In this suspicious, worldly age, as many people will be seeking signs of weakness in Kauto Star at Newbury today as joy in his supremacy among British steeplechasers. But Paul Nicholls could scarcely have designed a less exacting rehearsal for the Cheltenham Festival than the Aon Chase. Indeed, Nicholls himself accounts for two of just five horses declared against Kauto Star, who should certainly not find his jumping placed under the sort of pressure that provoked those two infamous howlers at Kempton on Boxing Day.
By the same token, of course, it would be difficult to overlook any blemishes in his performance. There are valid reasons for doubting Kauto Star in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup next month but none apply today, when he should outclass his rivals in an environment he will find ideal.
Nicholls felt that the horse still lacked experience at the beginning of the season and has certainly addressed that concern since. This is Kauto Star's fifth race of the campaign and, however easily he might win, he will necessarily be putting another three miles on his clock. He has been indiscriminately dishing it out over two miles and three, and certainly had quite a race at Kempton. It is slightly disconcerting, then, that he must still reserve his best performance for Cheltenham - when exposed to an exhausting test of jumping over an undulating track, against the best field he has met, and quite possibly on faster ground.
In the meantime, it must be hoped that today he can enjoy little more than a lap of honour. His transformation has invigorated the jumping scene in Britain and, by plunging those feet of clay into the flaccid Kempton fences, he has already set a compelling agenda in the Gold Cup.
Time to talk up Listener's chance
Appropriately enough, The Listener has never been a talking horse. His unglamorous relish for what his trainer, Robert Alner, this week described as "impossible" ground has seen to that. But it remains quite feasible, Kauto Star notwithstanding, that the grey will erect the most significant Gold Cup signpost of the afternoon in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
Admittedly the race has cut up to ribbons, but the Beef Or Salmon camp is certainly eager to take on The Listener again after he impudently made all the running over the same course at Christmas. "The Listener doesn't frighten me one bit," Michael Hourigan declared yesterday.
If he can reiterate his class at the expense of Beef Or Salmon, a winner of nine Grade One prizes and nowhere more at home than Leopardstown, it will be time to take The Listener very seriously in the Gold Cup.
On manoeuvres for Champion Chase
There is more to training racehorses than the Sisyphean labour of galloping them up a hill every morning. Consider the options that faced two Somerset men, at opposite ends of their professional spectrum, before the Totepool Game Spirit Chase at Newbury today - potentially the defining moment of their respective seasons.
With a stable in transition, David Pipe has no more eligible championship candidate than Well Chief, who has rubbed shoulders in his time with Azertyuiop and Moscow Flyer - far better horses over two miles than the current mob. Pipe seems to have been sorely tempted by the audacity of running Well Chief first time out in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but he has ultimately decided to squeeze this run into him first.
Ashley Brook, meanwhile, is the only horse that enables Kevin Bishop to measure himself against the heavyweights. He, too, had to be nursed back from injury, but his recuperation has been such that Bishop has been able to get a run into him over hurdles at Cheltenham. Off a very lenient rating, Ashley Brook destroyed his field, in the process reminding everyone that he beat War Of Attrition when they met as novices at Aintree.
Voy Por Ustedes, the Champion Chase favourite, could easily be beaten by either of these horses on deep ground today - not least as he must give them both 10lb. But the true fascination will rest in the difference in all three, should they meet again as scheduled on 14 March, because both Pipe and Bishop are flirting with the risks inherent in a generous comeback effort.
Pipe will surely ask Timmy Murphy to be indulgent to Well Chief, who cannot afford an effort that might send him into reverse. And after such a long period of inertia, Ashley Brook is being asked to race for the second time in a fortnight - barely four weeks before his big target.
Quatre Heures to settle family dispute
With so many horses at Newbury being trained and ridden with the Festival in mind, punters will find a refreshing lack of complication to the £150,000 Totesport Gold Trophy. For some runners, indeed, this prize will itself have been the target for several months.
Acambo sustained his progress when a decisive winner at Ascot in December, but a 10lb higher rating elevates him to top weight on much heavier ground here. There is a formidable Irish challenge, the Mullins clan alone sending four runners across - two of which comprise the shortlist. Pedrobob is definitely better than he looked in his first visit to these shores, at Cheltenham in November, but preference is for Quatre Heures. A Grade One winner as a novice, he was running for the first time since the summer when ninth in a similar stampede at Leopardstown last month.
But the best bet is at Warwick, where Little Rocker (2.55) stands out from a drab field, having pulled a long way clear of the rest in pursuit of two useful novices at Hereford last time.
Cat lies in wait for Invasor
This is going to be a vintage year on the Flat if its first big showdown is anything to go by. Last weekend Invasor, freshly garlanded in the International Classification as the best horse in the world in 2006, produced another stunning performance in his comeback run in Florida. The Breeders' Cup Classic winner was nearly brought to his knees when clipping a rival's heels in the Gulfstream Park stretch, but his young rider, Fernando Jara, coolly regrouped and they cruised through a gap on the rail for another easy success.
The Uruguayan monster's record now stands at 10 wins from 11 starts - and in the Dubai World Cup next month he will seek to avenge that one blemish when he meets Godolphin's unbeaten speedball, Discreet Cat. It is a prospect to thaw the bleakest midwinter blues.