Horseracing seldom demands more of its stage hands than the change of scene completed tomorrow, just six days after the Breeders' Cup. In fairness, the Flat season reached so giddy a climax at Santa Anita that there could be no seeking of a fresh pinnacle, only a fresh start. And that is precisely what can be enjoyed over the next three days at Cheltenham, in a meeting long cherished as the first proper showcase of the jumps season.
There could be few better rehearsals than a morning with Nigel Twiston-Davies, just up the road from Cheltenham. No current trainer has a better record at this fixture – 20 winners since 1990 – and in hosting a party of film crews and reporters yesterday he left no margin for doubt that they had left California well behind.
He began by driving them fully 100 yards, to the top of his gallop, in a creaking, belching double-decker bus, playing Cliff Richard's "Summer Holiday" as he peered through dense fog. Then, back at his fireside, he discussed no fewer than 20 entries at the meeting in an atmosphere saturated with woodsmoke, mulled wine and optimism.
The latter was never more evident than in addressing the prospects of Ballyfitz in the Paddy Power Gold Cup on Saturday, the biggest prize of the meeting, and one he won 12 months ago with Imperial Commander – who returned to the Festival in March to win the Ryanair Chase.
"It's very much the same sort of scenario as with Imperial Commander," Twiston-Davies noted. "He started his novice season last year by winning well at Cheltenham, and then ran badly in his last races. He's come back really well, and I hope the handicapper hasn't really got hold of him. He's not a young horse, but he's still unexposed over fences and I'm sure we haven't seen the best of him yet. He's a real battler, who jumps well and loves Cheltenham, and the forecast rain will suit. We're very excited about his chance."
He duly had no hesitation in seizing 16-1 for a £500 charity bet with the sponsor. Another notably enthusiastic endorsement was offered in Pettifour, who tests the theory that he will be even better over fences than over hurdles when he contests his first chase on Saturday. "His hurdling has never been the best, as he doesn't have much respect for them," Twiston-Davies said. "But he has been absolutely magic schooling and he may be the one we'll be talking about for the Paddy Power next year."
There was also a conspicuous word for Bobby Ewing, an easy debut winner at Uttoxeter and a possible runner on Sunday's card. Nor are the stable's biggest hopes confined to its home meeting, with Imperial Commander himself set to reappear against none other than Kauto Star in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on Saturday week, and Irish Raptor, fancied to give Twiston-Davies his third National next spring, heading for the Totesport Becher Chase at Aintree the following day.
Soft ground could alter plans for both those horses, however. "Imperial Commander pulled too hard in the heavy ground at Punchestown and didn't get home," Twiston-Davies said. "But I'm keen to give him another chance over three miles."
Later in the day the yard had its 31st winner of the season, at Warwick, and a sense of new prosperity has certainly been compounded by the return of Carl Llewellyn, for so long stable jockey here, as assistant. Llewellyn made an impressive start as a trainer in his own right until replaced by his employer during the summer, and arrived with 25 horses whose owners clearly took the same view.
Twiston-Davies is thrilled to resume the old partnership. "It's unbelievable," he said. "Life hasn't been much better. We've quite a lot of horses here now – well over 100 – and it's great to have someone to bounce ideas off. We haven't fought in 20 years, and we're not going to start now. We might even get the old bugger dusted off for a National ride if we find ourselves going there with four next April."
Aintree will already be in mind for some of those contesting the big race in Ireland today, the Clonmel Oil Chase, notably Gungadu, making his first start since joining Gordon Elliott from Paul Nicholls, and Snowy Morning. But Paul Carberry's ride on Conna Castle will be one of his last on home soil until late January, as the Turf Club yesterday banned him for 30 Irish racedays following his second failure of an alcohol breath test at Naas on 31 October.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Silk Gallery (3.50 Southwell) The drop to 5f has been the making of this filly, who was unlucky not to win again at Catterick the other day. Returns to a surface on which she is already proven.
Doctor Robert (3.10 Taunton) Sharp tracks like this one seem to suit a horse who remains on the upgrade for his new trainer.
One to watch
Millenium Mag (G Moore) has shown nothing since his days in France but his rating has collapsed as a result, and he was going well on his debut for a new yard at Lingfield on Monday until badly hampered and pulled up.
Where the money's going
The Paddy Power Gold Cup gamble on Tranquil Sea builds momentum, with Coral going 13-2 from 15-2.Reuse content