It occurred to Paul Nicholls that the fates had formed a conspiracy against him. The trainer had recently sent out Azertyuiop, Strong Flow and Valley Henry, three of the supreme talents in his Somerset yard, and none had come back with their riders.
On Saturday, Manor Farm's Poliantas did at least manage to complete the course here but his reward for a redoubtable second place in the Paddy Power Gold Cup was a heart attack and instant death just after the line. "You begin to think things are against you," Nicholls admitted yesterday.
But yesterday was another day, one of sunshine both physically and metaphorically for Paul Nicholls. Thisthatandtother won the most informative of Cheltenham Festival trials, the Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase, vaulting cleanly both in the Grade Two race and to the head of the betting for the Arkle Chase in March. Proof that more benevolent forces had taken over was confirmed when Rigmarole captured the Greatwood Hurdle, itself a notable weather vane towards the Champion Hurdle.
"I was sick yesterday because Poliantas was a seriously nice young horse," Nicholls added. "I was gutted. The owner didn't pay a lot for him and he'd come a long way in a short time. But he's got nothing now. We can keep on dreaming with the rest of them.
"You are up one minute and down the next in this game and you have to enjoy the winners when they come. You have to keep looking forward but sometimes our horses pay a hefty price. Poliantas had never had a problem. That's what happens, but then you get days like this which make it all worthwhile. It drives you mad. My emotions are up and down. But it's better now."
The consequences of this third day of the Open meeting are immense. Last year, the winners of the main races - Azertyuiop and Rooster Booster - went on to Festival glory. It was improbable that any horse could have made the sort of majestic impression which the former created in the Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase 12 months ago. It was Thisthatandtother's greatest achievement that he did not shrivel by comparison.
The seven-year-old was no striking horse to observe in the paddock yesterday. He saves the dramatic for the racecourse. The one for the eye was Thisthatandtother's stablemate, Le Duc, he of the patchworked rump and the dressage moves.
Le Duc was not so balletic when games proper began, nodding towards the earth after the first fence. Atum Re led, but led slowly and Thisthatandtother was pulling hard in eagerness. It was virtually all posturing until they started coming down the hill and the gears were engaged. It was the second last, as it often does, which changed everything. In construction it is not a particularly devilish obstacle, but a combination of its downhill location and horses travelling at full throttle make it a most theatrical site.
It was where Le Duc and Thisthatandtother had just joined the fray, the point where the former slipped on landing. That he even survived the blunder suggested Le Duc had much energy in reserve, but he would have needed plenty to disturb his stablemate. Thisthatandtother produced an immediate surge when questioned by Ruby Walsh and treated the last fence as had done all the others, cleanly and without hesitation. Then it was just a scamper up the incline, one which took him 11 lengths clear.
It was all so reminiscent of Azertyuiop. Credit does not come greater. "I don't know what the form's like, but he's done it as impressively as the other horse," Walsh said. "Le Duc definitely would have made a race of it because he's a good horse too, but he would have had to sprout wings today because we were really on song. Mine's very good. He jumped, he travelled and then there's the speed."
Nicholls was equally emphatic. "Azertyuiop was no more impressive last year than this horse," he said. "You couldn't split them on the way he's won. He jumps, he travels and he quickens. Like Azertyuiop, we've minded him over hurdles and not overfaced him. He hasn't made a mistake yet.
"One of them, probably Le Duc, will run in the Henry VIII Chase at Sandown on Tingle Creek day. I have no plans for Thisthatandtother other than to say that he will be trained specifically for the Arkle."
The elixir continued in the Greatwood Hurdle, which has recently been won by Rooster Booster and Westender, first and second in last spring's Champion Hurdle. Rigmarole has to improve to reach their station, but then improvement has been his byword this season.
The five-year-old was last at Wincanton a week ago under claimer Nick Carter, but it slowly emerged yesterday that he was appreciating the more senior qualities of Walsh. The Irish jockey played his card last but not least as a record crowd witnessed the thrilling spectacle of four competitors - Caracciola, Hasty Prince and Jaboune were the others - virtually in line over the final obstacle. The greatest momentum, though, belonged to Rigmarole.
"I told Ruby to sit in, keep niggling him along and come late," Nicholls said. "If he could, try to win, but if not look after him. And Ruby makes such a difference. I thought last week off 10st 5lb in that race he couldn't get beat. I was thinking of the Christmas Hurdle before that run but he missed the break and was beaten going to the first.
"I'm not going to wrap him up now. While he's in that form we'll keep going. When they're improving like this you don't know how far they will go.
"This horse has improved out of all recognition and he was flying yesterday in his work with Thisthatandtother. He'll probably go for the Christmas Hurdle as he loves Kempton and, if the ground is fast, we wouldn't be afraid of entering him in the Champion Hurdle."Reuse content