IF the form book is any guide, Nicky Henderson’s precocious Simonsig should make a winning debut over fences at Ascot today.
But while the trainer appears unperturbed by the Cheltenham and Aintree festival winner tackling the larger obstacles for the first time, he is worried about the likely heavy ground.
Henderson is not alone. Every trainer is now on ‘weather watch’ – conditions are already saturated at some racecourses, with more rain forecast.
Waterlogging caused Exeter’s card to be called off yesterday, prompting the rearranged Peterborough Chase to be postponed for a second time. The top-class race will now be held at Kempton on December 27 – weather permitting.
Today’s Uttoxeter fixture was abandoned after torrential rain while an inspection this morning will determine Newcastle’s prospects for tomorrow. The forecast in the North East offers little encouragement.
The good news, from a Yorkshire perspective, is that Wetherby missed the worst of the rain yesterday and there should be no problems for its two-day Christmas meeting, though clerk Jonjo Sanderson is due to issue an update this morning.
However, Henderson, who could still have three horses in Boxing Day’s King George VI Chase at Kempton, has no idea how Simonsig will handle Ascot’s ultra-testing conditions.
Discovered by stable jockey Barry Geraghty in Ireland, the gelding was a brilliant winner of the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle at last season’s Cheltenham Festival before finishing his campaign in style at Aintree.
He is already a best-priced 3-1 favourite for the Arkle Trophy back at Cheltenham in March and faces four rivals in the Grade Two Betfred Novices’ Chase.
“In fairness, we don’t really know how he is going to handle heavy ground,” said Henderson.
“I’m told he handled soft ground when he won his point-to-point in Ireland, but he’s never run on anything worse than good to soft since he joined us.
“He did travel like a very good horse when he was second to Fingal Bay over hurdles at Sandown last year and it was pretty soft that day, so we just have to hope for the best.
“It’s going to be horrible ground, I’d imagine, but if he hates it he’s just going to have to put up with it as I have to get him out.”
The deteriorating weather has prompted Henry de Bromhead to pull multiple Grade One winner Sizing Europe out of the King George.
Another absentee from Ireland is Hennessy Gold Cup third First Lieutenant who is trained by Ampleforth-educated Mouse Morris – Leopardstown’s Lexus Chase on December 28 is his likely target.
Fifteen horses remain in the King George. They are headed by the Henderson-trained Long Run, who was victorious in 2010 before finishing second to the now retired Kauto Star 12 months ago.
Stable companion Riverside Theatre has also stood his ground alongside Henderson’s reigning Champion Chase hero Finian’s Rainbow.
The likely heavy ground has prompted Middleham Park Racing – based at Barton-upon-Humber – to enter long distance chaser Junior, though he does still hold an entry in Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase on the same day.
Junior’s trainer David Pipe has left in Grands Crus, who would be having his first run since undergoing a wind operation after pulling up abruptly in the Paddy Power Gold Cup last month.
Another leading contender is the Colin Tizzard-trained Cue Card, who was a runaway winner of the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter last month.
He will be ridden by the trainer’s son Joe who issued an upbeat assessment yesterday.
“I gave him a school on Monday morning. It was the first time I’d sat on him since Exeter and he felt superb,” said Tizzard jnr.
“He’s done all his work and seems in good nick. He’s won on all sorts of ground, but he’s going into an unknown trip. The more rain, the more stamina is going to come into use for the King George, but I’m confident he’ll get the trip and he’ll handle the ground.”
John Quinn’s dual Grade One winner Countrywide Flame, and 2011 Champion Hurdle victor Hurricane Fly, head the eight entries for the Istabraq Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday week.
Malton-based Quinn has also entered his stable star in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle on Wednesday – the aforementioned Henderson is responsible for former Champion Hurdle winners Punjabi and Binocular as well as rising star Darlan.
However, Le Beau Bai will not defend his Coral Welsh National at Chepstow next Thursday after suffering an injury while exercising on trainer Richard Lee’s gallops.