David Pipe and his father were driving to their gallops yesterday morning when they came across a gate. Neither moved. They exchanged a quick glance, and stared ahead again. "Gate!" exclaimed Martin eventually. "Gate!" David pretended to grumble as he climbed out of the car, but both men were grinning.
As they both insist, all that has happened at Pond House since last season is that formal roles have been traded. Pipe had been assistant for several years prior to the abrupt announcement, on the final day of the season, that his father would be handing over the licence. On the other hand, the young man faces a clear crossroads. After winning the trainers' championship 15 times, Martin had finally surrendered to Paul Nicholls: the horses were ill for much of last winter, and indeed he has health problems of his own. Only David Johnson was spending big money in the yard. Overall it was difficult to resist a sense of stagnation.
"Numbers are down," Pipe Jnr admitted. "We can take 160 horses here, and probably have about 110 in at the moment. I'm looking for new horses, new owners. But that is still a lot of horses for a first-season trainer. I'm in a very privileged position. Yes, that brings pressure of its own. But I have the best assistant in the world, and intend to make plenty of use of him."
There have been one or two perceptible shifts in tone and direction. Pipe, 33, has gone as far as Carlisle, Kelso and Sedgefield in search of winners. And there was no mistaking his relative ease of manner as he paraded horses to the press later in the morning. "Dad's only here to make sure I don't give too much away," he beamed.
At Cheltenham on Saturday, however, he hopes that nobody will be able to see the join. Our Vic in the Paddy Power Gold Cup last year was his father's seventh winner in 10 runnings. And success for Vodka Bleu would serve formal notice that the new regime is no less focused - and no less wily. Vodka Bleu has not been seen for nearly two years but it seems safe to say that he is ready to run for his life. He is already down to 5-1 with the sponsors, who have laid him at 14-1. Until yesterday, Pipe had been prevaricating over the stable's four entries. Just like old times, really.
"Hopefully he'll be our number one candidate," he said, by now quite superfluously. "He had a bang on a tendon, but we gave him all the time he needed and he's fit and well now. He has a nice low weight - the handicapper has given him a chance, dropping him 6lb - and some of his form reads really well. We took him to Exeter last week for a gallop, though I'm probably not supposed to tell you that. And Jonothan Lower, who has been schooling him, said he would take out his licence again to ride him."
The mount instead goes to Johnson's retained rider, Timmy Murphy. No jockey has yet been booked for the stable's other runner, Tamarinbleu, but Pipe warned that he should not be ruled out, with a fine record when fresh. Our Vic has been erratic since his success last year but an unfettered display in the Charlie Hall Chase has persuaded Pipe that he needs to be kept fresh.
One option is the Stan James King George VI Chase, though that race could beckon Celestial Gold instead, so Our Vic may even wait for the Letheby & Christopher Chase. But many of the stable's other big guns, as usual, are trained on Cheltenham this weekend - none more menacing than Commercial Flyer, such a letdown after that slick chasing debut down the road at Taunton. "He got a lot of people talking that day," Pipe said. "But like a few of our horses last season, he was disappointing afterwards. He has summered extremely well, at seven he's only just filling out, and while his rating is high enough for winning one novice chase, we hope he'll run to that mark and better."
Standin Obligation, Pipe's first winner in his own right, goes for a novice chase on tomorrow's card. "He had nothing to beat in his first two chases, but it was the way he did that we loved, his quick, efficient jumping," he said. "Whatever the form is worth, it was invaluable experience."
And much the same applies to his own education. "It's still early days," he said. "Nothing happens overnight. It'll take three or four years to build up again, to get where I want us to be. And everyone knows Dad, he's a workaholic, always will be. It would be unfair to expect him to stop overnight. Equally he has to give me a bit of rein."
In the racecard for Cheltenham's first meeting, Martin was asked what single piece of advice he would offer a young trainer. "Question everything," he replied. "There is no such word as no." Gates, after all, are there to be opened.
Nap: Kerstino Two
NB: Brandy House