There is a book in existence called The Mind of the Horse; perceived joke wisdom is, of course, that it is the world's slimmest volume. On its cover there is a jig-saw piece-shaped blank imposed on a noble equine forehead, signifying the mysteries within. At Cheltenham this afternoon runs a prime candidate for the psychiatrist's chair, a gelding of impeccable lineage and huge inherent talent, but whose thought processes continue to baffle.
Inca Trail is Best Mate's younger, quirkier brother, and had he owned the generosity of spirit of the late, lamented one he may, who knows, have expressed similar aptitude.
In fairness to the nine-year-old, his early career, when with Henrietta Knight, was compromised by breathing problems, and any horse is entitled to jack in physical effort if he is hurting. But these days he is sound enough in wind and limb, it is just that he has developed his own views about racing, which do not always coincide with those of current trainer Paul Nicholls. Frustrating is one of the kinder epithets regularly applied.
The ability is there, though, and has been extracted four times since Inca Trail arrived at Manor Farm. First, a newly-applied set of blinkers surprised our hero into winning at Ludlow under Christian Williams. Then, even he could hardly help himself scoring at Wincanton, unextended in ordinary company with Ruby Walsh merely steering. Then, stepped up a grade, he benefited from what was arguably the ride of the season from Walsh at Sandown in March, put to sleep for all but the last half-furlong and cajoled home before he realised he was in a race.
And last month he found himself back in the winner's circle at Wincanton, under another tender touch. This time the iron hands in the velvet gloves belonged to Charlotte Tizzard, who popped the naughty muzzle in front inside the last 100 yards.
Tizzard, 21, has the mount again this afternoon as Inca Trail embarks on a new challenge, that of getting his head round Cheltenham's cross-country course. It could suit him very well; the pace is usually undemanding early and the unusual fences - hedges, banks and ditches more akin to eventing than steeplechasing - could take his mind off the fact that he is racing.
On some ratings, Inca Trail is the best performer in this afternoon's 16-strong field, better even than cross-country expert Spot The-difference, winner of all four of his races over the idiosyncratic course that is finding more and more favour with professionals and public alike.
Spot Thedifference is now an idol in his specialist field but trainer Enda Bolger is not so sanguine this time round. The 12-year-old must again shoulder top weight, but today's rivals are potentially a cut above those he faced 12 months ago. "He is a proper gentleman and has really found his niche in these races," said Bolger, "and we rode him out on the racecourse this morning and he was in great nick. But giving the weight away this time could be a problem."
The Irishman named Lord Jack, runner-up to Spot Thedifference at the last Cheltenham meeting and 7lb better off today, Inca Trail and Just In Debt as the dangers. Spot Thedifference will not be seen at the sharp end of proceedings until the last fence or thereabouts; his modus operandi is to let others pull the train as he waits and pounces. If Tizzard can outstalk J T McNamara, Inca Trail (1.55) could find he enjoys the difference.
On an excellent Friday card, some of the country's best staying novices turn out for the three-mile contest, notably Darkness (12.45), who lowered the colours of Iris's Gift at Newbury last time. In the three-mile handicap, Festival winner Liberthine (1.20) can benefit from last month's seasonal debut at the course and the hint that handicap debutant Nous Voila (2.30) seems the pick of his yard's five entries should be taken.
* Valerie Lewis, wife of Best Mate's owner Jim Lewis, died yesterday after a seven-month battle with cancer. Lewis still intends to be at Cheltenham tomorrow to scatter Best Mate's ashes behind the winning post in a short ceremony at 11am.
* The 2002 Champion Hurdle winner Hors La Loi III, now trained by Paul Nicholls and racing for the first time since 2003, won the novices' chase at Taunton yesterday.Reuse content