Poliantas possesses class to slow down the Pipe procession

Cheltenham Open Meeting: Paul Nicholls can dent the champion trainer's record at the fixture that announces the jumps' season has taken off

It felt just like the National Hunt season had started yesterday. There were plenty of people again milling around the Cheltenham precincts, Paul Nicholls was thumping in high-class winners and, most persuasively of all, it started to rain.

The weather has been right for the vultures which have been circling over the sport of jumps racing in recent weeks, but at long last the winter game has been visited by black clouds and their silver linings. They have arrived only just in time.

Perhaps now the hidden hordes of horses in yards up and down the land will filter on to the racecourse. At Prestbury Park, where they have been watering as frequently as Dickie Attenborough's eyes, they are just about getting away with it.

The fields are not bountiful, but they are scrambling up to the sacred each-way level. The greatest relief is that 10 chasers will be allowed to take their chance in the Paddy Power Gold Cup today, the 44th running of the race, though the first under this particular banner.

The man with a betting system is usually the man dressed in a barrel, yet if you followed the policy of backing Martin Pipe blindly at this meeting, the world's riches, at least a bit of them, would be in your pocket.

Over the last five years, Pipe has won over a quarter of the races at the Open, including five of the last seven Paddy Powers (if we can call it that). Within that record is another compiler, the equine celebrity Cyfor Malta, who now goes for a third success in the contest.

The old boy is now 10, however, which puts him outside the optimum age range for a winner. In addition, Tony McCoy has gone for Pond House's other entry, It Takes Time. Even the champion jockey considers that Cyfor Malta is, at best, the second most talented runner in the field.

"It was Tony's choice and he's chosen It Takes Time, but Cyfor Malta will be there and Rodi Greene, our stable jockey, will take the mount. He's ridden him before," David Johnson, the owner of both horses, said yesterday. "Cyfor is in excellent form. With It Takes Time, we've brought him back in trip. It isn't necessarily the trainer's idea, it's my idea really, so if it's a failure it'll be down to me. I think they'll both run a big race."

It Takes Time fits this race profile in that he is a relatively young horse, on a competitive weight and has been well supported (outsiders have a poor record). Yet the suspicion remains that his jumping is apt to crumble when the pressure starts to burst out the rivets.

Better to consider the other main fancies. Fondmort, whose trainer, Nicky Henderson, has this as an odd omission from his portfolio, has been backed down to market leader in recent days. "We got a gallop into Fondmort at Kempton the other day, which was great," Henderson said yesterday. "He worked very well there and he seems in super form at home."

Wherever Fondmort finishes it appears he will have Poliantas in proximity. The latter came out on top when the pair met over course and distance in April, but now has a weight concession to make. Both clearly perform well in the Cotswolds.

Separation is difficult, but as Poliantas (nap 2.45) is the younger horse, appears to perform well at the bookends of a season and emerges from the Nicholls yard which rang the bell yesterday, he gets the nod.

An abnormality yesterday was Pipe's inability to register a success at the meeting. He has made it difficult for himself now, as the Nicholashayne trainer has recorded seven wins at each of the last two corresponding fixtures. There should be at least one in the plus box today in the shape of Stormez (next best 3.20), who ran second to Ad Hoc in the Attheraces Gold Cup while not at the top of his game last spring. The six-year-old is better off now and should be better all round.

The first televised race features Gralmano, for whom there are Stayers' Hurdle aspirations, particularly after he beat Royal Emperor in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby, the day Graham Lee could have ridden a squirrel and still won. He is up 13lb for that, which might interest the RSPCA.

Therealbandit has been mopping up for Pipe in kindergarten at Newton Abbot this season, but is let out with the big boys now. That leaves us with another Nicholls runner in Blue Ride (2.10), who was beaten on the line on her comeback at Wincanton.

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