Big races tend to lack the symmetry, the clarity, that illuminates other sporting showdowns. Whenever two horses square up, they tend to end up going round in circles - either through the unscripted intrusion of another horse, or their own fallibility. At Cheltenham today, however, the choreography is pleasingly lucid.
Hardy Eustace versus Detroit City, Ireland versus England: the old king and the young pretender, one graph line dwindling, the other rising. With due respect to the two other runners, the Boylesports Hurdle has the polar purity of a prizefight. All they need is a cornerman to take out the gumshield and towel them down.
Clearly, they remain perfectly capable of raising more questions than they answer, especially on such unpleasant ground. But any grief the new sponsors may feel over the tiny field should be tempered by the reflection that, for the racing public, the plot sometimes thickens until it curdles.
After all, this race has had as many as 10 runners only once since 1963. As a staging post on the way to the Smurfit Champion Hurdle it must compete with recent alternatives at Fairyhouse and Newcastle, and eligible candidates are necessarily few. True, Boylesports offer a £200,000 bonus for the winner if he follows up back here in March. But Straw Bear, who won at Newcastle, will trouser fully £1m if he adds both the Stan James Christmas Hurdle and the Champion.
The one thing that hopelessly unravels a small field is a half-hearted gallop, but here too the race is shored up by the fact that both Hardy Eustace and Detroit City have prospered when ridden aggressively. Indeed, Philip Hobbs remains convinced that the latter's chief asset is stamina - as well he might, after that grim success in the Cesarewitch - and that he must be ridden accordingly for so long as he races at two miles.
Sure enough, Detroit City turned the screw from halfway when a runaway winner here last month, the race sewn up with two to jump. He was immediately made favourite for the Champion, even though his best rival folded tamely and the race otherwise lacked depth.
Clearly Detroit City is the most credible hurdler to have emerged from the juvenile ranks in recent seasons. But he is prompting some very credulous assumptions - in part, no doubt, because of the sense of destiny governing his pursuit of the last British champion hurdler, Rooster Booster, who was owned, trained and ridden by the same three men.
Indeed it is difficult not to be affronted by the haste with which he is being awarded the sceptre prised from Hardy Eustace (below) only last spring. For the Irish hurdler is one of the most accomplished of modern times, having won at the Festival three years running before finishing third to Brave Inca last time.
Having struggled for form during the winter, that performance was immediately treated as the best he can manage nowadays. But there was no mistaking his renaissance at Ascot last month, when he humiliated Mighty Man. Afterwards Dessie Hughes, his trainer, said that Hardy Eustace had never been right last season, and that there was plenty of life in him yet.
On that basis, it outrages every principle - moral and financial - that Detroit City should be 3-1 for the Champion, and Hardy Eustace 16-1. Yes, the graph lines may pass today. But for now this veteran heavyweight sets a standard the contender has yet to meet.
Kicking King forced to abdicate
The dispiriting vigil has begun anew. The first months of the jumps season have been fertile in fascinating questions, but how many will still be answerable come March?
The attrition last winter included Kicking King, who suffered a tendon injury in winning at Kempton on Boxing Day. Tom Taaffe had been aiming to run the 2005 Cheltenham Gold Cup at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, but yesterday he revealed that the horse has aggravated his injury and will not run at all this season. In fact, he may not race again.
"It's not a bad injury but he will now have to come back from two setbacks, and we don't owe it to the horse to be hurting him," Taaffe said. "His last race was the King George and we have some fantastic memories already. We'll decide in the summer if that will be his last race."
As the trainer added: every sound day is a good day in a horse's life. Earlier this week David Pipe reconciled himself to the fact that Celestial Gold will not race this season. Kauto Star could nearly make this a vintage season on his own, but you can never dare invest too much hope when the sword dangles from a horsehair.
The Gold Cup sponsors, Totesport, now have Kauto Star as short as 9-4 favourite, with War Of Attrition 7-2 and Star De Mohaison, State Of Play and Monet's Garden bubbling under at 14-1.
War Of Attrition certainly seemed well named when seizing the vacant crown last year, and prepares for his defence in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown tomorrow. He was disappointing in this race last year, and Mouse Morris has warned that the deep ground will not suit him. But with March dominating his agenda, the trainer will not be too concerned by War Of Attrition's narrow defeat at Down Royal last month. He is playing a long game - but it is one that can take forever.
Ross River looks strong for Irish
Events under the wintry escarpment of Cleeve Hill today seems certain to resonate until the Festival in March, albeit the ground should be a lot better then. Certainly there are key races in every discipline.
The scintillating Black Jack Ketchum dusts off his unbeaten record in the Mears Group Relkeel Hurdle, and Jonjo O'Neill should also win the novice chase with Don't Push It. But he may be thwarted in the Boylesports Gold Cup, one of the most valuable handicap chases of the season.
Things rather fell into Exotic Dancer's lap when he won here last month, and there are several more attractive options at the prices - including Tikram, who starts for a new stable on a fair mark and even fairer odds.
But it is harder still to resist the Irish runner, whose trainer shows such ruthless precision in his raids here. Ross River does not have many miles on the clock for a horse of his age, and resumed in swashbuckling form at Punchestown last month. He fell when heavily backed at the Festival last season, and has gone up in the weights since, but Tony Martin has definitely not reached the bottom of the barrel yet.
Don't miss boat with Tidal Bay
It would have been easy to miss two benchmark novice performances at Cheltenham yesterday - one before lunch, the other in the gloaming.
In the latter Tidal Bay became the first horse to beat Kicks For Free over hurdles. True, the latter hit the final flight when challenging, but Tidal Bay still looked green and certainly regrouped on the climb to the line, having already won over longer distances. Graham Wylie spent 300,000 guineas for him during the summer but that does not look bad value just yet - and likewise the 12-1 from Blue Square for the Ballymore Properties Hurdle. Bookmakers are assuming that his Festival target will be the Anglo Irish Bank Hurdle, over two miles, but the longer race is thought more suitable.
With the solstice approaching, racing started just after noon and Michael Cunningham's Patsy Hall jumped like an old hand in the Cleanevent Novices' Chase - at the expense of three rivals previously unbeaten over fences.
In between, Spot Thedifference confirmed his unique felicity for cross-country fences, winning over them for a sixth time in the Sporting Index Chase. He will turn 14 on New Year's Day, but should be back for one more go at the Festival. As his owner, J P McManus, said afterwards: "They're never too old, so long as they are still enjoying it." Opponents of Hardy Eustace, take note.