If Cheltenham had a theme song this season it would come from ‘Frozen’. Following the cancellation of the Saturday of the International meeting and the cross-country on the Friday in December last year due to frost it seemed for a while that Trials Day could suffer the same fate.
That would have been devastating news for the course, that already saw the two years of serious disruption in 2020/2021. In 2021 both the Trials Day and New Years Day meeting were also cancelled due to flooding.
This year’s Trails Day is also extra special as it features two additional races on the card. The first is the cross-country chase from the November meeting, which was postponed due to a lack of rain at the time and the ground being too firm to run on. Trials Day doesn’t usually have a cross-country run so that is a real treat for punters – it is also a good indicator of who will perform best in the cross-country at the Festival proper.
On top of that the meeting now features a Grade 1 race too, the Clarence House Stakes. This was due to be run at Ascot last Saturday but the meeting was abandoned because of, yeah you guessed it, frost. This race is important as it gives a strong indication of the likely players in the Queen Mother Championship Chase at the Festival in March. Indeed, seven horses in the last 20 years have won both races in the same season.
Weather Warming Up
You have to remember that Cheltenham is set amidst the rolling countryside near the Cotswolds and as a result temperatures in the winter do drop below what you see in many other urban areas so frost has always been a risk for the course. A cold snap over the previous week has seen temperatures drop below -4 of a night in Gloucestershire.
The Friday of the International meeting at the course in December went ahead during a similar cold snap but only because of a mammoth effort from staff at the course to cover 40 acres of the course. Even then the cross-country was cancelled due to safety with the ground being too hard on that course. All of that was not enough, however, to save the Saturday card.
Fears rose last week that Trials Day would suffer a similar fate as high pressure in the south of England stubbornly refused to budge. On both Monday and Tuesday morning the ground was very much still frozen.
Temperatures are, however, forecast to pick up from Wednesday onwards and by Friday it is anticipated it will not drop below freezing overnight, which should allow the course to thaw and remain frost free with the help of covers.
Cross-Country Biggest Risk
The race that stands the greatest chance of being cancelled would be the rescheduled cross-country. Last time it was cancelled in November it was because ground was too hard due to dry weather. With 32 fences to be jumped on a challenging course over nearly four miles it was seen as too dangerous to race horses on.
This time it is frost that could scupper the race and see it abandoned completely. While organisers can cover the new course, where the other 8 races are held, it is almost impossible for them to cover the cross-country course too – especially as only one race is held on it.
The ground will certainly thaw the only question is whether it will thaw enough to soften the ground sufficiently to allow this race to run. You cannot run this race on very firm ground otherwise injuries to horses and jockeys become much more likely. Time will tell on this and decision will likely not be made until Saturday morning.