Hopes, hints and half truths

FEW professionals attract as much sympathy as the English racing journalist.

Our lot is tough, travelling the country to get nuggets of information for our readers, whose best interest is the only thing on our minds.

It means long hours on the road, frequent overnight stays in dingy hotels, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the late-night television schedules. I can hear your sobs from here.

The build-up to the 2012 Cheltenham Festival has been fantastic, although there was a big hole this year. A bout of coughing meant Paul Nicholls cancelled his media day, resulting in 50 obese men in tweed jackets having an afternoon to kill in Somerset.

David Pipe manfully filled the void, as he threw open the gates to Pond House. That’s over-egging the pudding. He allowed us into his house (for the largest sausage roll you’ve seen) before we were ushered onto the helicopter pad.

There, he paraded his ten leading festival hopes, headed by Grands Crus. The best bet of the festival was landed when he said no decision had been taken over his target at Cheltenham, but there’s no doubting connections feel they’ve finally got the star sorely lacking in recent years.

Those on the look-out for betting information concentrated on Salut Flo and Our Father, who were given positive mentions for their as-yet-undecided targets; I got the impression Great Endeavor will carry plenty of stable confidence into the Ryanair Chase.

But, as ever with Pipe — his father, Martin, a keen observer — it’s what isn’t shown or discussed that’s of more interest.

We didn’t even know Balgarry was in the yard, but he duly bolted up at Newbury last week, on his British debut, to book a tilt at the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. And don’t let the fact the Pond House massive have yet to win the race fool you.

Two years ago, Grands Crus was balloted out, and last year Dynaste’s handicap mark was raised, despite him not running, meaning he was no longer qualified. Whatever the plot is this year, and it has to be Balgarry, very little has been left to chance.

While Pipe visits are cloak-and-dagger, nothing can quite prepare you for the disorganised chaos of Nicky Henderson’s media days. These always attract a capacity crowd and more TV crews than the Oscars.

The tomato soup (with the option of a shot of vodka) is a treat, as is a sausage bap, but from there the script goes out the window.

The master of Seven Barrows seems genuinely surprised when he discovers which horses are being brought down to be snapped and filmed, but he does his bit and talks the talk.

Resplendent in a maroon tank top and aqua marine cords, he waxed lyrical about Long Run, Binocular, and Sprinter Sacre, but seemed at pains to avoid any festival commitments regarding Kid Cassidy.

A week later, the entries for the handicaps were published and JP McManus’ charge is a major market mover for the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase, the race the trainer craves more than any other.

The handicap weights were unveiled seven days later at the Cheltenham Countdown event, moved from the Panoramic Restaurant because of a leaking roof. It was here that I realised Jeremy Paxman could sleep easy in his bed. You see, I interviewed Paul Nicholls and asked him three questions about Kauto Star in front of an assembled TV cameras. All was well with the veteran, he assured me, before moving on to the peerless Big Buck’s.

Less than 24 hours later, the British champion trainer was forced to admit Kauto had, in fact, been sore after falling in a schooling session six days previously and was only 50-50 to make the festival. The editor was not amused.

Tom George wasn’t either as he continually questioned the handicapper over why Sivola de Sivola hadn’t been raised a further two pounds for his latest effort. Take it as read he’s a big player in the Pertemps Final.

And that was nearly it.

But before I could return to base, there was the small matter of a trip to a fog-bound Alan King’s yard at Barbury Castle. A member of staff, dressed in a fluorescent jacket, was used to direct journalists onto the right road.

The hints were more subtle over the yard’s best chance of a festival winner, but when King talked of being disappointed if Vendor wasn’t “considerably better than a 129-rated horse,” every journalist there reached for the mobile phone.

The price for the Fred Winter may have gone, but of all the stable trips, press events and preview evenings I’ve attended in the last three weeks (and it’s a considerable number), that was comfortably the strongest message.

Oh, that and never eat a battered bass fillet, but that’s a long and very different story.

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