishing fifth with top weight at Sandown less than 24 hours after winning at Perth for the second time in two days. At Sandown many of us complained that subjecting the horse to such a schedule would ruin his career. Watching Commercial Flyer make a most impressive debut over fences last time at Taunton only confirmed that, no, we didn’t know.

“He did it very well,” said Johnson on Wednesday, rattling off an almost Pipe-style analysis, “he jumps nicely, Martin likes him a lot, I think he’s probably my best chance of the meeting.”

To be detailed, Commercial Flyer is a half-brother to Johnson’s sometimes over-hyped Our Vic, favourite for Thursday’s Ryanair Chase. The younger sibling could be the superior one. Commercial Flyer may well be opposed by the five-year-old Napolitain who has already put 19 races (and six victories) behind him in Britain and his native France and his recent success at Sandown was the best of his career. His owner, the financier Andy Stewart, was at another, rather more bitter-sweet gathering, the day before the Johnson lunch. It was a celebration of the life of the distinguished and much-missed journalist George Ennor, for whom Cheltenham was for so long both a work-bench and a watering-hole. In owning terms, Stewart remains what is charmingly referred to as a ‘Festival Virgin’. With Turko in the Triumph Hurdle and Phar Bleu in the County Hurdle, Andy’s virginity may not last the week.

“We think Turko ought to be our best chance,” said Andy, the Barbados tan almost visibly fading as the rain sheeted down, “but the four days are so competitive that every race is difficult.” That sounds too close to a “don’t know” for confidence.

But what do any of us know? As the afternoon deteriorated on Wednesday we fell to that most dangerous of diversions, holding forth on what “couldn’t win”. As shameful hostages to fortune, the four selected were Denman (too excitable), Kauto Star (not tough enough), Racing Demon (too right-handed) and Moscow Flyer (too old). Since the first three are hot favourites and Moscow Flyer is the most successful horse in training, it is a list which looks dangerous in the extreme.

For me Racing Demon, for all his talents, is the only one I would be surprised to see winning. Unless my eyes and instincts betray me, he is a horse, for all his talents, who has serious right-handed bias in his jumping. No horse without that would ever hit the side of the wing as he did at Exeter when actually going right handed. At Cheltenham going to the left, he will be wasting effort at fence after fence. He might get away with it in a lesser race at a smaller meeting. But not at the Festival, not in the Arkle, the most intense two-mile novice chase of the season.

Poor old Moscow Flyer has got the pessimists going so hard that his own connections have now, understandably, opted for predicting the worst. But if he strips fit he has 10lb in hand over Kauto Star on last season’s form. He arrived with stablemate Macs Joy at Cheltenham yesterday evening. It will be his fifth year back. The adrenalin will run. Bad vibes or not, it won’t surprise me to see him flay them.

But at least jockey Barry Geraghty won’t get sacked for winning. In other territories they do it differently, and if someone who is supposed to “know” tells you his horse won’t win, it had better not do so. Some years back at Hong Kong’s Happy Valley, British jockey Jimmy Bleasdale lost his contract by coming up on an outsider at 40-1.The horse’s name? One that should be appropriate for next week’s mood and supremely ill-fitting for that Eastern occasion. It was called Joyful.

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