As is the trend in the winter game, and in the early season especially, tomorrow's chase will be an intimate affair with few hoofprints left behind. The grey is likely to have just Scotton Banks, Barton Bank and Young Hustler for company.
It is the belief of Philip Arkwright, the clerk of the course at Cheltenham and Haydock, that ill-contested races, numerically at least, are the product of a dearth of good class competitors. This is not an opinion he should voice if he sees Gordon Richards, One Man's trainer, within earshot.
The Greystoke man gets highly charged on this topic and blames the official handicapper for the shrinking fields. If a young horse runs well against a proven animal in a conditions race, the Richards lore goes, it may destroy his career for seasons to come.
"There are decent chasers around, but the ground has been dry and trainers know One Man is going on Saturday," he said yesterday. "There are always going to be small fields for these races, because horses rated a stone behind him are not going to take him on. I did the same thing with One Man a year ago because I knew I could go and win a handicap with him.
"I've only got a little yard and I've got six or seven good class horses. There's The Grey Monk [who won all six of his races last season], but what's the point of putting him in it? He'd go up a stone just for running.
"Any trainer with any brains doesn't want to run his horse at level weights and end up putting lead on his horse. This has been the problem all through my training life, and any good trainer, a man who knows about horses, doesn't go on taking on good horses at level weights. You hear these other people talking poppycock, but they aren't trainers. You've got to do the best for your horse or you get whipped."
One Man himself was whipped on his final outing of last season in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, his only defeat of the campaign. The gelding travelled smoothly to the third last obstacle that day but then reacted as if someone had pulled the plug out. He negotiated the last like a schoolboy scrambling over the orchard wall.
Most observers judged this as a failure of stamina, but, following a post mortem of seven months, Richards fails to agree with them. "We still can't put a finger on what happened, it's still a mystery, but I wouldn't agree that he didn't stay," he said.
"If he'd have gone to the last and not stayed up the hill I might have believed it, but he's won at three and a quarter miles round Newbury [in the Hennessy Gold Cup of 1994]. It was very disappointing, but he's still rated the top horse [on an official mark of 175, with the Gold Cup winner Imperial Call]."
After tomorrow's venture, One Man is scheduled to follow a fertile path in the Tommy Whittle Chase at Haydock and Kempton's King George VI Chase, both of which he won with some disdain last year. Then the eight-year- old will reacquaint himself with Cheltenham in January before a return to Prestbury Park for the Blue Riband.
His trainer still thinks hugely of One Man and when he describes the grey he might be looking in a mirror. "He's in good order at the moment," Richards said. "He's the same nice horse we saw last year, strong and round and cosy."Reuse content