Many were unmistakably of the view that a mere hair of the dog could scarcely suffice; still more formed enormous, sallow queues for carbohydrate relief. One way or another, resolutions of abstinence seemed largely to have been deferred among the large crowds here yesterday. In one, hugely popular case, however, the turning over of a new leaf represented the end, not of feasting, but of famine.
Henrietta Knight's misfortunes in 2011 had been crowned in almost macabre fashion on its final afternoon, on a gloomy afternoon at Warwick. Taking her husband, Terry Biddlecombe, to the races for the first time since he suffered a stroke in October, she had watched aghast as one of her horses was balked by a loose one in the shadow of the winning post. As a result, he was collared on the line – meaning the stables that once housed Best Mate himself had mustered no more than five winners in the entire calendar year.
The woman whose champion won three Gold Cups up this same hill was saluted with due sympathy, then, when Calgary Bay contrived the most auspicious of starts to the new year. His stylish success, in a valuable handicap, raised the prospect of a redemptive crack at the John Smith's Grand National, in which this immaculate jumper somehow made it no farther than the fourth fence last year.
"After yesterday I thought we'd never have another winner," Knight admitted. "I thought they just weren't allowed any more. This year can't be any worse than the last one, anyway. But I'll have to talk to the owners about the National again because this horse jumps so well, and he'd have the stamina, too."
It was three years to the day since Calgary Bay won the big novice chase on this card, and it remains to be seen whether Champion Court can sustain his breakthrough any better. He certainly put in an exemplary round of jumping, which is rather more than can be said for the favourite, Sonofvic, who made several clumsy errors before his chance finally ended in a collision after four out. (Ruby Walsh's recovery, it must be noted, would have perplexed Isaac Newton.)
Champion Court had been beaten on his last two visits to his local track, but could yet return for the Festival. "He'd have various options, including the Jewson or one of the handicaps," his trainer, Martin Keighley, said. "In fairness, trying to give 5lb to Grands Crus was an impossible task. And the mistake he made last time, at the second last, really took the wind out of him. But we've bounced him out today, and some of the leaps he put in were quite fantastic for a novice."
Another trainer prepared to exonerate recent reverses was Ian Williams, who saddled Barbatos to run away with the opener. The grey had been beaten by Fingal Bay in his last two starts, and by a very long way at Sandown last time, but Williams still fancies a rematch. "It was horrible ground at Sandown," he said. "While I know it's a bold statement, I think he might beat Fingal Bay over this trip on good going. I'd certainly like to give him the opportunity. But he's an out-and-out chaser, if you look at him – 17 hands plus, so overall it's a case of minding him until next season."
Fingal Bay had extended his unbeaten run at Newbury the previous afternoon, and Philip Hobbs sounds inclined to persevere at two miles and five furlongs at the Festival. While he warrants a greater test of stamina, sooner or later, the fact remains that three miles would be uncharted territory.
The same holds true of Oscar Whisky, but he will none the less try the trip for the first time against Big Buck's in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle after outclassing three inferiors over two and a half. Some have urged Nicky Henderson to have another crack at the Stan James Champion Hurdle, but he sounded pretty adamant. "He's not going to win a Champion," the trainer said. "Aintree [at this trip] is the obvious place. But come on – we've got to be brave. I think he'll get three miles, and he's got a bit of toe. He isn't wound up yet, either."
The ease of his success – with Barry Geraghty gazing satirically at Walsh as he drove the runner-up for all he was worth – confirmed Oscar Whisky's status as the biggest name on the card. But some future stars were surely on view in the bumper, albeit it was practically impossible for the dispersing 30,000 to see them in a Stygian dusk. Chancery appeared to travel best but The New One gained first run and stemmed his challenge with sufficient determination to evoke Imperial Commander, when he won his bumper here. With his champion sidelined, and on a day of fresh starts, Nigel Twiston-Davies hopes that The New One has been aptly named.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Little Hercules (2.25 Ayr)
Made an excellent start for his new yard at Haydock, just failing to catch a speedier sort over two miles, and is strongly fancied to progress again over this extra distance.
Next best: Global Village (1.50 Southwell)
Thriving since a change of stable and every chance of completing the hat-trick judged on his strong finish over his minimum trip here last time.
One to watch: Make Your Mark (Willie Mullins) only won a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown last week, but jumped and travelled like a dream and warrants maximum respect when raised in grade.
Where the money's gonig: Mon Mome turned 12 yesterday but the way he rallied for second at Cheltenham earned a tempting quote of 50-1 from Stan James about a second John Smith's Grand National.