The Cheltenham Gold Cup field will be further reduced before Friday's big day, but at this stage 21 remain in contention for the £350,000 prize fund. The number of runners represents exactly half the original entry of 40, plus Farmer Jack, supplemented at yesterday's penultimate confirmation stage. It cost the latecomer's owners, the retired Dorset farmers Peter Partridge and Roger Kellow, £17,500 to give their home-bred nine-year-old the chance for the ultimate glory, but then again he has won them £87,000 during the past month.
The removal of Best Mate, the defending champion, from the fray prompted the decision. Farmer Jack has not yet attempted the three-and-a-quarter mile Gold Cup trip in anger, but his last two wins - a defeat of two of this week's rivals, Strong Flow and Celestial Gold, at Newbury, and then an easy win in the Racing Post Trophy at Kempton 15 days ago - have come on his only attempts at three miles.
"The owners came to see him this morning and we decided to have a go," said the trainer, Philip Hobbs, yesterday. "What happened to Best Mate definitely influenced us. He has certainly improved this year, but I'm not sure whether it's due to the step up in trip or just him getting more mature." Farmer Jack is rated a 10-1 chance with the big-race sponsors, Totesport, with Kingscliff the 9-2 favourite.
But as one contender took his place at the Festival, another fancied horse joined the eleventh-hour defections. France's Ambobo, favourite for Wednesday's Royal & Sun-Alliance Hurdle, is lame and will miss his Prestbury Park date. Gold Medallist and Royal Paradise are now vying for his place at the top of the market.
The Imperial Cup, first run in 1907, was once easily the most important hurdle prize of the season, and no prewar Champion Hurdle winner came close in ability to Trespasser, hero of the Sandown feature from 1920 to 1922. Nowadays the contest is merely the hors-d'oeuvre to the Cheltenham feast, though there is a £60,000 bonus on offer if the winner can score again at the Festival.
Yesterday Martin Pipe took his Imperial Cup tally to five, as 9-2 favourite Medison beat 18 rivals insultingly easily. Two of the trainer's previous winners went on to take the extra cash - Olympian, by winning the Coral Cup in 1993, and Blowing Wind, who doubled up in the County Hurdle seven years ago - and Medison looks more than capable of following in their hoofprints. Assuming he gets a run in a race with an entry of 71 and a safety limit of 30, that is, but the 4lb penalty that he picked up yesterday puts him within good striking range of making the cut.
The French-bred five-year-old, racing outside novice company for the first time, was getting weight from all of his rivals yesterday bar one, and on those blot terms was always in command. He made ground rapidly approaching the final turn, came up the straight with Timmy Murphy sitting up like a hussar, and though he rather bunny-hopped the final flight, his response to his rider's request to get on with it up the climb to the finish was immediate. His margin over last year's third, Fenix, was three-and-a half-lengths, with Monte Cinto pipping Crossbow Creek for third, six lengths back.
Despite the sticky ground, David Johnson's colour-bearer, a scopy, unfurnished sort, won with his big brown ears pricked and his lungs hardly expanded, and is a best-priced 4-1 to continue his progress at Cheltenham. "The crack at the bonus is the idea," said Pipe, "but we'll see how he is. And he needs a few to come out to get in the race." Pipe may have some say in this matter, as he trains six of the 37 weighted above Medison.
A good winner in the lead-up to this week's events can do wonders for a jockey's self-esteem and, while Ruby Walsh has never lacked much in that department, there was no doubting the pleasure he got from his peachy performance on Inca Trail in the three-mile handicap chase. The Paul Nicholls-trained nine-year-old, Best Mate's younger, quirkier brother, is a horse whose talent outweighs his enthusiasm and who needs maximum tact. Walsh stalked the leaders throughout, not making any demands on the gelding until he woke him up more than halfway up the run-in and pounced on Boys Hurrah to win by a cosy three-quarters of a length.
"He was always cruising," said Walsh, "but he doesn't much like a battle. I might have looked some wally by leaving it so late, but he did pick up as soon as I asked."
It was a less happy day for Andy Thornton, due to partner the Gold Cup favourite, Kingscliff. He suffered a jump jockey's worst fall, on the flat between obstacles, when The Listener slipped up. He tweaked back muscles and gave up his other rides, but expects to be back tomorrow.