Monday Meandre: To Cheltenham via Paris and Bedford!

Monday meander

By Tony Stafford

They say bad news comes in threes. Well I’ve already had my three. Firstly, yesterday we heard that Grass Green was NOT in foal to her cover at Coolmore; second Arsenal will NOT be winning a third FA Cup in a row, even if Spurs DO win the League, and lastly Howard Wright has bailed out from his chairman’s spot on the Bedfordshire Racing Club Cheltenham Preview tonight.

Old Mr Reliable – the man who made sure the DT racing page was OK even if I’d taken my break to watch my two dogs run at White City – has again buggered up his holiday dates. Reckon! More like another freebie to the ends of the world for that particular retired Yorkshireman.

So now I’ve got to get through a long day’s preparation for four days away, but lose from 5.30 p.m. to midnight to drive up the A1 in rush hour traffic and make my points on the final day of previews. At least we – I presume Corals’ Ian Wassell and BHA handicapper David Dickinson will show up to keep the members informed – always meet some very nice people.

I don’t know about you but I’m sick to death of previews even if I no longer go to any others. There was one after racing at Sandown on Saturday, but we high-tailed it home in time to hear England beat Wales at Twickers.

So over-bearing is Cheltenham from October each winter that events of great magnitude virtually disappear into thin air, albeit that everyone still loves bent trainer/ jockey exposes as we had last week.

Last Monday, one event that would normally have been fully recorded and indeed witnessed went the way of most things over the past few weeks, bowing ingratiatingly to yet another re-broadcasting of the Racing UK Festival preview.

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Surely if they churn out the same stuff as many times as they do, there should be a rebate. Ha ha! With no live racing from any of their tracks, you’d have expected Mark Johnson and Claude Charlet to be paying attention to Enghien, which followed the opening of Auteuil the day before as nuit follows jour.

If it had, we’d have realised that Dan Skelton had sent over a couple of horses and we might even have taken note. Once I realised the enormity of my failure to keep in touch, it occurred to me that they were probably the first runners he’d sent over there.

That turned out to be the case, although I know last spring – indeed on the day when Notnowsam ran fourth back over hurdles at Southwell, Dan was off on a shopping spree in that country. When he called to go over the race, he said he’d been “here, there and everywhere”; seen plenty of nice horses and all that was now needed was for him to find “someone to buy them”.

Well it seems Patrick Anderson did just that. There is no record on the Racing Post site of his having had anything in training before, and no sign of him being owner of anything trained in France, but he sure has made a great start, being the proud proprieteur of the three-year-old French-bred, Mont Lachaux, the first of Dan’s two winners.

With the gelding having never seen a sale ring, you have to presume this was one of those “in a field” merchants that caught Dan’s keen eye. Not only was this his first runner in France, but considering the date, March 7, it was almost inconceivable that Dan would know quite how to ready a raw horse to win over jumps before half the horses of that age trained in Newmarket are probably yet to do fast work.

A big field with horses by good sires and trained by some of the best jumps handlers faced Mont Lachaux, but he put them away by 12 lengths and at better than 18-1. Quite the most amazing overseas single debut by a trainer in my lifetime – that was until an hour or so later.

Then in a €60,000 conditions hurdle, Dan found what turned out the ideal race after almost a year off for the talented Shelford, last seen weakening into fifth in the Martin Pipe Conditionals race after looking the likely winner most of the way round.

Shelford was not at quite as generous odds faced by a decent field most of whom were better in than he on adjusted ratings, but 14-1 or so was looking pretty decent as he went 20 lengths clear to complete the 290 or so to 1 double. Hope someone was on, but if they were not, a total of nearly £40k prize money was not too dusty.

I suggested to Dan that he might like to test whether the apparent improvement on last season’s form might be sufficient for Shelford to defy a 5lb penalty in Wednesday’s Coral Cup. He was less than exultant saying the opposition had pretty much all had a good time off, but nothing like as much, Dan, as your impressive winner.  He’s my bet of the week and that’s all you’ll get from me.

Mont Lachaux has a number of talented relatives. A gelded son of Astarabad, he is the ninth produce (in an 11-year cycle – one gap year) of matings with the Mansonnien mare Belle Yepa. He is therefore a full-brother to the 2014 Coral Cup winner Whisper, who tries again in the World Hurdle this week after a spell in the doldrums.

Nicky Henderson’s normal service at Cheltenham might appear to be intact as on Sunday morning 55 of his meeting’s entries were quoted in the betting on their respective races. He starts with a bang with two of the best-fancied runners in the Supreme Novice Hurdle, Altior, a general 7-2 shot and Buveur d’Air (6-1) and has five, including the quietly-fancied (after two years off!) My Tent or Yours, 7-1 for the Champion Hurdle.

But it is with something of a shock that I realised only nine of the 55 quoted were at 10-1 or shorter and ten more were between 12-1 and 16-1. The rest are 20-1 or more, thus 36 of them, at up to 80-1, with an amazing 14 at 33-1.

You would be right to say, well hang on, it’s Cheltenham. True, but last year, when Hendo had 30 actual runners, using the same three bands, 11 started 10-1 or less, nine between 12-1 and 18-1 and the other ten 20-1 and up.

We know they’ve been hampered by the weather – his horses tend to have more speed than those of many of his rivals – and probably by some sort of mid-season training issue, but there’s not too much difference in terms of number of pre-Cheltenham races run.

Nicky, more than most, targets the race and then sorts out the preps with precision. This year the preps have been disrupted. I’m sure a couple of winners each here and at Aintree will get Seven Barrows singing again, but with an unlikely 31 more needed in six weeks to get up to the bare minimum requirement of 100 for the season, tension will be filling the air in the Valley as spring advances.

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