Plan A, worth £29,000, has come to fruition. Plan B, with more than £100,000 at stake, will be enacted at Cheltenham on Wednesday. The Imperial Cup is the traditional curtain-raiser to the upcoming Festival, but in recent years has taken on an extra significance with the carrot of a £60,000 bonus if the winner can follow up at Prestbury Park. Only one trainer has achieved the double, Martin Pipe, with Olympian 10 years ago and Blowing Wind in 1998, and he is now in line for a third pot following Korelo's extraordinary victory here yesterday.
Anyone trying to lay the five-year-old half a mile from home could not have found a taker. On rain-soaked ground not unakin to a ploughed field, Korelo was going absolutely nowhere, with Tony McCoy's urgings testing his recently injured left shoulder to the limit.
But once in the straight the 9-4 favourite began to find his second wind, and by the final flight had virtually come back on the bridle, hopping over with his ears flicking. His winning margin, from Irish mare Newhall, was six lengths, with one of the early trailblazers, Lawz, third and another Pipe candidate, Canada, fourth.
The bonus apart, Pipe has a tremendous Imperial Cup record, Korelo being his fifth winner. The David Johnson colourbearer will now, assuming he suffers no ill-effects from yesterday's effort, head for the Coral Cup, which offers a first prize of £42,000 and for which the 7lb penalty picked up for this victory did not prevent him hardening as market leader.
"I was struggling," admitted McCoy, "but the two miles here takes some getting in this sort of ground and they'd gone plenty fast enough in front. I knew his stamina would come into play, and the trick was to keep him up to his work without being too hard on him. But he's the sort who saves a bit for himself, which helps in a situation like this."
McCoy, who followed up on Grand National entry Killusty (winning on his first appearance for 25 months) in the three-mile handicap chase, named Tiutchev, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase immediately before the Coral Cup, as one of his particular Festival fancies. "Don't forget he'd been ill before he ran so well last year," he said, "I like him a lot."
Third-season trainer Emma Lavelle, whose first-ever Cheltenham runner will be Self Defense in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, emphasised her team's sparkling form when Tana River defied top weight to take the two-and-a-half-mile novices' handicap hurdle and Immola hacked up in the two-mile equivalent, both under Barry Fenton.
Tana River's success was a pre-play of Korelo's, sweeping through from nowhere over the last flight to take the Grade Three prize by nine lengths. "I knew if I didn't get too detached from the others his stamina would get him home," said Fenton.
It was definitely not a day for faint hearts and Ibal, winner of the Imperial Cup two years ago and the mainstay of Dina Smith's tiny Pulborough yard, spoilt the royal romance in the opening novices' chase.
Favourite for the race, named to commemorate one of the Queen Mother's darlings, Special Cargo, was First Love, bred by her and raced since her death by the Queen. But the seven-year-old seems not to have his late owner's absolute commitment to the game and was repeatedly outjumped and out-toughed by his contemporary Ibal, who had seen him off by the Pond fence three from home and galloped cheerfully up the hill under Leighton Aspell to score by 10 lengths.
It was Ibal's fourth successive win over fences and highlighted his competitive spirit, for he had virtually crawled across the line at Plumpton in January when a tilt at three miles stretched his stamina to its limit. "It was not good to watch," said Smith, "but it did not affect him mentally, in fact he arrived back in the yard quite pleased with himself, and we gave him plenty of time to get over it physically."
Twenty-two challengers remained in the Gold Cup at yesterday's penultimate declaration stage, with no surprises among the withdrawals.
And as the jump season reaches its climax there was a reminder of the delights of the Flat season to come when Aquarelliste, one of the best mares in training, destroyed her rivals by five lengths in the first Pattern race of the European season, the Group Three Prix Exbury at Saint-Cloud, putting herself in line for the Dubai World Cup at the end of the month.
"She works better on the sand at home than she does on the grass," said her trainer, Elie Lellouche. After Dubai she will be covered by Sadler's Wells, but her owner, Alec Wildenstein, indicated the five-year-old, may continue racing after she is in foal.