Jackdaw's Castle, the Duke's Gloucestershire base, is quite appropriately accustomed to receiving trinkets on a regular basis but before yesterday's feature contest the yard had gone 52 runners without a winner. Nicholson is not used to that.
Escartefigue not only curtailed the sequence, he also established himself as a potential Gold Cup winner in 1999. Ladbrokes offer only 8-1 about that eventuality as Escartefigue exhibited that even though he may still be in the nappies of a novice he is already a combatant of some potency. Just Florida Pearl, his Cheltenham conqueror in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Chase, now stands above him in the blue riband ante-post list.
Unlike others in the field, Prestbury Park exertions did not appear to have drawn irrevocably from the six-year-old. Dorans Pride, in particular, ran as if he would rather be under a parasol with a cocktail at his side. Nicholson would like to be there with him. "There won't be a spring in my step when I go to bed tonight," the trainer said. "They'll be carrying me up there.
"Escartefigue will be something nice to dream about during the summer and you've got to dream Gold Cups if he can do that as a novice. It was a good performance to beat those experienced horses and he was always jumping as well as any of them, if not better than most.
"I'd love to take on Florida Pearl again on heavy ground. You'd like to think of them being Arkle and Mill House. I hope I've got Arkle."
The other notable performance of the contest was Paul Carberry's on Unguided Missile. Gordon Richards's chaser got high enough at the first obstacle to clear a line of matchboxes, but no higher. Carberry nevertheless maintained the union and did so again when his mount staged a repeat later in the race, suggesting that when the jockey was levered into the plate his seat must have been staple-gunned to the saddle.
Carberry's skills were further in evidence in the following Sandeman Maghull Novices' Chase, in which he partnered the accident-prone Direct Route. The gelding has been labelled as an unreliable conveyance but he soon got an opportunity to disprove the reputation when he was required to skip over the stricken Grey Guy after the third obstacle.
Direct Route stalked the Arkle Chase winner, Champleve, into the straight with Carberry poised stylishly on his withers. The jockey appeared as if he was trying to touch the moon with his bottom. Soon after the last he was over it as Direct Route cantered past his rival.
While the flamboyance was with one Irishman, the force was with another in the predictable shape of Tony McCoy. The champion jockey scored twice, bullying home a shattered Fataliste in the opener and then expending far less energy aboard Cyfor Malta in the John Hughes Trophy Chase over the National fences.
Cyfor Malta, like Escartefigue, is still in the turf's kindergarten and was the first five-year-old to collect this contest. He would look a tempting proposition for the next year's National were it not for the fact that he is too young to run in the race. McCoy believes he may be the first winner of the race in the new millenium.
Cyfor Malta certainly travelled better than his owner, David Johnson, who was forced to put down in a Leicestershire field on the way to Aintree when his helicopter became enshrouded by fog. A second life-threatening danger emerged soon after the emergency landing when team Johnson was approached by a farmer. He did not ask them if they were all right.
Johnson will be represented by Challenger Du Luc in the big one, one of five runners for Martin Pipe. La famille Pitman should have been represented by four animals, but are now down to matriarch Jenny's Nahthen Lad. Mrs Pitman's Mudahim came off the gallops yesterday with a grumbling tendon and joined son Mark's Superior Finish and her own Amtrak Express on the sidelines.
Avro Anson too may not be required for duty as the sodden ground is all against him. His absence would reduce the National field to 38 as the expected withdrawals yesterday of Addington Boy, Belmont King, Senor El Betrutti and Time For A Run were augmented by the removal of Glemot, Evangelica, Thermal Warrior and Valiant Warrior from consideration.Reuse content