Cheltenham trials fail to attract the stars

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Updated: February 4, 2011

A weekend which promised so much in terms of Cheltenham trails now looks set to be little more than a couple of exercise canters for the Festival principals and bookmakers are less than impressed with the fare on offer.

Binocular will face four opponents in the Totesport Contenders Hurdle at Sandown Park tomorrow and is expected to start long odds-on at around 1-5. Meanwhile, at Ffos Las, Oscar Whisky will also be a short priced favourite for the revived Welsh Champion Hurdle.

The two races are live on Channel 4, and both, in the words of George Primarolo, spokesman for Totesport, “are complete non-starters for everyone”. Neither will feature in the firm’s Scoop6 bet, even though one is advertising their brand, and while there are several more competitive events at Sandown, including a strong and open renewal of the old Scilly Isles Novice Chase, there is almost a sense that the Contenders Hurdle needs to be got out of the way before the proper business begins.

“This race has been struggling for runners anyway in recent years,” Primarolo said. “With the addition of another, you’d have thought that within two or three years, only one can survive. There will be zero interest in it as a betting race, and the same goes for the Welsh Champion Hurdle from the punters’ point of view. As for the hardcore fans, I’m not sure how many of those really want to see two very good horses beat up inferior opposition. They can go and do that on the gallops.”

The fact that the Sandown and Ffos Las races are so similar in conditions has been defended by the BHA. Paul Struthers, the British Horseracing Authority’s director of communications, said that the clash between two races with near-identical conditions had proved unavoidable.

“The Welsh Champion Hurdle was scheduled for 9 January last year, but it was abandoned,” Struthers said. “We explained to Ffos Las that the new date might not be ideal and tried other options, but that was the day that Ffos Las wanted. The jump racing sub-committee, on which trainers are represented, did not have an issue with it, as there was a view that two races would be better than none given the risk of abandonments.”

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