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Thursday, 13 December, 2018

Five things we learned about Cheltenham during the week before the festival

Ruby Walsh is all smiles after his comeback win on Lareena at Thurles
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Day one ground set to be testing

The automatic assumption that the Cheltenham Festival would start on good to soft ground has for once proved wide of the mark after a wet weekend turned parts of the course heavy in places.

The four-day spectacular is now set to begin on the softest ground for at least 20 years, with the official description soft, heavy in places following 16mm of rain on Saturday.

The last time the meeting opened on ground as soft was in 1995 and with rain forecast in the coming days – including another 10mm up to Monday evening – clerk of the course Simon Claisse has said that he does not expect the going to change much through the week.

All that has led to punters frantically scouring the formbook for confirmed mud-lovers, while trainer Nicky Henderson has voiced concerns about the suitability of testing ground for Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Might Bite.

Long-absent Walsh back with a winner

Ruby Walsh, the winningmost jockey in Cheltenham Festival history, made a successful comeback to the saddle at Thurles on Thursday.

On his first ride for four months after breaking his leg in a fall at Punchestown, he looked like he had never been away when partnering Lareena to victory in the 2m maiden hurdle.

Despite only having ridden twice since November – he finished third on his sole ride at Leopardstown on Friday – Walsh has declared himself happy with his festival preparation.

The bookmakers don't seem too bothered about a lack of match practice either as Walsh is odds-on across the boards to be crowned Cheltenham's leading rider for the sixth year in a row.

Gold Cup hero Sizing John ruled out of festival

The recent curse of the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner struck again on Thursday as Sizing John suffered an injury setback that rules him out of a defence of his Timico-sponsored crown.

The Jessica Harrington-trained eight-year-old, who had been 6-1 joint-second favourite, was found to have a hairline fracture to his pelvis and joins the previous two winners Coneygree and Don Cossack in not making it back to the race the following year.

Fortunately for Harrington and stable jockey Robbie Power they have another string to their Gold Cup bow in last year's wide-margin Irish National winner Our Duke, who won last month's Red Mills Chase and is general third favourite at 7-1.  

Other star names miss their big date

As is unfortunately the norm, Sizing John was not the only big name to fall by the wayside in the last week before the festival.

In many cases, trainers find themselves running out of time to make the big date and connections of Sceau Royal (Racing Post Arkle), Vroum Vroum Mag (OLBG Mares' Hurdle), Top Notch and Waiting Patiently (both Ryanair Chase) were among those to decide to draw stumps after their stars suffered slight setbacks or failed to sparkle in their work.

For Vroum Vroum Mag it was the end of the road entirely as retirement was called for the versatile nine-year-old, who won 14 of her 21 races. A new career as a broodmare, which has been under consideration for some time, is on the agenda.

Champion duel may be off the cards

There was always a nagging doubt that the mouthwatering clash between Altior and Douvan in the the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase would fail to materialise. And on Sunday morning Willie Mullins revealed that Douvan is likely to be redirected to the Ryanair Chase, with owner Rich Ricci keen to split the returning star and his exciting chaser Min.

While Douvan's addition to the line-up would be a major boost for the Ryanair following a number of notable omissions, it would create a headache for Ruby Walsh as he would have to chose between Douvan and last year's winner Un De Sceaux.

If you are interested in this, you might also like:

Cheltenham ground is a long way from desperate says upbeat Henderson

Mullins and Elliott big guns stretch their legs at Cheltenham

Talking points: key revelations from the day one festival fields

Fortunately for Harrington and stable jockey Robbie Power they have another string to their Gold Cup bow in Our Duke
E.W. Terms
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