First of all, many happy returns to all thoroughbreds. Since the system was standardised in 1858, today has been the day when they all become a year older, regardless of their actual birth dates. So a particularly happy birthday to Smile Pleeze, In Good Faith and Xaipete, who all run today as newly fledged teenagers. And to dear old Lyphard who has reached the venerable age of 36 in retirement at Gainesway Stud in Kentucky and is surely the longest-living top-class racehorse of all time.
In this afternoon's Grade Two feature, though, on an excellent hangover-blowing card at Cheltenham, the focus is on youth. And though only five turn out in the Dipper Chase, not every contest needs to be dumbed down to satisfy betting-turnover requirements and this mouthwatering novices' two and a half-miler is certainly one for the connoisseurs. And with the greatest respect to See You Sometime, My Will and El Vaquero, the focus of interest must be on Fundamentalist (2.10), arguably this season's most exciting recruit to the larger obstacles.
The team behind him - trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and jockey Carl Llewellyn - will be keen to put behind them the memories of an experiment at Newbury that went horribly wrong. After the seven-year-old saw off Contraband and My Will over two miles on today's course in November with a bold, blitzing display, a more conservative approach was adopted over today's trip at Newbury. In a muddling, tactical three-horse affair, a mistake at the last while travelling arrogantly well resulted in a narrow defeat by Vodka Bleu.
It will be back to Plan A here at the track where Fundamentalist galloped to victory in the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle in March. "He will be ridden prominently again and we will make up his mind for him," said Twiston-Davies. "He is in great form and we are hoping to overcome that slight dent in his career."
The vogue seems to be to regard every high-class staying novice as a potential Cheltenham Gold Cup candidate, but Twiston-Davies seems loath to pitch his rising star into the best senior company and is favouring a drop back in trip. "I doubt if he'll make a Gold Cup horse this time," he added. "He's got plenty of time. If he wins everything I suppose there's a chance he could go for it, but the Festival target I'm looking for at the moment is the Arkle, as he's running a bit free."
My Will started favourite to beat Fundamentalist when they met at Cheltenham but found two miles on fastish ground beyond him. He will have conditions to suit better today but will have to jump more fluently than he did against See You Sometime at Windsor two weeks ago. He is inherently the faster, classier horse of the pair but missed more than he flew that time and did well to finish only half a length down.
El Vaquero deserves the most respect of Fundamentalist's rivals - he had jumped well and was travelling easily in a decent contest at Cheltenham last month when knuckling over four out - but the fifth runner, Tom Nail, is due none. His trainer will one day damage his own horse or another's by his habit of running hopelessly outclassed animals in élite events.
Monkerhostin, who turns out over hurdles today after winning a valuable Grade Three chase at the track last month, is vying with Rule Supreme for the accolade of most versatile horse in training. One most certainly not in that contest is Westender (1.35). The 2003 Champion Hurdle runner-up made it abundantly clear that he wanted no truck with birch when tried over it, but back over the smaller obstacles on his last two runs the nine-year-old has shown good enough form against two of Ireland's leading Champion Hurdle hopes, Accordion Etoile and Back In Front, to enable him to notch his first success for more than three years.
Frenchman's Creek (1.00) is another whose talent may be in excess of his enthusiasm and sheepskin cheekpieces adorn his bridle this afternoon. Though 11, he is a low-mileage model and ran on for an excellent third place last time out against two high-class types in Therealbandit and Royal Auclair over all bar a furlong of today's course and distance. Two places behind him came Joly Bey (3.20), whose momentum that day was stopped by a mistake at the last ditch. He should find the drop back in trip a help in another of the day's competitive handicaps and is preferred to Scots Grey.
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