It was not quite the Reichstag, and was achieved without the help of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, but the wrapping of Newbury racecourse brought critical acclaim yesterday and was rewarded with a feature-race finish that was pretty close to a work of art as Horus and Cornish Sett dead-heated for the Vodafone Gold Cup.
But it was a day when the matter of who won or lost was almost secondary to the fact that the game was played. The valuable card went ahead only with the help of 80 acres of fruit-growers' fleece, which swathed the entire 15-furlong circuit during a night when temperatures dropped to minus five.
The protective blanket took three hours to apply and almost as long to remove. But it was worth every minute of the time and every penny of its £12,000 cost - the loss to frost of a meeting three weeks previously left Newbury £30,000 out of pocket - and is a innovation of real significance. With its showcase Festival now only nine days away, the Cheltenham executive has taken note and theirgroundstaff were doing so, literally, at Newbury yesterday.
The country's leadingtrainers, Paul Nicholls and Martin Pipe, dominated the afternoon's top contest. Not only did their charges - Cornish Sett for Nicholls, Horus for Pipe - share the victory spoils, but Pipe's Windsor Boy pipped his arch-rival's Albuhera by a short-head for third place.
Cornish Sett was Ruby Walsh's first ride back after a five-week injury-induced break and the Irishman might have returned with an outright winner had his mount been as brick-like at the sharp end as his name implies. Walsh had sat handy as Horus and last year's winner Supreme Prince cut out a brisk gallop, then aimed his mount at Horus, left solo in front for the final half-circuit, on the run-in.
The blinkered seven-year-old, the 5-1 favourite, went a good neck up, but then seemed to consider the job done and, despite Walsh switching his whip-hand twice in an effort to keep him galvanised, allowed the 22-1 shot Horus, whose visor allowed him some sight of his rival, to get his nose level again. It was a courageous effort from the 11-year-old and an inspired, never-say-die one from his rider, Jamie Moore.
Walsh's timing, strength and balance seem unimpaired by his enforced absence but, typically competitive, he blamed himself for the equality on the line. "He started to pull up when he got to the front," he said. "If I'd delayed my challenge a bit more I probably would have won."
Horus gave Pipe his 100th success of the season, but he still trails Nicholls by more than £500,000 in the race for the trainers' title, a fact rubbed in when the latter notched a one-two in the following handicap hurdle with Desert Quest, ridden by Liam Heard, and Pirate Flagship.
Walsh may have despaired of his timing but in punching out Smart Mover to take the opener by a neck for Henrietta Knight, Sam Thomas chose his moment well. On Tuesday week he will ride the trainer's young superstar, Racing Demon, in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham; yesterday's victory was only his second in 56 mounts this season for the West Lockinge yard, and his first since last May. "It's been a long time," he admitted, "but, having said that, I never didn't win on one I should have." The 21-year-old Welshman is a Festival virgin - his nearest shot to glory at the meeting was his runner-up spot on Banker Count in the Mildmay of Flete last year - but is not fazed by the responsibility of partnering a favourite. "I can't wait," he said. "He's been feeling great in the work I've ridden at home."
Thomas gets his chance because Racing Demon's regular rider, Timmy Murphy, is claimed for the Pipe-trained Don't Be Shy, whose owner David Johnson revealed yesterday that he may run both Celestial Gold and Our Vic in the Gold Cup. "I'd be loath to run them against each other," he said, "but there is only one Gold Cup. It is never an easy race but this year it seems wide open. You can pick holes in every horse, including mine. It's a race that's there to be won."
BETS OF THE DAY
Kayceecee (Huntingdon 4.00) can resume winning ways after being caught close home last time.
Buddhi (Huntingdon 2.30) can prove a pal to punters at an each-way price.