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Saturday, 19 January, 2019

Forget far-off festival and focus on fun of the moment

David Carr says it's all about the now at Newbury

JP McManus: has several decent Cheltenham Festival contenders
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The Cheltenham Festival is a lot like Brexit. Some are really looking forward to it, some fear it's going to cost them a fortune – and some just wish everyone would shut up and let it come in its own good time.

That last group get their wish on Saturday as the worst excesses of festival fever abate, for a day at least.

There's been no escaping you-know-what of late, with the lowliest Market Rasen juvenile hurdle analysed for its impact on Cheltenham and plenty of hokey-cokey headlines - Buveur D'Air and Jezki in, Faugheen and Min out.

So tight is its grip on the news agenda that when Twitter shouts 'breaking story – Alastair Cook goes' your first thought is he must be some Irish plot horse for the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir.

But not today, when four of Britain's most exciting new chasing stars – dazzling two-milers Altior and Fox Norton and dogged stayers Native River and Bristol de Mai – top the bill at Newbury.

And the 3.35 is that rarest of beasts at this time of year – a race to savour and enjoy for its own sake rather than to regard as a trial for something else next month.

Newbury Saturday card

The £155,000 prize fund for the Betfair Hurdle has plenty to do with that. Who needs to worry about the festival when you've won Britain's richest handicap hurdle?

JP McManus didn't become one of the wealthiest men in Ireland without spotting where money's to be made and the owner with 45 festival winners to his name has landed this race twice in the last seven years – it might well have been three had Darlan not fallen in 2012.

McManus's Blazer and Modus dominated the betting last season and, although both were well held, he's back for another crack this afternoon.

And such is his keenness to land the prize that the enforced absence of early favourite Consul De Thaix only cut his team by 25 per cent and he still has three of the 16 runners – a surprisingly small field when the safety limit is 24.

The bookmakers have taken no chances with the lightly raced potential improver Movewiththetimes, who looks the main hope in green and gold hoops 12 months on.

Yet the joy of the Betfair is that it's full of live contenders, with Ballyandy, Clyne and William H Bonney, who have been battling JP's hurdler for favouritism, all smart prospects who look to have been primed for this day – not for next month.

The card also features a couple of head-on clashes that shout the question 'Who's going to win today?' not 'Who's going to show the most promise for the festival?'

Game Spirit was a horse for Newbury rather than Cheltenham, although he was placed in a Champion Chase and a Gold Cup, so it's fitting the race honouring the Queen Mother's 21-time winner is more than a mere festival trial.

In one corner, in a contest run this year as the Betfair Exchange Chase, is the high-class Fox Norton, who won as he pleased on his first run for Colin Tizzard at Cheltenham in the autumn and who's been "busy for a while" after suffering a nasty cut that day.

In the other corner is Nicky Henderson's outstanding prospect Altior, who has probably caused more jaws to drop in awe than any first-season 2m chaser since Sprinter Sacre, winner of this prize as a novice for the same trainer five years ago.

A race named after Denman ought to feature a stayer who grinds his rivals into the dirt with a non-stop gallop that was the Gold Cup winner's trademark. So it's fitting there are two in the Betfair-backed stamina test that precedes the Game Spirit.

Native River won the Hennessy here in November and then put up a handicap performance reminiscent of The Tank himself as he lugged top weight to a comprehensive victory in the Coral Welsh Grand National at Chepstow.

Yet Racing Post jumps handicapper Steve Mason would tell you that effort was actually 2lb inferior to the one put up in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock by Bristol De Mai, who turned a competitive event into a procession and coasted home 22 lengths clear.

Who's better? 'There's only one way to find out', as Harry Hill might say. 'Fight!' Well, race actually, although their level-weights tussle ought to get feisty.

There's plenty to warm the heart at Newbury, where it's not forecast to get above 3C, and woe betide any shivering racegoer who prays for a heatwave.

Australian superstar Winx ought to have been sharing global top billing today but her comeback at Randwick has been postponed for 48 hours due to soaring temperatures in Sydney, where it could reach 40C.

So tight is its grip on the news agenda that when Twitter shouts 'breaking story - Alastair Cook goes' your first thought is that he must be some Irish plot horse for the Kim Muir Fulke Walwyn

Key data

John P McManus
E.W. Terms
Sky bet