There must a deep suspicion that Turpin Green's black forelock curls neatly right in the middle of his bay forehead. Because, like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, when he is good he is very, very good. But when he is bad he is horrid. By dint of his best efforts, Trevor Hemmings's eight-year-old has earned top weight in today's feature at Haydock, the Peter Marsh Chase. And part of the afternoon's entertainment will be to see which foot he puts forward.
It is almost a year since Turpin Green demonstrated the enigmatic side of his character. He had an eminently satisfactory novice hurdling season - which culminated in a defeat of My Way De Solzen, no less, at Aintree - before showing equal promise over the bigger obstacles. Last February, he had just sailed past Napolitain going to the final fence in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase. Then, for reasons known only to himself, he jinked left and tried to refuse.
He almost succeeded, but his momentum and Tony Dobbin's insistence took him over the birch from a standstill, like a stubborn pony at a gymkhana. And it is much to his credit that, after his bizarre aberration, he was beaten only a neck.
His form and attitude after that was commendable, a good fifth at Cheltenham, a second to Star De Mohaison back at Aintree and, first time out this term, a defeat of another able but slightly squiggly type, the King George runner-up Exotic Dancer, at Carlisle.
But then, as second favourite for the Hennessy Gold Cup, it was back to the naughty corner. The Presenting gelding hit the first fence and started sulking. Smacks had no effect and Dobbin pulled his reluctant partner up after a circuit.
"He made a fair old blunder and slid out on his nose," his trainer, Nicky Richards, said yesterday, "and was never happy after that. We took him home and freshened him up and he's in grand fettle now. In my mind he's still a high-class horse and I hope he'll show it as the season goes on."
Providing the meeting comes through its 7am inspection, the soft Haydock ground will provide a severe test of stamina and resolution. "It's not ideal," added Richards, "but it was bottomless at Uttoxeter when he won his bumper. Going up in grade you want as much as possible in your favour but he needs a run."
Turpin Green holds the Gold Cup entry. So does one of his rivals today, Leading Man, though that seven-year-old's trainer, Ferdy Murphy, admits it is somewhat tentative. "He is a progressive young horse," he said, "but we're still dipping a toe in the water with him."
Leading Man, well behind Turpin Green when both made their fencing debuts 14 months ago, produced his best performance last time, when he beat a solid yardstick in Sir Rembrandt at Wetherby on Boxing Day, with the handicapper's view of him adjusted accordingly.
Murphy knows, though, what it takes to win the Grade Two three-miler, having done so with another second-season chaser, Truckers Tavern, four years ago. It should be noted that the horse did go on to the Gold Cup and coped with all bar Best Mate.
Truckers Tavern, now with Sue Smith, also finished third at Haydock last year and tries his luck again at the age of 12. Experience at the track is a considerable plus and Wild Cane Ridge, brought from Scotland by Len Lungo, put in a sterling effort over the drop fences last month, narrowly beaten under top weight.
Since the Peter Marsh Chase's inception in 1981, only three horses have won from the top of the handicap, the course specialist Twin Oaks and two Gold Cup winners, The Thinker and Jodami. Fingers crossed that Turpin Green (2.00) keeps his mental wires uncrossed and joins them.
Hemmings's yellow, green and white colours are also carried by Afsoun (1.25) the likely hot favourite for the preceding Champion Hurdle Trial. It is hard to look beyond the five-year-old, who was going great guns in the lead when coming a cropper three out in last month's Christmas Hurdle. Compensation awaits Nicky Henderson's charge, not withstanding the presence of Irish raider Mounthenry, and the evergreen 13-year-old The French Furze.
Today is the anniversary of Paul Nicholls's unique one-meeting six-timer with Raffaello, Bold Fire, East Lawyer, The Luder, Almost Broke and Nippy Des Mottes at Wincanton. Lightning will not strike twice; the champion trainer fields runners in only four of the seven races, but he rarely leaves his local track without a winner and Otto Des Pictons (1.15) can start his day well. The best bet may be OBELIX DE LONGECHAUX (nap 2.50).
Despite the loss of today's card at Ascot to waterlogging, there is still a top contest this weekend for the two-milers. The confirmed high-class mudlark Nickname looks the pick of the quartet of Queen Mother Champion Chase entries in the Normans Grove Chase at Fairyhouse tomorrow.
Efforts to reschedule the lost Victor Chandler Chase for Cheltenham next week came to naught, but another of Ascot's Grade Two races, the Lightning Novices' Chase, will be run at Huntingdon on Wednesday.
* Vodafone are to end their sponsorship of the Derby after the 13th running under their name this year. Other sponsors have already expressed an interest.
Nap: Pimbury (Wincanton 1.45)
NB: Afsoun (Haydock 1.25)Reuse content