The single mind of Tony McCoy was more than a match for the two of Exotic Dancer, his partner in the Paddy Power Gold Cup here yesterday. Just five days after an apparently unenthusiastic and distinctly underwhelming display on his seasonal debut at lowly Carlisle, the six-year-old bounced back to his best on an infinitely more demanding stage to take the afternoon's feature by three lengths at 16-1.
Exotic Dancer's trainer Jonjo O'Neill seemed slightly bemused by the turnaround in attitude from his charge. "He's a funny old character," he said, "He seem to have off days and on days. On a going day he's shown us he's a good horse, and this was one of them. I'm not sure what the key to him is. Maybe it's AP." Amen to that.
McCoy's analysis of the situation and his consequent tactics were incisive and wholly effective. "A month ago, at home, I thought he was the ideal horse for this race," he said. "But at Carlisle he ran a shocker. There were only three runners and he was too fresh and too keen, but what was so disappointing was that he didn't finish. I took on the one that won three out and he jumped it beautifully but he didn't keep galloping. In three strides it felt like he was back trotting.
"I think the thing was that he was going too free and always doing too much and with just the three runners I couldn't get any cover. Today, I kept him at the back, in among them all. That kept him relaxed, he didn't know he was racing, but it also kept him interested. And he jumped brilliantly."
Three fences out Exotic Dancer was in last place, but by the final obstacle he had scythed his way through the field and jumped past the 4-1 favourite Vodka Bleu, on whom Timmy Murphy had gone for home coming down the hill.
"I don't think it was a great ride," shrugged McCoy, self-deprecatingly, "it just happened."
Exotic Dancer had the assistance of earplugs and cheekpieces as well as McCoy. Despite his inconsistencies the French-bred, owned by Sir Robert Ogden, has always threatened to come good and in his defence yesterday's run was only his sixth over fences; he missed most of last season after fracturing his pelvis in a fall at Sandown in December.
"He's come back a much stronger horse," added O'Neill. "This was only his second win for us since he came from France two years ago but it seems that when he's good, he's very good."
Vodka Bleu's tremendous performance after an injury-enforced lay-off of 714 days - after being passed he galloped gamely up the hill to hold New Alco (16-1) by half a length - was confirmation that the Pond House legacy is in safe hands. "He's run a fantastic race," said David Pipe, "Turning for home I thought he was going to win, but then I saw what no-one really wants to, the sight of AP getting closer."
Exotic Dancer may return here next month for the Boylesports Gold Cup; Vodka Bleu is bound for the Hennessy Gold Cup later this.
The favourite for that Newbury showpiece is another bearer of the pink Ogden colours, Star de Mohaison, who oozed class and talent even over hurdles as he strolled home by eight lengths, despite being taken wide by Ruby Walsh all the way in the stayers' handicap.
His success, his first run of a campaign with the Gold Cup itself as the target, was the middle leg of a treble of favourites for trainer Paul Nicholls, also on the mark with Denman and My Will. All three victors were ridden by Walsh, who was also on board gamble-landing Irish raider Tipperary All Star in the two-mile handicap hurdle.
Denman, a strong, powerful dark chestnut, confirmed himself the rising talent among young staying chasers with a hard-fought three-quarter-length victory over Don't Push It. "He is still a bit novicey at his fences," said Nicholls, "and tends to idle in front. Amazingly green, really, but then they don't learn from winning easily. Today he's had to get his head down and that will have taught him a lot."
After Katchit brought Freeze The Flame's winning run to an end in the opening juvenile hurdle, and notched his own third success from four outings in the process, he received a gracious apology from his trainer Alan King.
"I never thought he'd be this good," he said. "I'd thought to make hay while we could because I felt that when the better horses came out he'd start struggling. But I'll have to start taking him seriously after this."
Last night jockey Philip Hide was unconscious in Cheltenhan General Hospital after his mount Hatch A Plan stumbled on landing, fell and crashed through the rails in the third race. The rider suffered apparently serious head injuries.