The chasing hierarchy has undergone something of a shuffle this season, for who could have predicted that Best Mate, winner of three Cheltenham Gold Cups and top of the pile 12 months ago, would have gone into the turn of the year only the fifth highest-rated jumper of a fence in Britain and Ireland.
The chasing hierarchy has undergone something of a shuffle this season, for who could have predicted that Best Mate, winner of three Cheltenham Gold Cups and top of the pile 12 months ago, would have gone into the turn of the year only the fifth highest-rated jumper of a fence in Britain and Ireland. This afternoon one of those officially decreed better than him, Well Chief, turns out at Wetherby for the Castleford Chase, a race which invariably proves just about the best of the Grade Two two-milers of the year and one which has been, thankfully, retrieved from last Monday's abandoned card.
Well Chief is a horse whose achievements have been overshadowed by the performances of others, whether he has won or lost, and who has been given credit only grudgingly. When he made all but the last yard of running to finish second in the 2003 Triumph Hurdle the race was carped as unsatisfactory. When he won the Arkle Chase last March on only his second run over fences - beating Kicking King, no less - all eyes were on his five-year-old allowance and the fallen favourite Thisthatandtother. He was at last acknowledged as the best of the minimum trip novices when he sped away from Thisthatandtother at Aintree, but with the dismissive caveat that he would have to improve massively to trouble the likes of Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop.
And it may be that the young Martin Pipe-trained pretender has done just that. In that memorable Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown last month, he went into the race judged 20lb adrift of Azertyuiop and finished just a short-head behind him, at levels. This afternoon's contest, in which he faces seven rivals, will test the stability of the keystone of the current marks.
Well Chief is only a little prince - he is Flat-bred from German stock - but what the white-faced chestnut lacks in height he makes up for in enthusiasm, sometimes too much for his own good. But he has begun to settle better this season in Timmy Murphy's hands and although he will never be a massive individual, he has, as might be expected, begun to strengthen with age. His sixth birthday is not until April and he had a rough time after his gelding operation as a three-year-old.
Paul Nicholls supplies three of today's rivals: in weight order Kadarann, who won this last year but has never been a top-level performer; Armaturk, who was race-fit when he beat Well Chief by a head at Cheltenham in November; and Cenkos, 25 lengths adrift of the principals when fourth in the Tingle Creek and now, aged 11, giving way to younger legs on the park. It may or may not be significant that Nicholls's No 1 jockey, Ruby Walsh, has elected to partner the stable's runners at Exeter.
Another previous winner, Turgeonev, is past his sell-by date and Sir Storm and No Need For Alarm were never on this particular shelf. Locally trained Mister McGoldrick loves Wetherby - he has won on five of his six visits - and though he been behind Well Chief (2.05) on the three occasions they have met, home advantage and what is likely to be testing enough ground make him the each-way value against a long-odds-on favourite.
A few minutes after Well Chief sets off at Wetherby, his erstwhile pilot Tony McCoy - who, in the wake of a seven-day ban picked up at Cheltenham on Saturday, eased to 1-5 for the jockeys' title, with Murphy now 7-2 second favourite - takes the reins back on another of David Johnson's colourbearers, Control Man (2.10) in the staying novices' chase at Exeter. The classy seven-year-old has transferred well to larger obstacles and compensation is expected after his second-fence unseat in Boxing Day's Feltham Chase.
Another novice running today, Big Rob (1.00) sidestepped the Dipper Chase won by My Will on Saturday for the easier opportunity at Wetherby and can take his second step on a ladder that could go to the top.
It was revealed yesterday that the Dipper Chase favourite, Fundamentalist, who jumped so obviously feelingly before crashing through the 10th, is suffering from a sore shin. "He is a bit lame," said trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, "which is the reason he did not jump well. We will swim him for a week, and he'll be back on song before long."Reuse content