The past week has seen precious little Jump racing in the UK, and this week doesn't look to be any better. Fixtures at Hereford, Lingfield, Exeter and Leicester make for a sparse calendar until Thursday at the earliest, with a promise of more rain mid-week.
But the programme that did survive last week suited two Gloucestershire trainers well. Fergal O'Brien reached his 75th winner of the season on Friday at Doncaster with 5 year old flat recruit Lunar Sovereign, previously trained by Saeed bin Suroor, who is now unbeaten over hurdles in his two runs. He doesn't have a Cheltenham entry though. One has to hope this breakthrough season for O'Brien can be sustained with a first Festival victory.
Another Novice to relish the underfoot conditions was The Cob, Ben Pauling's convincing winner of the Grade II Albert Bartlett River Don Hurdle at Doncaster's Saturday meeting, the only Jumps fixture to survive the weather. Graeme McPherson's Exploiteur ran well until the ground found him out under a tender ride from Lilly Pinchin. Pauling is considering supplementing The Cob for the corresponding race at the Festival, but off this mark, he'd need to improve a bit to win. It's testament to the strength of their reputation that over half the entries for the Albert Bartlett at the Festival are graduates from Irish Point-to-Points.
Meantime, in other news last week, the restart of the Point-to-Point season was deferred 3 weeks until March 13-14 at the earliest, meaning the current lockdown has cancelled over 50 fixtures since December. A majority of the West Midlands fixtures still plan to continue behind closed doors which is admirable. Subject to whenever the season restarts, it is likley to be around half the size of the scheduled fixture list, but even so, managing a diminshed number of qualified horses around the remaining fixtures will still be an exacting task.
However, chances for young pretenders to the Foxhunter crown have very limited opportunities to qualify before entries close on March 2. The loss of today's Hereford meeting reduces the list of oustanding opportunities even more. There's an inevitable conclusion here that the Cheltenham blue riband for Pointers will land at the door of a well established contender. The Irish have overcome this with an innovative solution putting them at an advantage come March. A modification to the regulations is being made to allow horses with a valid Hunters Certificate to run on the racecourse while the 2021 spring Point-to-Point Season remains suspended and retain their Hunters Certificate to run in Point to Points unless they win a race.
Whilst the modification is in place, any horse that runs on the racecourse will remain eligible to be registered for a Hunter Certificate to run in Point-to-Points for the remainder of the spring season once it recommences, providing that they have not run on the racecourse between 1st November 2020 to 13th January 2021 inclusive or have won a race on the racecourse after 29th February 2020.
However, if you keep a record of your bets in Foxhunters past, the number of realistic chances can normally be found on the fingers of one hand. One leading Irish contender is the recent Naas winner Billaway, bidding to give Willie Mullins a first victory in one of the few Festival races he hasn't won yet.