So it is that Richards's decision to remove One Man from the Queen Mother Champion Chase at yesterday's forfeit stage, leaving the Gold Cup as his only Festival engagement, will be seen by some as a positive sign. Surely, the reasoning goes, a trainer of his experience would not go to the Festival unless he was certain that One Man is at last ready to do himself justice around Cheltenham in March. In practice, of course, even the man who knows the horse better than anyone cannot know what enters his grey head when faced by three and a quarter miles around Prestbury Park, and the decision to run is another victory for hope over expectation.
The Champion Chase seemed a realistic alternative for One Man until his recent defeat by Strong Promise in the Comet Chase at Ascot. The growing suspicion must now be that Richards has the dubious good fortune to train the best two-and-three-quarter miler over fences, with neither the speed for the Champion Chase nor the stamina for the Gold Cup, and his odds for the latter event, unchanged at around 9-1, are a clear testament to the scepticism of both punters and bookies.
"I've not declared him for the Champion, which saves us pounds 500," Richards said yesterday. "I think he'll probably run in the Gold Cup, as I think he will have a better chance in that race. He's all right after Ascot and it was my fault that he was below form there, as I ran him too quickly. He was very flat and showed no sparkle.''
Wincanton's Kingwell Hurdle card this afternoon offers a reminder that One Man is not the only resident of Greystoke with a chance of lifting steeplechasing's greatest prize. Unguided Missile, who has been quietly supported for the race in recent weeks, lines up for the Jim Ford Chase, a fascinating event which requires him to give 6lb to a field which includes Coome Hill, himself a very serious Gold Cup candidate, and Maamur, whose aspirations are more directed towards the Grand National at Aintree.
Unguided Missile will be Richards' first runner at the west country track in 33 years with a licence. "I rode there," he said, "but it was about 50 years ago, just after the War, and I can't remember if I had any winners." It will be a long return trip indeed if Unguided Missile leaves empty- handed, but his stamina is distinctly suspect beyond three miles, and it is very difficult to see him conceding the weight to Coome Hill (2.35).
If recent statistics can be believed, meanwhile, victory is the last thing that anyone with championship ambitions should be hoping for. In the last decade, not a single Jim Ford winner has even made the frame in the Gold Cup.
A rather better guide to Festival prospects in recent years has been the Kingwell Hurdle, which has been won by two subsequent Champion Hurdle winners (Kribensis and Alderbrook) in the last six runnings. But not this afternoon, it seems, since Zabadi and Just Little are the only runners who rate even a passing mention in the ante-post betting. Of the two, Just Little - going well when falling two out in the Cheltenham handicap hurdle won by Space Trucker last November - is by far the most interesting.