On only two occasions in the past quarter of a century has the Queen Mother Champion Chase been run on heavy ground, most recently when Pearlyman trounced Desert Orchid by five lengths 19 years ago. Now Martin Brassil, on behalf of his talented charge Nickname, will be hoping that the law of averages can overcome global warming and Cheltenham's drainage system and provide a wet Wednesday in March.
In winning the Normans Grove Chase at Fairyhouse yesterday, the French-bred eight-year-old put himself right in the mix for the two-mile crown. With one vital caveat, though; he simply must have easy conditions underfoot. In fact, given the quickness of the ground at recent Festivals - the last time it was soft was in 1995 - and his own reluctance to bother travelling outside Ireland for plunder, Brassil almost did not bother entering the gelding.
The trainer has had only one runner in Britain in the past five years, and a rather effective one too, the latest Grand National winner, Numbersixvalverde. After watching Ruby Walsh bring Nickname home 15 lengths clear of Justified, there may just be another. "If it turned up soft we'd have to be tempted to go to Cheltenham," conceded Brassil. "He really does handle that sort of ground well. But there are enough good races here not to risk him on good ground."
Nickname, the even-money favourite, faced only three rivals in yesterday's Grade Two contest, but quantity and quality were in inverse proportion. The quartet, all Grade One winners, lined up with 43 victories and earnings of £1.3m between them.
Walsh, riding the dark bay for only the second time, settled him in last place, but well in touch, as Justified and Central House matched strides in front. With Justified tending to jump left, Central House was consistently the better in the air, but much good it did him, as he was the first under pressure. Nickname moved smoothly into contention after the fourth-last and his backers' only heartbeat moment came at the next obstacle, the first in the straight.
There were three in the air together, Nickname in the middle. On his right, Justified again sheered leftish, delivering a bump. On his right, Central House tumbled on landing, his legs flailing as he turned over. Nickname's strength shrugged off the first threat and his speed and balance took him away from the second. He jumped to the lead two out and his change of gear left Justified behind in a matter of strides as he cruised to his third good prize this season.
"He relaxes lovely when he is ridden like that," said Brassil, "and Ruby was very impressed with him. He's a better and stronger horse this year and is very professional about it all now. He's shown he's capable of taking on and beating the best in this country at around two miles, but I don't know how we'd sit with the best in Britain."
The gelding's win was the middle leg of a treble for Walsh - the other two were Black Harry (5-4) and Alexander Taipan (4-7) for Willie Mullins - which took his domestic seasonal score to 99. His fastest century looks a formality this week.
Nickname, now vying for fourth-favouritism for the Champion Chase with Foreman at around 10-1, behind Voy Por Ustedes, Newmill and Well Chief, has a date at Punchestown in 13 days' time pencilled in. The most impressive of the weekend's domestic winners, Afsoun, will not be seen again until he lines up for the Champion Hurdle. The five-year-old, who took the big-race trial at Haydock on Saturday by nine lengths, will not take up his engagement in next month's Tote Gold Trophy. "I haven't confirmed it with his owner yet," said his trainer, Nicky Henderson, yesterday, "but I should think it most unlikely."
The formerly nervy Afsoun, who carries the Trevor Hemmings silks, looked newly mature and composed at Haydock, the credit for which Henderson deflected toward his lad, Neil Backhouse. "The horse is not easy," he said. "He's the type who can boil over and you have to keep the lid on him. Neil has done a tremendous job.
"He never works or exercises with another horse, his mind wouldn't take it; Neil takes him out on his own and keeps him sane. And although mine have their manes plaited for races, this one doesn't; it might key him up and little things like that can make a difference. One thing that was very pleasing to notice was that the fall he had last month at Kempton didn't bother him, which it might have done in the past. I think he's growing up."
Nap: Writ (Wolverhampton 3.40)
NB: A Nod And A Wink (Kempton 2.20)