How many times have I written Cheltenham is not the ‘be all and end all’ during the course of this winter? I’m sure it’s been at least twice!
Four days before the magnificent championships begin, I’ll trumpet the message again. Even if the Leicester card on Friday isn’t your cup of tea there’s Sandown Park on Saturday while county watchers anxious not to be caught in the hurly burly of queues for toilets, bars and other attractive locations, Towcester stages a meeting next Thursday when the action is due to get underway at 1.20pm.
Sandown... ay there’s the rub.
Local trainer Stuart Edmunds might be itching for a repeat of last season’s 40/1 Festival success next week with Domesday Book in the Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Amateur Riders Chase (Maria’s Benefit has a live chance in the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle next Thursday), but as the late/great trainer Arthur Stephenson liked to point out: ‘little fish are sweet’.
For a busy yard it’s just possible Cheltenham might creep up unawares. Possible but unlikely.
On Monday, Edmunds sent Pull Together to Lingfield while Hillcrest Fire, Blackbird and Land League trotted onto a horse box, destination Kempton Park. Three of the four runners were placed, so no-one is disputing the form of the yard.
Meanwhile, on Mothering Sunday, Molly Childers is off to Market Rasen.
The snow and ice have finally relented, and it is not just the ploughs and diggers getting back on track.
Last year, Molly Childers ran a decent fifth for the Edmunds team in the EBF Listed Mares’ Bumper at Sandown behind Cap Soleil.
Any repetition of that by Towcester winner Queenohearts on Saturday would enter the satisfactory bracket.
For all my many years’ fascination with horse racing, a healthy share in Queenohearts is far and away the most significant I have owned.
Barely had I caught breath in the aftermath of her victory at Towcester on December 21, my late wife’s birthday, than the Sandown date was etched into the brain of myself and five co-owners.
I don’t know if she will win or be placed, so please don’t ask.
Yet here is the logic.
Queenohearts is only a five-year-old and should be much better next season over hurdles. Given her rate of physical and mental progress, it is possible she can only cope with one more run this season, so why not aim at a decent pot?
Soft ground should help and apparently the weather god has decreed we will get that.
Edmunds plans to field a brace of other Festival runners in the form of Theclockisticking and Clondaw Native in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle and the Albert Bartlett Hurdle respectively.
Even before Cheltenham is sniffed, Sandown will be a busy venue for the ‘locals’.
Edgcote trainer Alex Hales runs Huntsman Son at Sandown in the Matchbook Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle on the back of a decent second over hurdles at Cheltenham in January and victory would be a marvellous result for the red and black colours of his nonagenarian owner Bill Booth.
Hales has also made an entry for Topper Thornton in the 3m handicap chase.
Also in the feature event on the Sandown card are the Paul Webber-trained Gwafa and Shanroe Saint.
The latter is trained by Ben Case and is expected to revel in conditions which bring mud up to his eyeballs.
Case is likely to have a pair of Festival runners next week in the form of Midnight Jazz in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle on Tuesday and Graceful Legend who Case rates as having a small each way chance, possibly in the Martin Pipe race on Friday.
“She ran quite well around Cheltenham in December and we were pleased to get some black type into her at Ascot. But her main spring target is a handicap hurdle back at Cheltenham in April,” he said.
Case could also win Queenohearts’ Sandown race with Princess Roxy, an impressive scorer at Doncaster on her only start which means I shall wave to the trainer in the parade ring beforehand. If Princess Roxy wins, defeating Queenohearts by a fast diminishing head, it will be quite a different story!
Hales, hopeful of a bold show from Topper Thornton on Saturday, will go to the Festival with his stable star Duel At Dawn, expected to be the partner of Tommie O’Brien in either the Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Amateur Riders’ Chase or the 4m National Hunt Chase.
“He has never been out of the first two, is bang on target and deserves to take his chance,” said Hales.