They mean country matters at Cheltenham today, with a duck herding challenge in the paddock before racing, and a parade of hounds after the second race. But the most arresting fauna on view will be those whose endeavours, over the next three afternoons, will set the tone for another winter at the headquarters of British steeplechasing.
The course management, evidently unaware that branding is best reserved for cattle, nowadays expect people to refer to this as the Open Meeting. Next weekend, likewise, Haydock and Aintree put on something called the North West Masters. Presumably the next step is to introduce Stableford scoring. As it happens, perhaps the day's most entertaining contest is the one staged over a course that might have been compiled from the most sadistic features of Carnoustie, Oakmont and Ko'olau. The Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase requires horse and rider to negotiate a bewildering variety of water hazards, trenches, banks and vegetation.
True, races over the cross-country course will never shed their essential frivolity, but it is increasingly being embraced as a worthwhile innovation – thanks largely to the remarkable career of Spot Thedifference, who last year won this prize for the fourth time running at the age of 14. It has at last been decided that his enthusiasm is in danger of outliving his physique, but it may prove hard to tell the difference today, his trainer, owner and jockey having returned with another old friend in L'Ami.
Some, admittedly, may sooner view L'Ami as foe than friend. The horse who once ran Kauto Star to a neck eventually went nearly four years without winning before John Thomas McNamara finally coaxed him home in his point-to-point debut in Co Tipperary last month. That feat of horsemanship proved a fitting plinth on which to carve McNamara's 500th success between the flags.
He had been closing inexorably on that landmark since April 2006, when he passed the record of 413 set by Enda Bolger – the trainer of Spot Thedifference and now L'Ami. Bolger is untouchable in races of this type, but while L'Ami is ostensibly pick of the weights, it may prove that Garde Champetre, who has been in Bolger's care rather longer, comes out best today. Like L'Ami, he arrived chez Bolger as an unfulfilled talent, but certainly found his métier in this discipline last season, notably in winning the cross-country race at the Festival itself. Garde Champetre (next best 3.0) is again ridden by Nina Carberry, and a run over hurdles last month will have blown away the cobwebs. The most valuable prize on the card is the Paddy Power Graduation Chase, a race won by the Grand National winner, Comply Or Die. Sadly only four runners line up this time, and Ornais will do well to concede 7lb to Battlecry (2.25), third in the SunAlliance Chase on his last visit to the course. He seemed to reach the limit of his stamina that day, but will hardly need riding so aggressively to dominate this small field and comes here fresh. His trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, also has an interesting candidate for the Sharp Novices' Hurdle, Hunters Ploy having won a maiden hurdle in good style at Uttoxeter. American Trilogy (1.50) achieved rather more at Aintree, however, and can meet the standard set by the battle-hardened Leo's Lucky Star. But perhaps the best bet on the card is in the opener, where Hoopy (nap 1.15) can maintain the rapid improvement he has made for his new trainer, Gordon Elliott. He won a maiden chase over a sharp track on quick ground last time, but this stiffer test of stamina will suit him better still and he remains on a fair mark.
The most interesting horse of the day is Herecomesthetruth (4.05), who looked as natural as any novice chaser seen this autumn when winning at Chepstow. Unfortunately Channel 4 misses that race, along with the conditional jockeys' hurdle, where Andytown (3.35) looks best after a promising start for his new trainer last month.
Next month's meeting here may find its way onto the agenda for Glenfinn Captain, who took advantage of a lifeless performance from Snowy Morning, the Grand National third, to win the big race at Clonmel yesterday. Tom Taaffe, his trainer, may now consider the Boylesports Gold Cup.
"I'd like to thank J P McManus, who has been very patient and let me do my own thing with this horse," Taaffe said. "He had a bad case of colic in January 2007. It was touch and go, the horse nearly died. But obviously he's coming back to himself now."