There was a time when the westbound journey to jumping's powerbase involved peeling off the M4 at junction 14 and heading for Lambourn. Now it involves rather more petrol and tyre rubber. From the M5, take exit 23 for Paul Nicholls, 24 for Philip Hobbs and 27 for Martin Pipe. Here be three dragons, indeed.
For 15 seasons, the precious cargo in the fleet of horseboxes that sally forth from Pipe's domain, within earshot of the motorway despite the country-lane approaches, have brought home enough daily bread for their master to be champion of his trade. There had, though, been an untypically low-key start to this campaign at Nicholashayne until Celtic Son and Iris Bleu restored the natural order by taking the main prizes at Wincanton on Saturday. That was but a skirmish. Battle will be properly joined at Cheltenham this weekend.
The three-day Open meeting, starting on Friday, is the season's first serious earner, offering more prize-money than the shade over a half-million that Pipe has accrued so far this term. And the maestro is well aware of the significance of the occasion and prepares his troops accordingly. Last year he sent out seven winners for the third time in four years and brought home £211,593. At the end of the season he was just £75,000 in front of perennial title runner-up Nicholls. A team of some 20 are poised to walk up the wagon ramps this weekend.
Pipe has a particularly good record in the mini-festival's showpiece, the Paddy Power Gold Cup. From 27 runners over 15 years he has produced seven winners, the roll of honour being Beau Ranger in 1987, Challenger Du Luc (1996), Cyfor Malta (1998 and 2002), Lady Cricket (2000), Shooting Light (2001) and Celestial Gold 12 months ago.
He has five of yesterday's 27 entries in Saturday's renewal of the two and a half-mile handicap that started life in 1960 with the Mackeson tag, with Celestial Gold heading the weights. And although stable jockey Timmy Murphy has yet to make his choice, Pipe's personal favourite - and the punters' too after support yesterday - is Our Vic.
The talented seven-year-old had an unhappy time last season, taking a crunching fall at the last fence in another valuable handicap at Cheltenham. He was ahead of eventual winner Monkerhostin at the time, but lay for dead for endless minutes and his two subsequent runs - pulled up back at Cheltenham in March and at Aintree in April - showed the effect the experience had on him.
Yesterday Pipe admitted he was wrong to have asked David Johnson's gelding to return to the fray so soon. "It was a terrible fall, life-threatening in fact," he said. "He lay there for such a long time before he got up. He had pulled ligaments everywhere and bruised himself badly. It took a long time, but we brought him back and he was physically OK. But mentally he was not right and, with hindsight, we should not have run him again last season."
Our Vic, set to carry 11st 1lb, had a swagger to his step and a healthy gleam to his bay hide as he showed himself off yesterday and Pipe is convinced that all is well between his charge's generous ears. "He had a good summer break and is schooling very well, in very good form. Confidence is important for any horse, and hopefully he has plenty again. We have been playing with him, adding a bit of variety into his work. Saturday will be a test for him, but it looks as though he is seriously back to himself and he would be our best chance."
Celestial Gold (11st 12lb), who beat Thisthatandtother a length and three-quarters last year, is a definite starter but his stablemates Therealbandit and It Takes Time have alternatives at the meeting and Windsor Boy is out of the handicap.
Sunday's top billing is shared by the Greatwood Hurdle, first of the Champion Hurdle pointers, and the always-significant Independent Newspapers Novices' Chase, a race won by Best Mate and Azertyuiop.
Jumping is perceived as fraught with risk, but the dangers of any branch of the sport were emphasised at Wolverhampton yesterday. There was a horrendous seven-horse pile-up in the two-mile handicap after Skye's Folly broke a leg and six others were brought down like skittles. Skye's Folly was fatally injured but no jockey was seriously hurt, though Franny Norton and Shane Kelly were taken to hospital for checks. Another rider on the floor, Derek McGaffin, picked himself up and rode the next winner, Qualitair Wings.
Nap: The City Kid (Southwell 2.20)
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