Phase one in this quest is today's innocuous Bobby Renton Memorial Novice Chase, which, if Coulton's exercise manoeuvres are to be believed, should be nothing more than an autumn stroll. 'He came back in about four months ago and he's schooled brilliantly, he hasn't touched a twig,' Robin O'Ryan, Easterby's assistant, said yesterday. 'The race will put him right, but we're still hoping he'll win because he was a lot better hurdler than Bellton was and the other two are nondescripts.'
Coulton was, in fact, close to the summit over timber and a one-time favourite for last season's Champion Hurdle. At Cheltenham itself, however, he could finish only 13th to Granville Again, a performance which disturbed Easterby less than most as he considers the chestnut's forte to be fencing. This enthusiasm about the six- year-old's future has transmitted itself to everyone at New House Farm.
'We're all very excited about this horse because potentially he's anything,' O'Ryan said. 'If he went into the ring now he'd make a lot of money and his owners have already turned down over pounds 100,000 for him last year. But they don't need the money and could put twice as much into trying to find another horse like Coulton and not get one.'
The gelding will not be cosseted and embarks over some of the country's more daunting obstacles. 'That shouldn't be a problem because he jumps well, and all these good novice chases, at places like Ascot, and the Little Dipper at Newcastle are over big, stiff fences,' O'Ryan said.
Further ahead, Coulton's Cheltenham target has already been loosely established. Those close to the horse believe his habit of trying to remove jockeys' hands at the wrist is subsiding and that he will settle sufficiently to last out the 25 furlongs of the Sun Alliance Novice Chase at the Festival.
'He's not got a kink, it's just that he's such a good-moving and strong horse that he can get to the front in three strides and he's difficult to hang on to after that,' O'Ryan says. 'In an ideal world he'd want a lead over the first four or five tomorrow, but as long as he settles he'll be all right. We just hope the horse enjoys himself and we'll go from there.
'If he is going to go to the top I think he'd be more a Gold Cup horse than a two- mile Champion Chase horse.' And why not? Desert Orchid was.
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