Master's degree for Williamson: Commentary

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The Independent Online
So now we know. If Master Oats can stay sound for another 45 days, he will start favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a contest which will be only the 15th of his career. Others will (we hope) establish credible claims to the championship in his absence, but nothing, surely, will surpass the impression made by Master Oats on Saturday as, one by one, he broke his opponents in the Pillar Property Investments Chase.

And impressions, as much as serious form, are the foundations on which many reputations are constructed - which is one reason why big-race favourites get beaten so regularly. This is not to say that Kim Bailey's chaser does not deserve to be the Gold Cupfavourite on what he has achieved so far this season. Whether he is a true 5-2 chance for Cheltenham, however, is a very different matter.

No, he is not, is the simple answer, not least because he seems unlikely to start much shorter on the day, and much could go wrong in the meantime. The on-course bookies at Cheltenham, remember, will have no ante-post liabilities and like to field against the favourites whenever possible. Saturday's race, meanwhile, proved that Master Oats is effective at the Gold Cup trip when the ground is up to his knees. Whether he can dominate in similar fashion when the going allows his opponents to quicken remains to be seen.

If the case for Master Oats remains strong but unproven, however, that for his jockey has now passed the point of reasonable doubt. The Gold Cup favourite's win was the mid-point of a treble for Norman Williamson on Saturday, and his subsequent ride on Mudahim in the Cleeve Hurdle encapsulated the intelligence and judgement which have taken him away from the pack and off in serious pursuit of Richard Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire in the race for the jockeys' title.

Horses run for Williamson, there can be no question, and Mudahim's hurdling on Saturday was reminiscent of Beech Road, the 1989 champion hurdler, who seemed to fly the obstacles without breaking stride. "Norman played with them," Chris Broad, Mudahim's trainer, said yesterday. "He absolutely dictated exactly what he wanted to do. He had the champion hurdler [Flakey Dove] upsides him running down to the second last and he took a pull. Even I was thinking, what is he up to? It was unbelievable. And then he just quickened it up. Mudahim can quicken on that ground, and he could win a Champion Hurdle if he got it."

It seems unlikely that he will, though, and Mudahim's Festival target will be the Stayers' Hurdle. Flakey Dove, meanwhile, was reported to be in season after Saturday's race, in which she dropped away in the straight to finish fourth. She has now raced five times, without success, since winning the Champion Hurdle last March, and while her connections always seem to have a valid excuse, their supply must now be exhausted.

There was mitigation too from David Nicholson yesterday, as the champion trainer sought to explain Barton Bank's poor run behind Master Oats, not to mention the snatchy performance of Dubacilla before finishing second in the same race, and the downright awful display put up by Hebridean behind Mudahim.

"Upbeat" could be Nicholson's middle name, and he duly panned several nuggets of comfort from the Cheltenham mud. Dubacilla, for example, "would have gone even closer with an extra furlong", while Hebridean "is stiff behind this morning but will now go straight for the Stayers' Hurdle."

As for Barton Bank, the trainer said: "I was disappointed because I thought he would handle the ground and he didn't. But he didn't do too badly and he now goes straight to the Gold Cup where the weights will be better for him."

So they will. Seven of his nine victories, none the less, have been recorded before Christmas. Master Oats is now in the file marked "do not touch before the Festival", but the betting moratorium on Barton Bank should probably extend until October at least.

RICHARD EDMONDSON NAP: Warwick Warrior (Southwell 3.30)

NB: Chiliola (Southwell 2.30)

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