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Thursday, 17 January, 2019

Five important Cheltenham Festival developments over the last week

Home straight: the famous Cheltenham hill covered in snow
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Beast from the East leaves mark 

Festival clues on the track ease off to a trickle after last weekend's fixtures, so the fact that all turf racing since Monday has been cancelled does not create a massive hole where Cheltenham trials might otherwise have stood.

Clues on the track were probably strongest at Prestbury Park itself, where more snow than was anticipated and the associated drifts have caused a headache for clerk of the course Simon Claisse and his team.

Claisse deftly balances openness with circumspection at this time of year but even he was forced to concede the possibility of some heavy ground for the festival, with snow equivalent to 12mm of water having fallen as of this weekend and 15mm of rain forecast on top.

Speculation on the likely ground is only likely to increase as the meeting draws near, especially if the forecast rain arrives.

Ante-post markets got livelier 

Just for a moment, pity the ante-post traders. They spend several months bargaining for a position and getting their market just right, all based on the spring-ground assumption, only for the threat of rain to get trainers fretting and punters in action.

A weekend drift on Footpad, the Racing Post Arkle favourite since at least November, was such that connections had to be asked what was going on. With no negative reports coming from that end, it is taken that neutrals have seen softer ground as a positive for the likes of Saint Calvados rather than Footpad, who has shown himself at least as adept on typical spring ground.

There were also movements in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup betting, predicting a much closer race at the top of the market than anticipated should soft ground prevail. It is pretty evident that Hennessy and Welsh National winner Native River would derive more benefit than Might Bite.

More generally, the bookies reported that the absence of action on the track led to punters piling into ante-post markets

The handicap weights came out

A big day for trainers of novices with handicap ambitions and Irish trainers on Wednesday as the handicap weights were unveiled, giving some their first indication of what mark they will have to run off in the festival handicaps.

A good handful of British trainers attended a media event to discuss the weight given to their charges. For their part, the BHA handicappers shared the horses that had given them the most to think about, most of them from Ireland including the unsubtly-named De Plotting Shed.

Trainers also nominated their main handicap hopes and our own ratings expert Steve Mason took a look at the weights and flagged up four horses he felt had been let in lightly.

Big Champion Chase clash is back on

At a media event held at his stable on Monday, Willie Mullins revealed that he is fairly confident of Douvan's participation in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase a week on Wednesday, setting up an irresistible match-up with Altior.

Douvan: on his way to Cheltenham?

It had seemed during parts of the winter that neither Douvan nor Altior, who were stunned as Champion Chase favourite and won the Arkle respectively last year, might make the starting line but it seems it is now a shade of odds-on that the clash we have been waiting 12 months for will take place.

A word of warning for punters, though: given the two have managed a combined one run so far this season, this should not be taken as a two-horse race.

The end of the festival road for some

Two long-time ante-post favourites, or as close to as makes no difference, were ruled out at this relatively late stage during the week.

Willoughby Court: ruled out of Cheltenham during the week

First there was Willoughby Court, winner of last year's Ballymore, who was reported to have poison in his foot early in the week and was confirmed on Wednesday as a festival absentee. There was some consolation for connections as he will now be aimed at Aintree or Punchestown.

There was no such comfort for those close to Cracking Smart, the Albert Bartlett favourite who was ruled out for the season by owners Gigginstown House Stud.

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Claisse deftly balances openness with circumspection at this time of year but even he was forced to concede the possibility of some heavy ground
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