A preview of March’s UK Horse Racing

The four-day Cheltenham Festival dominates the March programme, but there’s also a busy programme of racing throughout the month including the ever-popular Imperial Cup day at Sandown plus the thrills and spills of the Midlands Grand National day at Uttoxeter. Flat fans, meanwhile, will need no reminding that the new turf season kicks off with the William Hill Lincoln at Redcar on March 25.

March begins with the newly-established Vodafone Gold Cup at Newbury on the 4th over two and a half miles. It’s something of a surprise to find such a valuable race staged so close to the Cheltenham Festival, and many trainers face the dilemma of deciding whether to run here or in either the Ryanair Chase or Racing Post Plate over similar distances at the Cheltenham Festival.

Twelve months ago a solid handicapper in the shape of Supreme Prince held on to land the valuable prize while in its inaugural year, the classy Isio was a well-backed winner. Absent since that season, Nicky Henderson’s gelding may well reappear in this race and would be an interesting contender.

On the same day Doncaster’s Grimthorpe Chase, a staying handicap over three and a quarter miles, has been transferred to Lingfield and may well be the chosen target of A Glass In Thyne, who won the Skybet Chase that had also been switched from Doncaster to Southwell in January. Maybe the changing fixture pattern will repeat itself again for Ben Pollock’s improving young chaser.

Champion trainer Martin Pipe has endured a stop-start season but plenty of punters will still be scouring the list of runners for the Imperial Cup at Sandown on March 11 in the hope of unearthing another Pipe hotpot for one of the season’s most keenly-contested handicap hurdles.

Pipe has won the race five times overall and has landed the prize three times in recent seasons. His mass of entries should be studied with the utmost care and may well include progressive sorts such as Buena Vista, Acambo and Desert Air.

The punishing combination of a fiercely-run race and a stamina-sapping finish up the demanding Sandown hill has often meant that lightly-weighted horses have held an advantage over their higher-weighted rivals, while waiting tactics have also proved successful for several of the recent winners. Making all in a race as competitive as this isn’t easy.

The Irish won this race with shock outsider Regency Rake, trained by Arthur Moore in 1999, and any runners from across the Irish Sea should be accorded the greatest respect. Jessica Harrington’s Studmaster, an easy winner of his last two races might take in this contest or wait for the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

On the same day at Sandown make a note also of the EBF Novices’ Hurdle Final, a race that often produces a star of the future. Plenty of classy young hurdlers will have this contest in their sights including the Lambourn-trained duo Mr Pointment, and Wogan while the NickGifford team intends to field Dusky Lord.

In recent years the Irish have held the Champion Hurdle on March 14, the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, in a vice-like grip, winning five of the last seven renewals and looking at the somewhat weakened field for this year’s renewal it’s hard not to envisage the hurdling crown being whisked away once more across the Irish Sea.

Reigning title-holders boast a superb record in the Champion, but recent dual winner Hardy Eustace will have to banish a bout of the blues on his latest and disappointing effort in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle at Leopradstown. At the age of nine many think his time may have passed.

Plenty of horses that have been placed in the race previously have put that beneficial experience to good use by returning again the next year to run well. Ireland’s formidable trio of Brave Inca, Macs Joy and Al Eile, who finished third, fifth and seventh respectively in last year’s race will all be fancying their chances of winning this race a second time around.

The home-based challenge looks poor and has been hit hard by a spate of cruel injuries as well as the loss of form of emerging contenders such as Faasel and Penzance. Maybe the best of the British will be Arcalis, whose chances will be much increased by quick ground at Cheltenham, and a return to form for his stable.

Wednesday sees the two-mile heavyweights clash in the stirring championship that is the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Predicting this year’s winner revolves around whether punters think dual winner and reigning champion Moscow Flyer is just a jaded member of the old guard ready to be swept away by young pretenders such as the classy Kauto Star and the improving Fota Island.

Disappointing on his two starts so far this season, the mighty Moscow Flyer is twelve years of age and you have to go back almost thirty years (1977) to find the last winner from that age group.

Kauto Star, by contrast, has youth on his side and hails from the Paul Nicholls stable that has the best recent record in this race with winners in 2004 and 1999, and four placed horses since 2000. Kauto Star is a worthy favourite to add to that auspicious tally.

Thursday’s championship race is the World Hurdle, formerly known as the Stayers’ Hurdle and rather like the Queen Mother Champion Chase, it features a past champion in Baracouda attempting to add a third title at the age of eleven in what must rank a one of the most open renewals in living memory.

But for the foot-and-mouth abandonment of 2001, Baracouda would already have three Stayers’ titles to his name but his task this year is made even harder by his advancing years and the presence of a strong domestic and Irish challenge from Mighty Man, No Refuge, Asian Maze and Golden Cross.

Friday March 17 is Cheltenham Gold Cup day and after the brilliant dominance of the chasing blue riband by three times victor Best Mate, this year’s renewal is one of the poorest and also most open in years and likely to produce a surprise result in this greatly-anticipated championship event.

The loss through injury of Kicking King, last year’s easy winner, has left the race wide-open but many backers will be looking to Monkerhostin, runner-up to the imperious Kicking King in the 2005 King George VI Chase, as a possible winner. Seven of the last ten Gold Cup winners ran in the King George, making it a key trial for future Gold Cup heroes.

Cheltenham week closes with the Midlands Grand National day on March 18 and Ossmoses, a course winner last year, will be a leading fancy for the four-mile one-and-a-half furlong prize given his preference for running over long-distances in the mud. On the same card backers should watch out for Sue Smith’s tough mare Viciana in the EBF Mares’ Novices’ Chase Final.

March closes with the William Hill Lincoln run for the first time at Redcar (due to building work at Doncaster) and the draw is sure to have a big say in the outcome of this one-mile handicap, and the first big prize of the new turf Flat season.

Twelve months ago Newmarket trainer Sir Michael Stoute won this contest for the first time with Stream of Gold and bids to do the same again with the progressive King’s Majesty while James Fanshawe will be looking for easy ground if he’s to run Cesare, another young and improving horse.