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Cheltenham: Calm before Festival storm

The grandstand stood eerily deserted, and the racecourse dozed in watery sunshine.

It was hard to imagine the tumult of noise and emotion that will overwhelm the place on Tuesday week.

But most of the trainers who gathered at Cheltenham yesterday were already nervous wrecks.

Nicky Henderson brandished his phone unhappily. Every time he recognises a call from his stable, he stops breathing. A dozen more days of this; a dozen sleepless nights.

Nor was Jonjo O'Neill exactly the man to soothe his nerves. Overnight one of his better young horses, Backspin, had dropped dead in his stable, having apparently suffered a heart attack.

Henderson should have sought out Philip Hobbs instead. He would have found him exuding the same benign calm as always.

After all, they were only here for the publication of the Festival handicaps, followed by a spot of lunch and a stroll over the course. It was hardly the Spanish inquisition. Yes, it helps that Hobbs had won two big races at Kempton on Saturday, suggesting that his Somerset stable approaches the Festival in good fettle.

But both Quinz and Captain Chris had presented him with the sort of dilemma that might have reduced some of his rivals to stammers and yelps.

Hobbs's choice, however, has reliably proved a matter of phlegm and pragmatism. Many assumed Captain Chris would be kept apart from the yard's other leading novice chaser, Wishfull Thinking. Richard Johnson, their jockey, is among those taken aback by the possibility that both will go for the new Jewson Chase.

“They're in the same ownership, and you'd rather finish first and second in that race than win neither of the others,” Hobbs shrugged.

“It gives Richard a big difficulty. I did mention it to him yesterday, and he didn't know which way to go. If the Arkle or the RSA Chase happened to cut up, things might change.

“But while Richard thinks Captain Chris would be effective over two miles, the Arkle does look a much hotter race. Wherever he goes, he'll definitely benefit from the experience he has had, and from good ground, too.”

As for Quinz, it now sounds as though the Racing Post Chase winner will head for the John Smith's Grand National after all. “He's gone up 9lb so he'll probably run, provided the ground isn't soft,” Hobbs said. “He is a young horse, but he's very tough and brave and you'd like to think that it wouldn't be to his long-term detriment if things didn't work out at Aintree.”

Quinz will sit out the Festival, where the stable's standard-bearer remains Menorah in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Menorah was given a winter break, owing to his distaste for testing ground, so Hobbs took to Exeter for a gallop. “If anything, he looks slightly too well,” the trainer said.

Another with a good Cheltenham record is Snap Tie, who ends an 18-month absence in the County Hurdle.

Belfast Telegraph