They came to praise Martin Pipe, not to bury him, but there was no escaping the sense of valediction here yesterday. That, after all, is jump racing's way: its weeks of renewal come as the leaves fall and the birds flee. The first meeting of the season here was dedicated to the man who abruptly announced his retirement in April, on the very day he finally surrendered the trainers' championship to Paul Nicholls. Pipe hopes that his son, David, can sustain the legacy of 15 previous titles, but events on the sunlit track conspired only to measure the daunting shadow he casts.
Pipe had begun the day by visiting his father's grave. "I showed him the Racing Post and he had a giggle," he said. The front page of the trade newspaper saluted Pipe, but perhaps what he heard was rather more in the way of a hollow laugh. David saddled runners in all six races, and every time he had a sniff of a winner, something went wrong - most excruciatingly when Abragante arrived at the last fence on the bridle, only to crumple on landing. That race, as if to rub it in, was named the 4,182 Winners In 32 Years Handicap Chase.
The opener, recalling Pipe's first winner at Taunton in 1975, was the Hit Parade Started It All Novices' Hurdle, sponsored by Betfair. After Lou Du Moulin Mas skipped clear of the field, it was cruelly suggested that the race should instead have been named the Paul Nicholls Ended It All Novices' Hurdle. The two men have never disguised a mutual froideur, but Nicholls was deadpan in the winner's enclosure. "Doesn't matter what day it is," he said breezily. "We just try to win, every day."
The balance of power is now such, however, that Nicholls could easily have spent the rest of the afternoon discussing plans for his thriving stable of young stars. Options remain open for Kauto Star himself, following that exuberant comeback at Aintree on Sunday, and Nicholls is treating his versatility as an asset: he can drop him back to two miles on soft ground, and step him up to three on good. In an ideal world, conditions will permit him to try the latter in the King George VI Chase at Christmas, but Nicholls emphasised that Kauto Star should not be backed for the Queen Mother Champion Chase over two miles back here in March - for which the bookmakers have him favourite. "It would have to be very testing for him to run, and we all know that's pretty unlikely," he said.
In fairness, much of the afternoon reflected aptly on Pipe. The 34 Festival Winners Handicap Hurdle was won by Monolith, saddled by Len Lungo - the man who rode Hit Parade. Lungo had made the long journey from the Scottish Borders largely as a tribute to Pipe, and his delight was plain to see, though he noted that Monolith had also opened a new chapter. "That was Keith Mercer's first winner for us since becoming stable jockey," he said. "And I hope it's the first of many: he's a great rider, with great hands, and a pleasure to work with."
And then there were the three winners ridden by Tony McCoy, for so long Pipe's ally in their implacable pursuit of winners. In hindsight, whether as cause or effect, McCoy's departure was a signpost to the relative stagnation that would end Pipe's monopoly. But the point is that Pipe has many more heirs than David. His bequest will ultimately be shared by any trainer who wants to be competitive in the profession he transformed. Nicholls himself acknowledges his debt to Pipe's methods, and, of course, the ultimate beneficiary is the horse. Unquestionably jumpers nowadays are fitter than ever for the demands of their calling.
Some of his veterans paraded before racing, led by Bonanza Boy, now a 25-year-old. Though never a natural communicator, Pipe palpably sensed the affection of the crowd who gathered around the paddock and who cheered as he doffed his trilby.
"Bonanza Boy must have been a wonderhorse," he told them. "My son won a hunter-chase on him once. I'm assisting David now. Only he calls it hindering."
For all the teasing, Pipe is clearly confident of his son's qualifications, and his own health problems will not inhibit an unbroken, sprightly contribution. "We've always been open to each other's ideas," he said. "I remember it was David, years ago, who put Pridwell in a race over three miles. I told him he had no chance of staying, which shows what I knew.
"He needs to find new horses, new owners, but he's enjoying life, and getting plenty of winners already."
Nap: Turnberry Bay
NB: Lake Imperial