The first foot across Noel Meade's threshold in 2006 seemed to arrive in a hobnailed boot, and to land squarely on his chin. This sensation was achieved by the discovery that Harchibald, perhaps the most gifted jumper in training, had picked up an injury at Leopardstown on Thursday. The horse spent yesterday afternoon in surgery and his trainer was bleakly reconciled to the fact that he could not run again this season.
By the evening, however, Meade could just discern a sliver of light. The vets had managed to excise a piece of birch that had punctured Harchibald's foot and dispelled the initial fear of tendon damage. Meade's partner, Gillian O'Brien, suggested that the bookmakers may yet prove too hasty in scratching the Smurfit Champion Hurdle favourite.
"The surgeons have removed the birch, which had gone up through the heel into a joint, and it is now a matter of keeping the infection at bay," she said. "If they manage to do that over the next couple of days, we can decide if he might be able run again this season."
Though he has never quite managed to match flair with fulfilment - not so far, at any rate - life is never dull with Harchibald around. Paul Carberry rides him in such a way that an impassable trench divides doubters and believers, and seldom more so than last Thursday. Granting a very generous start to Brave Inca in testing ground, Carberry eased up once it became clear Harchibald would not find enough off the bridle.
But the horse had remained favourite for the Champion, despite a smooth resumption from Hardy Eustace - who beat him by a neck in the race last year - at Punchestown on Saturday. For now, Ladbrokes have Feathard Lady as short as 7-2, with Arcalis on 9-2, and Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace on 5-1.
A day of fitful anxieties had seemed to reach its nadir when Ruby Walsh was taken off the track here by stretcher and in a neck brace. The jockey had taken a violent fall from Sporazene but fortunately the ominous precautions proved to be no more than that, and he hopes to be able to ride again by the weekend.
Walsh had probably arrived with the clearest head on the track, having taken a dawn flight to get here in time to ride Denman in the Stan James Challow Hurdle - a Grade One race that had the unusual distinction of starting before noon. "But then I would stay in every night if I could ride a horse like that every day," Walsh said after the race.
There is not much danger of that. A ruthless 21-length defeat of three other unbeaten hurdlers identified Denman as the outstanding staying novice of the British winter, and he is now down to 5-1 favourite with Ladbrokes for the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle back here in March. It was at the end of Festival week last season that Denman had first surfaced in a Co Cork point-to-point, and he has since won both his starts for Paul Nicholls.
"He will only come back here in March if he gets proper ground," the trainer cautioned. "He would be the wrong horse to run on quick going. But he is my sort of horse, a big chasing type with a lot of scope. He'll go over fences next season."
In such glorious isolation, Denman proved inattentive on the run-in, and at one point it seemed as though he might run out. "But he'd have been grand with a bit of company," Walsh said. "It felt as though we were just cantering all the way. I was sure something would come at us. But he jumped the last like the first. He's a natural."
Nicholls saddled the first two in the next race - albeit the stewards reversed the order after barging - and his first runner at Plumpton also won. But while Martin Pipe is over £300,000 behind, in third, he might just have found a horse to revive his defence of the trainers' championship in Joaaci.
Making only his fifth start under Rules - and three of those were squeezed into the same April week, during the last duel for the title - Joaaci made light of the weight he was giving to all rivals. These included Lord Of Illusion, who won the race last year and jumped the rest of the field into submission from a long way out.
Joacci is only six and, having proven himself over course and distance, it will be interesting to see if Pipe enters him in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. For the moment, after a stuttering end to the old year, he was simply happy to see evidence that his stable has turned a corner.
Others trying to make a fresh start formed a long, pasty-faced queue for coffee and doughnuts, while the hot whiskey bar stood deserted. And Andrew Thornton suspected that The Listener may also have been overdoing things when he scrambled home in the Dipper Novices' Chase. "He won ugly today," the jockey said. "But it was his third run in six weeks and he didn't jump with the same zest. The important thing is he showed battling qualities on horrible ground." Ladbrokes keep him on 10-1 for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase.Reuse content