Cheltenham jumps to it
Horseracing seldom demands more of its stage hands than the change of scene completed tomorrow, just six days after the Breeders' Cup.
In fairness, the Flat season reached so giddy a climax at Santa Anita that there could be no seeking a fresh pinnacle, only a fresh start. And that is precisely what can be enjoyed over the next three days at Cheltenham, in a meeting long cherished as the first proper showcase of the jumps season.
There could be few better rehearsals than a morning with Nigel Twiston-Davies, just up the road from Cheltenham. No current trainer has a better record at this fixture — 20 winners since 1990 — and in hosting a party of film crews and reporters yesterday he left no margin for doubt that they had left California well behind.
He began by driving them fully 100 yards, to the top of his gallop, in a double-decker bus, then, back at his fireside, he discussed no fewer than 20 entries at the meeting in an atmosphere saturated with woodsmoke, mulled wine and optimism.
The latter was never more evident than in addressing the prospects of Ballyfitz in the Paddy Power Gold Cup on Saturday, the biggest prize of the meeting, and one he won 12 months ago with Imperial Commander — who returned to the Festival in March to win the Ryanair Chase.
“It's very much the same sort of scenario as with Imperial Commander,” Twiston-Davies noted. “He started his novice season last year by winning well at Cheltenham, and then ran badly in his last races.
“He's come back really well, and I hope the handicapper hasn't really got hold of him. He's a real battler, who jumps well and loves Cheltenham, and the forecast rain will suit. We're very excited about his chance.”
Another notably enthusiastic endorsement was offered for Pettifour, who tests the theory that he will be even better over fences than over hurdles when he contests his first chase on Saturday.
“His hurdling has never been the best but he has been absolutely magic schooling and he may be the one we'll be talking about for the Paddy Power next year,” said Twiston-Davies.
Fiveforthree, the second favourite for the World Hurdle at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival, has been ruled out for the season, by trainer Willie Mullins.
After working several of his horses yesterday, Mullins said: “Fiveforthree has not progressed as well as I would have hoped.”