Although Martin Pipe may, this season, lose his perennial grip on the championship he has made his own, the worth of a top-class trainer need not be quantified by prize-money earned or number of winners notched. And whatever the outcome of the title race, Pipe's handling of Our Vic deserves a laurel of its own.
The eight-year-old is a horse of massive talent and it seems almost unfair that yesterday's success in the Grade One feature at Lingfield was only his second victory in two years. But he is also a horse who has been plagued with physical and consequent psychological problems and it has been the remedying of those that has been so impressive.
Our Vic's troubles began when he took the mother of all falls at Cheltenham 14 months ago. It was a near-death experience that left him with such deep bruising to muscles and bones that it took him nearly a year to get over it. Although his comeback brought a sparkling defeat of one of the current Gold Cup favourites, Monkerhostin, next time he seemed to lose all confidence after a couple of early jumping mistakes.
Yesterday he would have been entitled to bottle it again after he and Timmy Murphy were harried in the lead for a circuit by the riderless Take The Stand, who stayed with the pack after ejecting Tony Dobbin with a slithering dive through the fifth fence. There was a moment of crisis going to three out, but under Murphy's direction Our Vic gritted his teeth and shoulder-steered the loose horse back to a true line. He then refused to be distracted as Take The Stand again veered across his path going to the penultimate obstacle.
At the line, on sticky ground much softer than ideal, the 2-1 favourite had six lengths to spare over My Will. His owner, David Johnson, immediately gave credit where it was due. "That was a great ride from Timmy," he said. "but the praise must go to Martin for getting him back. As soon as he jumped the first I thought he might run well, and he looked happy all the way."
At the Cheltenham Festival, Our Vic holds engagements in the Ryanair Chase, over yesterday's two and a half miles and for which he is now 5-2 favourite, and the Gold Cup, for which he was halved in price to 25-1.
On the trainers' leaderboard Paul Nicholls, responsible for My Will, held a lead of some £500,000 over the 15-times champion at the start of the day, a margin further eroded by the result of the Game Spirit Chase. The well-treated five-year-old Don't Be Shy, for the Nicholashayne team, relegated Nicholls' Armaturk to the runner-up spot.
There was a shock in the third of the graded contests at Lingfield, the Reynoldstown Chase, when hot favourite The Listener came down at the 10th and Montgermont, the outsider of five, proved an easy 11-length winner.
With the weights for the Grand National announced last week focus is sharpening on Aintree, but the trials yesterday produced largely negative images. At Haydock, in the Grade Three three and a half-miler, Sir Rembrandt fared best of the contenders, shouldering an onerous burden into an honourable third place in a gruelling war of attrition.
Neither of the lightweighted pair in front of him, Ossmoses and Model Son, are engaged in the National, and he left Eurotrek, L'Aventure, Ebony Light, Double Honour and First Gold labouring far behind. Sir Rembrandt's next stop will be the Gold Cup, in which he finished second two years ago.
Ossmoses, who scored by 15 lengths under Richie McGrath, is trained by the permit-holder Don Forster in Co Durham and another blow for the smaller yard was struck when All In The Stars won the three and a quarter-mile handicap at Wincanton for the Dorset-based Paul Keane, beating the Pipe stablemates, Celtic Son and Horus. Nicholls' charge, Silver Birch, one of the National market leaders, was pulled up.
Of the two Champion Hurdle eliminators, run within minutes of each other, one went to the script, one did not. At Gowran Park Macs Joy confirmed his place as second favourite for the crown with an eased-down success. But at Wincanton the 14-1 shot Briareus caused an upset in the Kingwell Hurdle, leading all the way to beat Royal Shakespeare by 14 lengths with the favourite, Penzance, only seventh. The winner is not entered at Cheltenham but may be supplemented.
BETS OF THE DAY
Le Volfoni (Fontwell 2.30) is regarded by his trainer as a future champion.
His sire's bumper record is good, but don't invoke the initials of Foxxtrot Oscar (Fontwell 5.00) if he fails.