Rewind to November with Tony McCoy in "I-told-you-so" mode here yesterday. After winning the Gold Cup trial by 18 lengths on Exotic Dancer, one of the chasing revelations of the season, the Ulsterman, in his post-race debrief, invited those listening to cast their minds back to events on the track two months previously.
Then, Exotic Dancer sprang something of a surprise when he came from last to first to win the Paddy Power Gold Cup. Now he is second-best of the home defence for the Festival showpiece in March. "I'm not sure I thought he was a Gold Cup horse at the start of the season," McCoy said, "but what I will say is that only a seriously classy horse would have won a Paddy Power like he did.
"If you remember, I maintained at the time that I had not ridden a good race on him then, even though I got a lot of praise for it. But it was him and his talent that did it, not me. To come from where I had him, miles off the pace in a slow gallop, marked him as a potentially a very good horse indeed."
McCoy does not dish out praise lightly and perhaps more attention will be paid to his summation of yesterday's contest. "On this form he's a serious talent," he said. "It was probably the best he's ever jumped and while I'm not going to say I'll win a Gold Cup on him, I'll be very happy indeed to go and ride him in it."
The Letheby and Christopher Chase was Exotic Dancer's first try over more than three miles and his performance booked him his ticket for the Gold Cup rather than the shorter Ryanair Chase at the Festival. The Jonjo O'Neill-trained seven-year-old has his quirks and needs softly-softy handling; for instance he wears earplugs which blot out noise and keep him calm. McCoy, as usual, kept him away from the sharp end until necessary, which came sooner than planned. Having made swift, stealthy progress through the last mile he was poised behind duelling leaders Our Vic and Neptune Collonges when the penultimate obstacle proved the undoing of both. Our Vic, the 2-1 favourite, blundered and Neptune Collonges fell, leaving Exotic Dancer in front.
But though exposed, the French-bred 6-1 shot, maintained his enthusiasm and his gallop to see out the extended three miles and a furlong with zest. Our Vic, his stuffing taken out by his mistake on his first run since November, plugged on to keep second spot ahead of Halcon Genelardais.
It was Exotic Dancer's third victory here this season, a sequence interrupted only by his eight-length second to Kauto Star in Kempton's King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. "He has his moments and he's not always easy," said O'Neill, "and whether we can turn Kempton form around with Kauto Star I don't know. But he does love this place, which it worth a bit, and he's improved and may be still improving. We'll be giving it a go." Kauto Star contracted slightly as Gold Cup favourite on the strength of his Kempton victim's performance, with Irish raiders War Of Attrition and In Compliance splitting the pair.
O'Neill and McCoy also took the opener with novice hurdler Wichita Lineman, but sampled disappointment when odds-on Black Jack Ketchum lost his unbeaten record rather tamely in the Cleeve Hurdle. The eight-year-old went from Ferrari to Lada in a matter of strides, his wheels bogged down in the mud. He will return in March for the Stayers' Hurdle, for which he remains favourite, only on better ground. "If it's like this, there's no point," added O'Neill. The surprise winner Blazing Bailey instigated a double for trainer Alan King and rider Choc Thornton, completed by gutsy juvenile Katchit, who has barely dropped a chance all season; his record now reads five from six.
McCoy is at Leopardstown this afternoon where he is reunited with Brave Inca in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle. It is the eight-year-old's toughest task of the season so far; his rivals include the dual champion whose title he took, Hardy Eustace; Mac's Joy, who beat him last time they met; Ireland's best mare Asian Maze; and a clutch of upwardly mobile young contenders.
BETS OF THE DAY
Shindlers Hunt (Leopards-town 1.50) can show how unfortunate is his omission - due to a clerical error - from the Arkle Trophy.
Lemonfield (Leopardstown 3.55), ridden by a competent claimer, can make amends for his fall last time and repay each-way support.