The day Best Mate dropped dead at Exeter, few retained much appetite to contemplate what had happened at the business end of the race. As things have turned out, however, Monkerhostin's defeat of Kauto Star represented an immediate claim to his share of the legacy.
These horses have since been elevated to favouritism for the two biggest steeplechases at the Cheltenham Festival next month, and both have been declared to run at Newbury today - though the course, like Ayr and Warwick, must pass an inspection this morning.
Stepped up to three miles, Monkerhostin failed by just a neck to run down Kicking King at Sandown on Boxing Day, and injury to the winner has completed his bewildering transformation into favourite for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Looking at his overall record, this is the equivalent of his disappearing into a phone kiosk and emerging dressed as Desert Orchid.
He faces only three rivals for the Aon Chase today, so it remains to be seen how thoroughly his credentials can be tested. For now, however, the onus of proof remains with Monkerhostin, who may well have exploited a series of weak links at Sandown - a dreadful performance from Kingscliff, for instance, and the palpable lack of stamina in Impek, who still managed third.
Take The Stand (2.35) also seemed to surpass himself when chasing home Kicking King at Cheltenham last year, but ran his best race since in unsuitable ground at Wetherby after Christmas.
Comply Or Die had a tough first season over fences but could enjoy the run of the race here and his own Festival form, when second to Trabolgan, should further discourage anyone tempted by short odds about Monkerhostin.
Kauto Star will, meanwhile, make just his fifth start over fences in the Totepool Game Spirit Chase, and in the circumstances looks a pretty short price for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He has never run on ground as quick as this, and in terms of experience scarcely has an advantage over Tamarinbleu (3.45), who will be no pushover receiving 10lb.
Nicholls will walk the course before giving Kauto Star the green light to run, and said: "I shall have a walk round and see what the ground is like for Kauto Star but hopefully we'll be alright. Nicholls runs two novices in the valuable Totesport Trophy, but they may prove too innocent for a 26-runner stampede on fast ground.
Arch Rebel (3.10, next best) sank without trace on his two latest outings but certainly has the talent to make his presence felt. He was still doing so approaching the final flight in championship company at Leopardstown last time, and was marooned in heavy ground on his previous start. He has an American pedigree, and has not run on ground as fast as this since winning a Curragh handicap under topweight.
True, he has won in soft ground over hurdles, but only by outclassing inferiors, and Noel Meade's charge remains sufficiently unexposed to be worth chancing at 25-1.
Chief Yeoman also looks interesting, and his stable may offer the best opportunity of the day in FAIR QUESTION (4.25 Ayr, nap). He has plainly had problems but his trainer would seem fairly confident that he is ready to profit from a lenient mark, judging from the long journey he undertakes for his reappearance.
The Hennessy Gold Cup, cornerstone of a terrific card at Leopardstown tomorrow, looks another "home game" for the horse disputing Cheltenham favouritism with Monkerhostin, Beef Or Salmon. But there was no mistaking the sheer class in Hedgehunter at Aintree last year and it will be fascinating to see what progress he has made since these horses met at the Christmas meeting.
Racing Demon meanwhile seeks more experience over fences at Exeter tomorrow, having lost a similar opportunity at Chepstow last weekend. A lot of trainers are skating on perilously thin ice just now, desperate to get a run into horses while there is still time to freshen them up again before the Festival. They know that the window of opportunity narrows with every frost. The stewards at Bangor-on-Dee yesterday required four inspections before Paul Nicholls was able to run Denman. Once Jonjo O'Neill had scratched Black Jack Ketchum - in the hope that an easier opportunity survives at Warwick today - Denman was left to school round unmolested by any rival remotely in his class.
Despite one or two inattentive jumps, Nicholls was fully satisfied and said: "I am pleased I have got another run into him to sharpen him up and as I expected, he has had a real good blow," the trainer said. "He's still a big green baby and he's learning all the time. A race like today is about applying the finishing touches." Denman remains 3-1 favourite with Coral for the SunAlliance Hurdle, from Black Jack Ketchum on 9-2.
Nap: Fair Question (Fair Question 4.25)
NB: Arch Rebel
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