On a day devoted to travellers' tales, the results proved better than the hope of the journeys, actual and figurative. For those attending Monet's Garden, the trail to the El Dorado of the Cheltenham Festival involved a 580-mile round trip by road from Cumbria via Ascot. For connections of Straw Bear, the distance from Ascot to Wincanton and thence to Prestbury Park was covered in a race against time through the air.
Tony McCoy, Straw Bear's rider, was keen to partner both Fota Island at the Berkshire venue and the Champion Hurdle hope in Somerset 80 minutes later. A helicopter in the same green, white and gold livery as the horses dealt with the 90 miles between the tracks in half an hour, delivering McCoy with six minutes to spare before his weighing-out deadline.
Fota Island had failed in the Ascot Chase won impressively by Monet's Garden, but Straw Bear was worth every second of the dash as he confirmed himself as a serious contender for next month's crown with a resounding seven-length defeat of Afsoun in the Kingwell Hurdle. The six-year-old's technique over his obstacles was slicker than it had been when beaten by Britain's No 1, Detroit City, at Sandown two weeks ago, and for trainer Nick Gifford it was a case of job done.
"His jumping has been the one link that's been missing," he said, "and we came here for another practice before Cheltenham because we wanted him to jump at speed." Mindful of the danger of a slowly run, tactical affair, McCoy sent Straw Bear, backed to odds-on after his rider safely touched down, to the front on the swing into the back straight.
"I got a good blow into him down the back, and I kept waiting for Mick [Fitzgerald, on Afsoun] to appear at my girths, but he never did," he said. "I was pleased with that; his jumping was good." Gifford is not looking at the bonny chestnut through rose tints. "He was always going to improve from that Sandown run and this will have put him spot-on for Cheltenham," he said. "But I think the Irish still have the best; Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace have been there and done it, and Detroit City is still improving, they've not got to the bottom of him yet. Realistically, we're playing for a place."
Fifteen minutes before Straw Bear threw down his gauntlet, two high-profile Irish contenders picked theirs up and withdrew. Both Macs Joy and Harchibald were put in their places by the reigning champion two-mile chaser, Newmill, in their prep at Gowran Park, though neither of their trainers - Jessica Harrington and Noel Meade respectively - was unduly put out by the reverses, given the testing underfoot ground conditions.
Macs Joy, eight lengths second, fared best of the vanquished pair. Both were pushed out in the Champion Hurdle betting, as was Afsoun. Detroit City hardened to 2-1 favourite in front of the two Irish cracks, with Straw Bear now fourth choice.
Newmill, who put two disappointing runs behind him with this doughty performance on ground softer than ideal for him, is now back to second favourite behind Well Chief to defend his title. "He showed real toughness when they came at him," said his trainer, John Joseph Murphy.
The going at Cheltenham will decide whether or not Monet's Garden will be one of his rivals for the Champion Chase. If it is easy underfoot, the Gordon Richards-trained grey will go for the two-mile showpiece; if faster, the two-and-a-half-mile Ryanair Chase will be the target.
Monet's Garden is a horse who does not sleep well out of his own bed, hence his five o'clock start from Greystoke yesterday morning. Lessons were learned from his disappointing display behind Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase after an overnight stay in the Kempton stables. Yesterday, he jumped and galloped as well as he looked, sweeping imperiously to the front off the final turn. His leaps over the two fences in the straight under Tony Dobbin were those of an enthusiastic springbok.
"Back to normal," said Richards. "He looked in grand fettle in his skin, not dehydrated like at Kempton, and did this like the horse we know he is."
McCoy's flight to Wincanton was made doubly worthwhile when he took the feature chase on Grand National hope Little Brick, relegating Ruby Walsh and My Will - who was getting 17lb - to second spot.