Despite the injury-enforced absence of the reigning two-mile champion chaser Master Minded, the race that should have been his next assignment is still shaping up as a fascinating contest. Or perhaps that should read because of it. The line-up for Saturday's Tingle Creek Chase is likely to include the horses perceived as most likely to dethrone the dual Queen Mother Champion Chase king at Cheltenham in March. And it doesn't do to have a definitive showdown this early.
As it is, with Master Minded off games until next year because of a stress fracture to a rib, the anticipation and debate can continue. Two of the best Irish horses in the division, Big Zeb and Forpadydeplasterer, have been confirmed for the Grade One Sandown prize; the home defence is to be led by Well Chief and Twist Magic.
Big Zeb, who came within a head of beating Master Minded in April, is a short-priced favourite for the Keith Prowse-sponsored weekend encounter, for which he warmed up with a seasonal debut victory at Navan 23 days ago that was little more than paid exercise. "He was always going to be better for that run," said his trainer, Colm Murphy, yesterday, "and his latest homework went very well. There's no question that with Master Minded not being there his task is easier, but there are still some very good ones in the race."
Forpadydeplasterer, who won the two-mile novice title, the Arkle Trophy, at Cheltenham in March, will travel over with Big Zeb on Thursday. The seven-year-old was beaten on this term's comeback, second in testing conditions at Down Royal over half a mile further than Saturday's assignment. "I was just happy to get a run into him," said Tom Cooper of his charge, "and the good-to-soft ground at Sandown should suit perfectly."
The two Irish contenders are the new kids on the block; Well Chief, who has recovered from the slight leg injury sustained when he won at Cheltenham 16 days ago, has been round it a few times. The 10-year-old, one of the best horses to have competed in the Champion Chase and never won it, has run some of his best races at Sandown, notably his Tingle Creek third place to Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop five years ago. He is sharing second spot in Saturday's market with the dual course winner Twist Magic, Master Minded's stable-mate.
The Irish are currently banjaxed by rain-sodden racecourses at home and prospects for sport tomorrow at Fairyhouse, which was to stage the three Grade One contests lost to waterlogging with the track's fixture on Sunday, are not high. But it's an ill wet wind that blows nobody good and racegoers at Ayr tomorrow may have the pleasure of seeing one of Ireland's most exciting prospects return to action. Captain Cee Bee holds an entry in the novice chase. "He's in at Naas on Thursday and Navan on Saturday as well," said his trainer, Eddie Harty, "and while I'd rather travel 10 miles up the road than go to Scotland, I need to get him out on a racecourse."
Even at this time of year, the Flat game's personalities still make their presence felt. Yesterday, one of last year's best middle-distance fillies, Lush Lashes, acquired a price tag of 1.8 million guineas (£1,890,000) in the Tattersalls auction ring in Newmarket. Her trainer and part-owner, Jim Bolger, bought out his partner in the triple Group One-winning four-year-old, who will start her career as a broodmare with a visit next spring to the court of Sea The Stars.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Recif de Thaix (2.10 Hereford)
Shaped well enough on his debut over fences and, though likely to come into his own over further than the minimum trip, gets all the allowances today.
If I Were A Boy (1.30 Lingfield)
Certainly has the ability to win a race of this type and can finally do so with the help of cheekpieces to concentrate the mind for the first time.
One to watch
Himalayan Trail (Mrs S J Smith) was beaten a long way when third at Carlisle on Sunday, but did well enough to suggest that he can soon win again under less exacting conditions now his rating has slipped.
Where the money's going
Niche Market was cut from 33-1 to 25-1 in SkyBet's Grand National prices yesterday.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
Lord Generous (1.20 Southwell)