Before the race, which provides the mid-term shakedown on the pecking order among the top staying chasers, the one question to be answered about the progressive Teeton Mill was whether he could bridge the class gap between winning the Hennessy Gold Cup, a handicap, off a light weight, and taking the season's second most important staying Grade One contest. The answer came in the affirmative long before the gelding, his snowy coat grime-spattered, galloped past the post with Norman Williamson standing in the stirrups twirling his unused whip in triumph.
On rain-sodden ground the three-mile test was one of attrition as Imperial Call and Super Tactics took the field of nine along. Coome Hill was the first in trouble; Mulligan and last year's hero See More Business, the 11-4 favourite, were likewise barely at the races. Simply Dashing hung on for a while but going down the back straight for the final time it was apparent that Teeton Mill could grind down his opponents at will. At the final open ditch, six fences from home, the grey put in a spring-heeled leap that took him past Imperial Call in the air, repeated his impersonation of a well-schooled gazelle two fences later and from there the only dangers were the three fences in the straight.
The last was the only one that broke the inexorable rhythm. Teeton Mill approached it slightly on the wrong stride, but with a gluepot underfoot this was no day for Dessie-style bravado from outside the wings and Williamson sensibly let his partner get in close and pop it.
Williamson said: "This is a super horse. He jumped from fence to fence today, loved the ground and is so tough. He really wants further than today's distance and was idling a bit at the last. I was far enough clear to think the right thing to do was go for a safe one."
Teeton Mill, an angular and athletic rather than strikingly handsome individual, now disputes favouritism for the Cheltenham Gold Cup (he is a best-priced 5-1 with the Tote) with Florida Pearl, who reappears against Suny Bay at Leopardstown tomorrow.
Flatteringly, Williamson compared Teeton Mill with Master Oats, on whom he won the Gold Cup three years ago. "Both are top-class and have a similar way of going," he said. "Half-way round you would not necessarily think you were going to win. But then overdrive clicks in, they come on the bridle and you realise that you have a serious chance."
Teeton Mill's rise towards the top in the hands of his hugely capable trainer Venetia Williams has been rapid and spectacular. A year ago, having honed his sure-footed jumping skills in the pursuit of bushy-tailed wildlife in his youth, he was preparing for a season's hunter chasing, a campaign that ended in victory in one of the amateur league's top races, the Horse and Hound Cup at Stratford. He was then headhunted from the yard of Dick Saunders, winner of the 1982 Grand National on another high-class hunter, Grittar, by the connections of the tipping service The Winning Line, in whose colours he runs. The transfer fee was a retrospectively bargain pounds 40,000. Yesterday's pounds 48,645 prize took his winnings to over pounds 100,000 in three races in open company.
Williams, based in rural Herefordshire, has held a licence for only three years and has made an immediate impact in her profession. With typical modesty she said: "This is not a position I've been in before and I'm not sure what we will do next. We've always regarded him as an iceberg and we're still not sure how much ability there is below the surface."
The connections of Escartefigue and Imperial Call, the 1996 Gold Cup winner now back among the elite, were happy with their horses' performances and both are likely to reoppose Teeton Mill in the Gold Cup. But See More Business was an abject disappointment and was subjected to a routine dope- test. His rider, Joe Tizzard, said: "He was on the bridle only over the first two fences. He has run far too disappointingly to be true and I hope we find a reason for it."
Teeton Mill is an expert jumper, but not so all his equine brothers and, after a couple of inept displays, Lord Of The River was sent to his trainer Oliver Sherwood's version of a crammer. His lessons in the art of getting from one side of a fence to the other while remaining upright involved alternate sessions over the schooling fences at Lambourn and toe-nimbling therapy involving show jumping poles in an indoor arena and paid off with a bold win in the day's other Grade One contest, the Feltham Novices' Chase.
The rest of the day belonged to Nick Henderson and stable jockey Mick Fitzgerald, who produced a 535-1 four-timer with Grecian Dart, Serenus, Eagles Rest and Melody Maid.