Thursday, 28 January 2016

As Clear As Mud

The going is heavy on Cartmel Priory School's cross-country course, which passes through the woods adjacent to the racecourse. 

As the kids plod by, mud splattered up to their necks, I wonder if they're not being over-trained in the soft conditions. If they were horses, I wouldn't fancy their chances of making it to the Cheltenham Festival. And that's one of the conundrums at this time of year: should trainers give their horses one last preparatory run before the Festival, or will their best opportunity of winning a big race be left behind in the mud? 

Jonjo O'Neill was quoted in The Racing Post this week saying that many of his horses prefer the better spring ground. Of the small number of runners that he has sent out this year, most "came back knackered". He has the option of running Cheltenham Gold Cup hope, Holywell, at Doncaster this weekend in the Sky Bet Chase - but only if the ground dries up. O'Neill said "The plan was to run, as he is in good form".  

Which brings us to our other problem: on a weekend such as this, when Cheltenham is hosting a day of dedicated Festival trials, how do we separate the horses which are fit and raring to go now - from the ones which are being brought along steadily to reach a peak in March? 

Djakadam is a short price to win the Gold Cup trial, but surely no one is expecting him to be as sharp now as he will be in seven weeks time. O'Faolain's Boy and Many Clouds are longer-priced, both have attractive Gold Cup profiles and both are probably being trained to peak later in the spring - so maybe we should be prepared for an upset. Wakanda perhaps? 

There is a good argument that we shouldn't place any bets at all on Saturday; simply sit back, enjoy the spectacle and form a few opinions for the races that matter later in the Spring. But then... I just can't resist having a small punt on Knockara Beau.  

At the age of thirteen, the George Charlton trained gelding is old enough to go to school with the mud-splattered kids from Cartmel. And in fact Knockara Beau is a graduate of Cartmel - having won his first steeplechase here, back in May 2009. On Saturday he returns to one of his favourite hunting grounds - the scene of his famous victory, at 66/1, over the mighty Big Bucks in Cheltenham's Cleeve Hurdle two years ago. He's currently priced at 25/1 to spring a similar surprise on this year's World Hurdle favourite Thistlecrack

Having won or been placed nine times at Cheltenham, six times at prices of 22/1 or more, Knockara Beau is our selection for the weekend.

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