Sometimes what you see is not what you get. From the stands here yester-day, the sight of the high-class Binocular cruising up the hill to victory, with rider Tony McCoy looking round for non-existent danger, could have been considered a most gratifying one to those seeking signs of a revival of the gelding's Champion Hurdle aspirations. But afterwards, McCoy deflated any such hopes.
As he was entitled to, Binocular, inches third at Cheltenham last year, beat the vastly inferior Dee Ee Williams an easy length. "I suppose it was marginally better than what he'd done so far this season," said McCoy, "but for whatever reason, he's nowhere near the level of form he was at last year. He won well enough, but he just felt a bit sticky."
Binocular started favourite for last year's Champion Hurdle after his sparkling progress through novice and senior ranks, but this season he started with two defeats, both behind Go Native, and his electricity was apparently missing again yesterday, to McCoy's disappointment. "If I sound gloomy," he added, "I suppose its because I had such high expectations for the horse. Last year I never felt I had to worry about what the leaders were doing, I'd always got plenty of engine to play with. But this year I'm having to keep an eye on them the whole time."
Someone, though, still fancies Binocular, owned by J P McManus, to go two places better at next month's Festival; before yesterday's race he was backed from 8-1 to 6-1 in the open market for the hurdlers' crown. And his trainer, Nicky Henderson, expects further improvement from the six-year-old. "He did what we asked and what he was supposed to," he said. "We've got five weeks to go and there's still a bit to work on. And he enjoyed himself out there today, which will have done his confidence good."
If McCoy seems ambivalent about Binocular's prospects, he did not get to where he is today – champion 14 times– by being anything but realistic in his analysis and judgement, and his confirmation as Denman's partner in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, after Ruby Walsh equally predictably opted to stick with the giant chestnut's Paul Nicholls stablemate Kauto Star, came as no surprise. McCoy will ride Denman, winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup in November, for the first time at Newbury on Saturday.
"Realistically," he said yesterday, "those two are the only two with a serious chance of winning, and to get on one of them is great. If there are any chinks in Kauto Star's armour, Denman will find them out."
Henderson notched a double when the novice chaser Punchestowns took the day's Grade One feature, the Challengers' Chase, and if the mistake he made at the tricky downhill fence looked ghastly to those who supported him to 4-11, it was a cause of some satisfaction to both his trainer and his jockey, Barry Geraghty.
"He got in a bit tight and a bit low," said Geraghty, "and for a split second I thought he'd gone, but only for a split second. He found a leg and there was no harm done, and a nice time just cantering round would have taught him nothing."
Geraghty gave Punchestowns, favourite for next month's RSA Chase, time to find his balance before asking him to reel in the trailblazing Tchico Polos, which he did readily by eight lengths. "That mistake may have looked scary," said Henderson, "but it's the sort of thing a horse should do once, think about it and learn from it."
One who did just that at muddy Naas yesterday was another of McCoy's prospective Cheltenham mounts, the Arkle Trophy market leader Captain Cee Bee. On his previous run the nine-year-old had fallen at the last when poised for victory, but regained his momentum towards the Festival with a 13-length victory. "In military terms," said his trainer, Eddie Harty, "that was the minefield that had to be crossed before the battle."
Perhaps the most eye-catching performance yesterday was that by Kalahari King at Doncaster. The nine-year-old, making his belated seasonal reappearance in the two-mile Blue Square Handicap Chase, put his rivals to the sword under top-weight and is now third favourite, behind the Nicholls pair Master Minded and Twist Magic, for the Champion Chase.
A terrific leap under Graham Lee at the last sealed yesterday's success.