GC: 20 Festival Questions
Just another quiet week on Planet Racing. Headlines about steroids and resignations have taken precedence over the Festival build-up, leaving Channel 4 and Racing UK broadcaster Graham Cunningham with no shortage of topics to cover in part three of his '20 Festival Questions' feature.
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1: Public image of racing or innocent until proven guilty: Which is more important?
Former racing writer of the year Greg Wood of the Guardian is in no doubt that Philip Fenton should not be allowed to run Last Instalment in the Gold Cup until the BHA has fully established how steroids came to be in his yard and argues that the gelding's connections would be fortunate to avoid being jeered all the way back to the winner's enclosure should he win on March 14.
The BHA are planning a series of dope tests and interviews before they decide which way to jump, but it's hard not to feel uneasy about certain aspects of this latest Roid Rage episode.
"Make no mistake, the image of British and Irish racing is very important. But... it's nowhere near so important as the time-honoured principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty."
GC on Philip Fenton
2: How does the land lie as we stand?
All we know for sure at this stage is that Fenton has been charged with possession of steroids after a visit from the Department of Agriculture over two years ago.
We don't know who placed them on the premises; we don't know who purchased them; we don't know why they were there; we don't know why it has taken so long to get the matter to court; we don't know why Fenton seemingly chose to keep the matter to himself; and we certainly don't know if steroids were ever used on horses in the yard.
But we do know that British racing has imposed damaging suspensions on various parties in the past based on pending criminal charges only to see those charges collapse in embarrassing fashion when held up to proper legal scrutiny.
And we do know that at least one big-name jumper is currently (and rightly) being lauded for his amazing longevity at the top level even though he spent most of 2011 under the care of a trainer who was tried and found guilty of using steroids on other members of his team.
The BHA are clearly right to visit Fenton looking for answers. And they would be right to give Last Instalment clearance to run in the Gold Cup provided he clarifies the crucial issues to their satisfaction.
Make no mistake, the image of British and Irish racing is very important. But, despite what some inside this sport's bizarre bubble would have you believe, it's nowhere near so important as the time-honoured principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty.
3: Why is Harry Fry reluctant to commit Activial to the Triumph after his Adonis win?
Because he is a canny young trainer with a high regard for the advice of a hugely-experienced rider like Noel Fehily.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why Fehily hinted that Liverpool might be more suitable for Activial than Cheltenham but slightly easier to wonder what might happen if he locked horns with his Newbury conqueror Calipto again on March 14.
Both horses were very inexperienced for their British debuts at Newbury last November but Calipto moved like the better athlete throughout before forging clear from the last and he repeated the dose under a penalty over the same course and distance last month.
Calipto clearly heads to Cheltenham more about what he might be than what he has shown on ratings - but his potential is abundant and I like his chances.
4: How important is testing ground to Calipto's main market rival Le Rocher?
Nick Williams seems confident that his latest smart French recruit isn't purely a mudlark - and fast ground seems unlikely on March 14 in any case - but there is little doubt a searching stamina test brings out the best in this powerful galloper.
We know he can hit the line in 4m 25secs on very deep ground over the Triumph course and distance, but on good ground the Triumph winner needs to cover the same distance fully 30 seconds quicker.
Maybe Le Rocher is versatile enough to do just that. And maybe the weather will ensure he has testing ground again. Still, for the moment it might pay to hold fire for the Triumph, especially as Williams might just have second thoughts if warm weather arrives.
5: Pearl Castle's latest Donny win didn't convince everyone. How bright are his Triumph prospects?
As with Le Rocher, it will pay to watch the weather closely. John Quinn's gelding had to be pushed along firmly to defy a penalty at Donny in midweek but dug in willingly to be nicely on top at the line.
The canny Quinn is adamant that spring ground will suit him much better and that the demands of a much stronger race will see him progress again. He also has Rutherglen as a Triumph possible, but Pearl Castle's form looks that bit stronger at this stage.
6: How big a void does Sprinter Sacre's absence from the Festival leave?
No one horse is bigger than the event but for a few glorious weeks last spring Sprinter Sacre promised to do for jumping what Frankel had done for the Flat and his presence will be sorely missed.
Nor is he the only notable absentee. Stablemate Simonsig was ruled out long ago, followed by two more of last year's Festival favourites in Solwhit and Salsify, and if history is any guide there will be at least one more big name or two to fall by the wayside in the next fortnight. Speaking of which...
7: And how big a miss is Cue Card?
Almost as big as Sprinter Sacre given the way he lit up both the Betfair Chase and the King George this season.
The debate over whether Colin Tizzard's gelding would have stayed the Gold Cup trip is academic now, as is the argument over whether he would have been fast enough to win the Champion Chase had he been entered.
However, the 2014 Festival will kick off without a significant number of the best jumpers in training. And that's a real shame.
8: Various horses have been slashed in price for the Champion Chase as a result of Sprinter Sacre's absence. Which of the moves are justified?
It's hard to warm to last year's Grand Annual principals Alderwood and Kid Cassidy, even in a less than stellar renewal, but a case can be made for Benefficient and Captain Conan and Willie Mullins feels he has a means of alleviating Arvike Ligeonniere's tendency to jump right when going left handed.
If it works the trick then Arvika could be a major player, but this looks open for at least one longshot to make a mark and Henry De Bromhead has every reason to be optimistic that he can hit the frame with either Sizing Europe or Special Tiara if the ground dries up appreciably.
9: And what's the correct price for Sire De Grugy now his biggest danger is sidelined?
I get the feeling that bookmakers are going to push Gary Moore's gelding out to 9/4 or even 5/2 nearer the big day on the basis that he has been beaten on both of his visits to Cheltenham.
Perhaps they have a point and rider Jamie Moore hits the nail on the head when saying that SDG "has always been a bit too exuberant and taken off a stride too early there."
However, Moore is also correct to argue that Sire De Grugy is simply a better and more professional racehorse nowadays. He's no Sprinter Sacre, of course, but if he avoids the odd lunge that marred his last Cheltenham experience he's clearly much the most likely winner.
10: It's 6/1 the field for the JLT Chase. Any to be wary of near the head of the market?
Expect to hear me murmuring something along the likes of 'Foxtrot Oscar' if Oscar Whisky wins.
Granted, Nicky Henderson's gelding has won three big novice chases from four attempts, but I like to see Festival hopefuls impress on their final spin before the big day and Oscar Whisky was far from impressive when labouring to land odds of 1/6 at Sandown.
Perhaps the gluepot conditions dulled his jumping and galloping edge that day. Either way, a couple of layers seem keen to get him in the book at present. And I suspect they are right to oppose him.
11: Is the recent support for Felix Yonger justified?
Very much so now that Champagne Fever and Ballycasey have been inked in for the Arkle and the RSA Chase.
However, Felix is another who would be in his element if spring ground prevails. Testing ground simply has dulled his speed on his last two starts, but his defeats of beat Defy Logic at Punchestown and Trifolium at Navan read very well indeed.
Add in the fact that he ran a screamer for second in Simonsig's Neptune two years ago and he's a very easy horse to like.
12: So who will emerge as best of the Brits?
Hard to split a well matched group but Wonderful Charm and Vukovar both have plenty to recommend them.
Wonderful Charm emerged as clearly the best horse at the weights when pipped by Oscar Whisky at Cheltenham in December and has been put on layaway with this in mind ever since, while the bold-jumping Vukovar is a massively precocious talent aged just five and warrants every respect having made a couple of useful rivals look third-rate at Newbury.
13: Which horse provided the broadest Festival hint of the weekend?
It has to be Irving, who made it four from four over hurdles by confirming that he has a potent turn of finishing speed despite a couple of awkward leaps in Kempton's Sky Bet Dovecote Hurdle.
Those who backed him for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' at 8/1 before the win are plainly on to a good bet and the scene is now set for a belting Festival opener with Walsh potentially breaking for home on Vautour and Scholfield waiting to pounce on Irving.
Ground conditions will help shape the market but, on balance, I'm still edging towards Vautour. The big two are both a best-priced 3/1 now, but Vautour jumped superbly to beat a dual Grade One winner fair and square in the Deloitte and that still looks the standout piece of form on offer.
14: Why has the breeding industry been slow to rebut David Walsh's concerns about steroid use on yearlings?
The man who helped unmask Lance Armstrong as a serial drug cheat turned his attentions to steroid use on yearlings and horses out of training on Saturday's Morning Line on Channel 4.
It's far from an area that I'm qualified on, but the Walsh feature did prompt plenty of response including a message from an experienced breeder who insists that steroid use on yearlings has been "a massive problem ever since the 1980's."
The bloke in question continues to rely on analysing pedigrees in the hope of finding a good horse but is "fed up of losing out to those who cheat." How depressing.
15: Why was Alan King so content after the Pendil?
First, because Balder Succes had shown he can battle as well as jump accurately.
And second, because the pair who made him work so hard - namely God's Own and Fox Appeal - had both been beaten decisively behind King's Arkle hope Valdez at Doncaster last month.
Balder Succes looks bound for Aintree as opposed to Cheltenham, but stablemate Valdez is being primed for the Arkle. I still suspect he will lack the pace to win such a hot race on spring ground - but the conviction isn't quite so strong as it was.
16: How do we read the code emanating from the Mullins media day?
Now there's a question. Any experienced Willie watcher would conclude that Un De Sceaux will miss the Champion Hurdle this year and the quotes on Annie Power seemed to suggest the trainer himself is probably edging more towards the LWorld Hurdle than the Champion Hurdle.
But what's the verdict from Annie Power's owner Rich Ricci? The colourful banker has been keeping his cards close to his chest, but there's just a chance I will be able to buttonhole him in person this week.
Whether that will add anything valuable to the mix remains to be seen (or heard) but my Mullins mole still feels the Champion is firmly in the mix for Annie and that a possible racecourse gallop at the Curragh next week might help clear the mists.
17: Where does Vieux Lion Rouge fit into David Pipe's powerful novice hurdling team?
Hard to say, but he gave 21lb and a thumping to a fair horse at Sedgefield.
"He's in everything," says David Pipe. That includes handicap options but, whatever option is chosen, LVR looks a horse with a rosy future.
18: Is it a concern that Nicky Henderson continues to sit on his hands while the mud is flying?
Probably not. Injuries and a relentless stormy spell have made this a very challenging season for Seven Barrows but there is still a powerful array of talent waiting to blossom again at Cheltenham in March.
Many of them will be returning from lengthy absences but if history tells us one thing it is that Hendo will have his stars primed for the meeting that matters most.
19: Holywell landed the Pertemps at last year's Festival. Can he score again over fences?
I wouldn't bank on it given that he had to be given a McCoy special to score at Doncaster.
A mark of 145 is just 5lb higher than the one he won the Pertemps from and it's possible connections will reach for blinkers again at the Festival.
However, Cheltenham is unforgiving on sketchy jumpers and Holywell was a little too awkward on Town Moor to suggest he can be backed without reservation for any of his five Festival engagements.
20: What can be read into the latest news from the Godolphin camp?
Who knows? It seems Simon Crisford has created history by resigning, being promoted and made redundant all on the same day. And, with Dettori and Al Zarooni gone, Godolphin's key personnel has undergone a huge revamp in the last two years.
However, the key line in the press release that emerged fairly late on Monday evening came right at the end of the missive.
The line in question simply read: "Three veterinarians have resigned." I simply don't know what to read into that line. I do know that I would love to have been given much more information as to why they decided to seek new challenges.