The decorations have been taken down and stored in any place that means we won’t have to look at them for another 11 months. The mince pies have been thrown away or given to people who are poor enough to enjoy stale mince pies. And perhaps most sadly, we’ve reached the point where coming into the office several hours late, stinking of booze can’t be explained with a hearty chorus of Jingle Bells and a shake of a Santa hat.
Yes, it all means the Christmas racing season is well and truly over and it’s around time of the year when the countdown to Cheltenham gets serious. Or as serious as counting down off a calendar ever gets. We’re too lazy to actually count the days to give you the tally, but scientists estimate it’s scheduled to appear around the middle of March. It’s basically 7 weeks away, a period during which trainers will be preparing their horses to peak for the Festival and Channel 4 will be giving John McCririck intensive lessons on it not being the 1940s any more.
This weekend, the picture for the Queen Mother Champion Chase will either get a little bit clearer or a lot muddier. The Victor Chandler Chase is normally a stepping stone to the showpiece event of the 2 mile chasing division and this race should tell us which horses are on track and who is best advised pointing their noses elsewhere for the sniff of Cheltenham glory, although the start of that sentence is immediately contradicted by the fact Paul Nicholls has made a point of stressing Al Ferof isn’t going for the Champion Chase and will take his chance in the Arkle. The seven year old has won 5 on the bounce and a win this weekend would make it a hat-trick of victories over fences. His potential is obvious, but this race will confirm just how high we’re allowed to set our expectations that he’ll probably never live up to.
Finian’s Rainbow is the big fish the odds suggest Al Ferof needs to upset. Throughout the past, his ability has been clear, but his jumping has been as suspect as a British rock inconspicuously placed in a Moscow park. To his credit, although Finian can be shaky on his feet, but much like an alcoholic who can keep it together enough to function in normal society, he hasn’t tasted much turf. His only fall came back in a point to point four years ago and although he’s given backers a few scares with some questionable jumping, he has a reassuringly reliable record of obliging on seven of the eight occasions he’s gone to post as favourite.
Most of the other horses in the race are too good to blithely dismiss, but that won’t stop us trying. Somersby is the horse with the highest chase rating in the field, but everyone’s favourite ‘one to keep an eye on but not actually back’ isn’t really fancied to get the better of the market leaders. Henrietta Knight has complained about the ‘also ran’ status he seems to have been handed for the race. “They seem to have decided it already – Al Ferof and Finian’s Rainbow, maybe we’ll be third or fourth. No-one is talking about us,” she moaned. The throwaway comment “I don’t know his best trip” may have more to do with his apparent unpopularity. Somersby has frequently fallen short when coming into contact with horses at the highest level, but in fairness to Knight, he’s a reliable type who has enough class to win this sort of contest so she may be proven right. The two market leaders haven’t yet proved they’re at the very top of the division and if they fail to live up to expectation, you can be pretty sure that Somersby will be snapping at their hooves.
Wishfull Thinking is another lively outsider with a chance. He started his career with some very promising wins, but it’s only in the last 12 months that he has suggested he’s about to deliver on that early potential and join the stars of the jumps world. Wins at the Grand National and Punchestown Festival’s were followed up by disappointments in the Paddy Power Gold Cup and the Tingle Creek, but he sent out a ‘don’t write me off just yet’ warning when he lost out to Finian’s Rainbow in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over the Santa hats and hangovers season. Gauvain is a reliable sort who could be in the shake-up if he finds his best form and if anyone is going to claim the self-indulgent title of ‘forgotten horse’, it’s probably Forpadydeplasterer. Although not winning in nearly 3 years tends to do that to you. His win in the 2009 Arkle was his last victory and since then it’s mainly been a diet of noble defeats and just about hinting his best performances aren’t far away.