At this time of year, you never know what you might find in even the humblest stables. It is Christmas, after all. For all the immodest spending of its modern moguls - the likes of JP McManus, Graham Wylie and Sir Robert Ogden - jump racing retains a wholesome capacity for exalting men and horses, if not from poverty, then certainly from obscurity.
The latest tale of the unexpected concerns a Midlands GP, Richard Newland, who has run four horses this season since deciding to take his hobby a bit more seriously. They have all made such striking improvement, apparently overnight, that it would not be surprising to find a mountain of discarded crutches, splints and stretchers outside his surgery.
A fortnight ago Newland won a valuable handicap hurdle at Sandown with Overstrand, a horse in blatant decline when salvaged at the sales for just 10,000 guineas. Today, Overstrand contests one of the most valuable races of the winter, the £150,000 Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot, and he won in such style at Sandown that another success here would be no Christmas miracle.
On the other hand, conditions this time will be different, and this field looks a good deal stronger, too. Overall Overstrand cannot be comfortably supported off an 11lb higher handicap mark.
All three Irish raiders arrive with formidable qualifications, none more so than Tipperary All Star - even though he has been raised more than twice as much as Overstrand for his own latest success.
Few horses can have galloped up the Cheltenham hill with greater leisure than did Tipperary All Star last month, and while he is now 24lb higher he could well remain on a fair mark. After all, he has won two Listed races on the Flat and sometimes a visual, visceral impression of class is worth far more than any computation of pounds and lengths.
"The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines." Admittedly Dr Newland may not recognise the distinction drawn by Frank Lloyd Wright, and as it turns out there may be an alternative anyway. For if vines don't do the trick, you can always spend another £10 million.
That is the extra bill facing the management of Ascot racecourse after resolving this week to address the notorious oversights in its sumptuous new grandstand - oversights that proved excruciatingly literal. For too many spectators at Royal Ascot, the view from the lower tiers was confined to other people's hats. Ironic, really, given that most of them were not terribly interested in anything else.
Now remedial surgery is to be undertaken on the gradients of various seats, steps, lawns and aprons, and there are dark mutterings about the possibility of litigation. Of course, all this will astonish those who today enjoy magnificent views from the corporate boxes.
As Lloyd Wright himself once joked: "Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities." That approach has already governed the design of too many new sporting arenas, but there is no suggestion that the people running Ascot were ever so cynical. Indeed it would be a pity if the outgoing chief executive, Douglas Erskine-Crum, were remembered for anything other than the refreshing, enlightened timbre he introduced to the Queen's racecourse.
Murphy's Bay can steal the silver
The rejuvenation of Hardy Eustace is proving one of the talking points of the season, and at 11-1 with Coral those of us who feel affronted by the odds against him winning a third Smurfit Champion Hurdle can unreservedly match words with deeds. Certainly it is baffling that Detroit City, who palpably stole the race at Cheltenham last week, should now be as short as 5-2.
Hardy Eustace first announced his resurgence when thrashing Mighty Man at Ascot last month, so it might seem instructive how that horse fares on his return for the BGC Long Walk Hurdle today. Yet while the longer trip should certainly suit him, his stable remains in rather fitful form and Irish Wolf looks a good price to crown his remarkable recent improvement here.
There is no mistaking the most progressive horse in the BGC Silver Cup. Timmy Murphy (left) adopted stealthy tactics on Harris Bay over course and distance last time -making it difficult for the handicapper to measure quite what he had in hand. A guess of 9lb may prove inadequate.
At the other televised meetings, Keith Reveley has solid prospects with both Supreme's Legacy and Categorical at Newcastle, while the most curious runner of the whole day is Rhinestone Cowboy, who resurfaces in a handicap at Haydock.
Retired with leg trouble after winning two Grade One races in the spring of 2004, he has evidently become restless since. He would have this lot for breakfast at his peak, so his flourishing trainer should soon learn where he stands.
Briareus a tonic for Balding
The rampant stable of Paul Nicholls encountered a rare spot of quicksand at Ascot yesterday when both Pepperoni Pete and Natal folded tamely after starting hot favourite. The latter never remotely menaced Briareus in the Scanmoor Noel Novice Chase, and the winner is now generally quoted at 14-1 for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.
Andrew Balding, his trainer, had endured a traumatic morning at Kingsclere, his incorrigible father, Ian, having been taken to hospital in Southampton when rolled on by his hack.
"Doing his usual 007 stuff," sighed Balding Jnr. "I'm sure he'll be all right, he was talking and moving his legs and so on, but it's not what you want at his time of life. He owns half this horse, anyway, so hopefully that will pick him up."
Aran no remote hope for Festival
In a game full of jealousy, you never hear one bad syllable about the Irish champion trainer, Noel Meade, and neutrals at Navan tomorrow will be eagerly supporting the most exciting young jumper in Ireland.
After Aran Concerto won a bumper on his debut at Naas in October, Meade permitted himself the following incautious observation: "I probably shouldn't say it, but this horse just could be the best I've had. I think he has the potential to be a Gold Cup horse one day."
Things did not work out on his first start over timber, when he stumbled into the rail, but he cantered home in a maiden hurdle over this course last month. "He has done things at home I've not seen done before," Meade reiterated afterwards.
First things first, and Aran Concerto tackles some accomplished novices in the Barry and Sandra Kelly Memorial Hurdle. Any who have seen Meade suffer such desperate luck at the Cheltenham Festival over the years is praying that this will be the horse that finally gets all his lines right.
Hyperion's TV Tips
1.10 Overnight rain could hinder the prospects of COPSALE LAD but if it remains no worse than good to soft then this lightly-raced 9yo (just 11 races over fences) can lift the big prize his yard believes him capable of.
1.40 Arthur Moore looks to have been stalking this huge prize with WELL MOUNTED and his charge arrives here unexposed and nicely near the foot of the weights. This 5yo hails from a fine jumping family and could be well ahead of the handicapper.
2.10 MIGHTY MAN ran over a distance far short of his ideal last time, but that outing should have put him spot on for what has clearly been a long-term target.
2.05 Last year's winner JAZZ D'ESTRUVAL runs off a 14lb higher mark, but showed himself to be better than ever on his first outing since then when third here last month. He should be sharper than Rhinestone Cowboy, the 2003 winner. (Scoop6, leg 1)
2.35 Those lower down the handicap make more appeal, especially ARISTOXENE. The six-year-old is well in on his two-length third to Schuh Shine here last year as he is 9lb better off. (Scoop6, leg 2)
3.05 MR STRACHAN made Kanpai, winner of his five previous races, battle to the line before going down by half a length here last month and this looks much easier. (Scoop6, leg 4)
3.35 Those who have run have not shown much, so it may be worth taking a chance with CELTIC HEATHER who was beginning her move when brought down at Warwick in October.
2.20 CRACKADEE showed plenty of promise when runner-up to smart novice According To John last time and was most impressive when winning a point-to-point in February.
2.50 SPEED UP finished fourth to European Dream here last month but has a 3lb pull for two lengths. (Scoop6, leg 3)
3.25 This looks an ideal opportunity for ANOTHER PROMISE who ran way above his previous form when second to Neptune Collonges in the Rehearsal Chase here last month. (Scoop6, leg 5)
3.40 MALTESE FALCON delivered a scorching run up the far rails to win here a fortnight ago and is handily berthed for a repeat. (Scoop6, leg 6)
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