Relentless rain continues to muddy the Cheltenham Festival’s formbook waters

RUBY'S BLUES DAY -- brilliant jockey Ruby Walsh suffered a rare off-day at Leopardstown on Saturday when beaten on two strong fancies and then suffering a couple of last-fence mishaps. (PHOTO BY: www.horseracingphoto.co.uk)

RUBY'S BLUES DAY -- brilliant jockey Ruby Walsh suffered a rare off-day at Leopardstown on Saturday when beaten on two strong fancies and then suffering a couple of last-fence mishaps. (PHOTO BY: www.horseracingphoto.co.uk)

Word on the Cotswolds grapevine confirms that Cheltenham was saturated by more than 50mm of rain on Saturday when the Arkle Bar lay at the mercy of Storm Imogen.

It might be too early to start thinking about the rarity of a Soft-ground Festival. Somehow, Gold Cup week usually seems to find a way of heralding the advent of spring weather. But with only three more Saturdays of trials to go, we are fast running out of formbook clues that can be referenced to decent ground.

Of course, it’s not the first wet winter Jumps racing has endured. Punters are well versed in respecting midwinter form, but adding the caveat that conditions won’t be the same at Cheltenham and Aintree in the spring when the racing really matters.

However, after such a relentless ten-week period of storms and deluges, the water table must be so high now, even at Prestbury Park where the drainage system is more effective than at most courses. And given that last weekend’s soaking came only seven days after racing must present clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, with a trying month of preparation for the big event. Just as worrying is that climate-change scientists are convinced more and more rain is an odds-on shot for future winters.

Even Musselburgh, which can usually be relied upon to include Good in its going description, was metereologically sabotaged on Sunday when it staged its latest admirable attempt to join in the Festival fun with a barnstorming eight-race card of Cheltenham preps. Speed is usually of the essence at the Scottish track, but a string of smart raiders from big yards were greeted by heavy rain and buffeted by a raging wind that made stamina the chief requirement.

Conditions weren’t quite as bad as those at another across-the-border venue 24 hours earlier when Ffos Las was forced to scrap its Welsh Champion Hurdle and West Wales National card after it was hit by a morning monsoon. Clerk of the course, Keith Ottesen, has come in for stick for delaying the abandonment decision until 12 midday, but tracks have a duty to do all they can to get meetings on, and if that means leaving it until the last minute, then so be it. Ffos Las would have looked incredibly silly if it had abandoned at nine in the morning, and then the forecast rain had not materialised.

Having said all of that, our newest of courses, opened six years ago, really does appear to have a major problem with its ground, particularly during the Jumps season. The slow-motion slogfests that too often pass for racing are an undedifying sight, never more so than at this corresponding meeting last year. Drainage improvements might as well have been done by descendants of King Canute, so no wonder course owner Dai Walters is beginning to pull his hair out and is even considering reducing the amount of National Hunt fixtures Ffos Las stages.

Gruelling ground was also blamed in most quarters for an extraordinary sequence of upsets at Ireland’s last major raceday before the Festival on Saturday. In six important trials, no fewer than five short-priced favourites were well beaten, while champion trainer Willie Mullins saddled two winners with his third strings.

Such a feat made a mockery of the crackpot critics who claim a Mullins monopoly prevents his best horses competing against each other. But the shocks added up to a rare day to forget for his jockey Ruby Walsh, who suffered a Grade One quadruple of mishaps. Walsh might have gone too hard in front on LET’S DANCE in the juvenile hurdle, not hard enough in front on BELLSHILL in the novice hurdle and then suffered a couple of last-fence calamities on PONT ALEXANDRE in the novices’ chase and VALSEUR LIDO in the Irish Gold Cup.

In fairness to Walsh, at the time of Pont Alexandre’s blunder, the eight-year-old had had his measure taken by impressive stablemate OUTLANDER. But Valseur Lido would surely have won the Gold Cup trial had he not buckled on landing. His smooth performance franked the progress he made as a novice last season, particularly when stepped up to 3m on ground with plenty of dig, and also paid a handsome compliment to the form of the King George at Kempton where he never landed a blow until again coming a cropper at the last.

After the tumble of DJAKADAM the previous week, the Leopardstown contest also dented the Cheltenham prospects of another Gold Cup contender, ROAD TO RICHES. I was staggered to read condemnation of the tactics employed on Noel Meade’s nine-year-old who, on ground far too testing for him and after a long absence, plus a minor setback over Christmas, still ran a fair race. Nevertheless, the display left him with a bit to prove and I am becoming more and more convinced that this year’s Gold Cup will, as usual (unless you happen to be Kauto Star), not be won by a horse who has been beaten in the race before. Of such challengers, only the improved SMAD PLACE has a squeak, but even then, only if the ground does indeed remain Soft and only if he is allowed his own way up top.

I have no doubt that the best horse in the race will be VAUTOUR. Equally, I have no doubt he won’t stay, even if ridden more conservatively than at Kempton. That leaves a shortlist of three -- the revitalised CUE CARD, the reliable DON POLI and the redoutable DON COSSACK. Like the rest of us, the first two love Cheltenham. Thankfully, none of them minds a bit of rain.

WALKING ON THOSE PRE-FESTIVAL EGGSHELLS

The sad news relayed by trainer Gary Moore that TRAFFIC FLUIDE is to miss the Cheltenham Festival after suffering a setback was a stark reminder of the eggshells that are walked on by punters during the build-up to the great week.

Every year, as the days are counted down to the best Jumps meeting in the world, Festival addicts dread hearing or reading stories that they will be deprived of seeing high-quality horses because of late injuries.

Traffic Fluide progressed superbly as a 2m novice chaser last season and ran a blinder behind UN DE SCEAUX on his re-appearance at Ascot last month, making him a serious each/way player for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The hurt is compounded by the presence in my Festival portfolio of a Betfair wager at 70s.

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