Ascot's Clarence House Chase was billed as the race of the year, and indeed, it turned out to be a very exciting chase. In all the hype, however, spare a thought for the two so-called also-rans, one of whom made in to a special weekend for Andoversford's Kim Bailey.
Twelve months previously, Bailey had presided over a first Grade I success in over 20 years when First Flow and David Bass kicked for home in the same race. Imagine being sent off a 16/1 outsider in the same race a year later. And yet, when it came to it, he was well up with the leaders until that famous bell rang as they turned into the straight, at which point it became clear his race was run, and he could keep on for a cool £16k in third place prize money.
The Bailey team had kept something in reserve however. One of plenty of trainers to respond positively to Lingfield's Winter Million initiative, the 115 miles back home must have flown by on the back of a gripping race for the inaugural Fleur de Lys Chase, a conditions event in which Two For Gold wrested the lead back from Dashel Drasher and old favourite Bristol de Mai to win the £150,000 prize to win by a short head, the third 3/4l back. Surely this was the race of the weekend, and a worthy credit for the brave investment by the racecourse.
The period leading up to the Festival in March is an increasingly crowded sequence of so-called trials and other big contests that should stand tall on their own reputation rather than as an aperitif to March or April. Lingfield's initiative is far from alone with big efforts being made on both sides of the Irish Sea. The Dublin Racing Festival, which combines a series of prep races for the home team to burnish theoir credentials for Cheltenham, combines with the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, a race that carries a big bonus with the newly renamed Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup. Yet this is a race that has seen infrequent British-trained winners since Jodami breezed over to put the Irish in theirn place in 1995.
This is in part due to the recent dominance of the sport by the major players in Ireland. But it's also a cultural difference that hinders more traffic west. British trainers are generally well-served by their own calendar of events until after Aintree, when letting their hair down with friends in Ireland at Punchestown is more a sinecure than a stressful and tense contest like Cheltenham. The volume of higher value races in Britain makes cross-channel raids more appealing for the Irish.
That racecourses would want to put up big prizes to attract a quality horse or two is highly commendable. However, it's a very competitive market, and promoting a high value prep race is not guaranteed to lure a "name". Witness today's winner at Leicester, now being touted as a lively outsider for the Albert Bartlett, winning a longdistance novice affair in front of virtually no-one. Often, trainers are very happy to sail under the radar.
In fact, there's many a trainer not that keen on attending the races at all. At yesterday's Heythrop Point-to-Point, I spotted five trainers who might reasonably have been assumed to be at Lingfield or Warwick, including Hughie Morrison, whose Our Jester won the £40,000 Bumper to open Lingfield's card. Amongst many of their establishment clientele, the local races allow them to enjoy a stress-free afternoon as it once was before horses became so expensive that it all became very serious. So, a thought for racecourses: how do you reclaim that joie de vivre that still exists in the unpretentious world of the amateur Point-to-Point?
Going for Sunday April 3 - Good (Thursday)
6m SE Cheltenham, nr junction of A40 and A436 (Exit 11A, M5)