There was little sign of abstinence among the 22,000 cheerful souls who began their year here yesterday. Few queues since the last days of the Soviet empire can have demanded such heroic stamina as the one snaking towards the donut stall, and the tobacco kiosk was doing brisk business as well. Perhaps their dealings with horses, over the years, have resigned punters to their own weaknesses.
For much of the time, after all, these animals leave you helpless. True, Jonjo O'Neill did manage a winner down at Exeter, so bringing his stable's total for January level with its score during the whole of December. And there were signs of life, also, in Wichita Lineman, who chased home Blazing Bailey in the big hurdle race. Perhaps the tide is turning back in his favour again. But for now it remains a flux, as much ebb as flow.
Black Jack Ketchum's latest failure, in the same race, was so abject that O'Neill seemed tempted to wash his hands of him altogether. And the stable's first runner of 2008 had finished tailed off behind Oh Crick, despite having all but matched strides with the same horse at Folkestone just a few weeks ago.
Alan King, meanwhile, continues in full spate. Oh Crick was his 500th winner since he began training in 1999, Blazing Bailey his 501st. Ironically, King's initial base was Jackdaws Castle, nowadays home to O'Neill and his cavalry. At first, King emerged only modestly from the shadows of his mentor, David Nicholson, but since then that same, steady demeanour has instead come to suggest something of the quiet authority underpinning his rise.
Oh Crick he described as "a horrible colour but otherwise a bloody nice horse". Blazing Bailey, in contrast, was just too bloody-minded for some pretty horrible rivals for the Steel Plate and Sections Hurdle, almost all of them having either failed or declined to put their best foot forward in recent outings.
Robert Thornton was hard at work from a long way out, but Blazing Bailey at least has his heart in the right place and he galloped up the hill with such purpose that the sponsors slashed him to 6-1 from 14-1 for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle back here in March.
He finished third in that race last season, but is one of the few progressive animals towards the top of the stayers' division the favourite, Inglis Drever, is as short as 6-4 and he does like this hill.
It was eight lengths back to Wichita Lineman, and while he did stay on dourly, it did look rather like 10 years' hard labour compressed into five minutes. He was eased to 6-1 from 4-1 for the Festival, but that might yet prove a generous price if his stable revives.
"He has always been lazy," O'Neill reflected. "But he seems to be getting lazier. I suppose you do that, when you go up in class. But he ran well and he'll come on for the run."
The prognosis for Black Jack Ketchum, however, was sombre. There was a touch of desperation to the new tactics, tried in a share of the lead, and he quickly dropped away after blundering at the sixth. "He's just lost his way totally," O'Neill admitted. "There's obviously something wrong with him. We'll have to see. It would be a shame to drag him through the gutter."
Another 2006 Festival winner, Star De Mohaison, ended a 13-month absence in the Unicoin Homes Handicap Hurdle, where he could race off a much lower rating than he had earned over fences, notably in winning the Sun Alliance Chase. Punters were seduced, making him odds-on favourite in a competitive race, but Paul Nicholls could afford to take a more temperate view when he was third, beaten 20 lengths behind Hills Of Aran.
"Very happy with that," the champion trainer declared. "That's the first time he has galloped on grass. He has only done loads and loads of steady work at home, and just ran out of puff. He was never as good over hurdles as over fences, anyway, and it wasn't really his ground either."
William Hill left Star De Mohaison on 25-1 for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, but Nicholls will certainly put him in the mix with the more obvious candidates in his care. With Kauto Star probably heading to Ascot next month, and Denman to the Aon Chase at Newbury, the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown could be his race.
"He must go left-handed, and I can see him liking the galloping track," Nicholls said. "There's also the Cotswold Chase here later in the month, but I wouldn't want to run him on testing ground."
Nicholls had one of his less productive visits here. Predateur lacked the heart to pass Lead On in the novice chase, while Officier De Reserve was a disappointing favourite for the TurfTV New Year Chase. Instead David Pipe was able to salute a "vintage" ride from Timmy Murphy on Vodka Bleu, though the young trainer himself deserves credit for reviving the horse's fading interest with a pair of blinkers.
This was meanwhile a big day for the sponsors, who began providing exclusive betting shop pictures of Cheltenham, along with 30 other racecourses. Their emergence has been bitterly resented by the major bookmakers, but yesterday Ladbrokes became the latest to sign up and now only William Hill remains out in the cold. Talks will resume this week, and the outcome now is surely as inevitable as another donut.
Nap: Something Silver (Ayr 1.10)
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