Men and horses will have taken a sharply contrasting view of proceedings in Gloucestershire yesterday. To the former, it was one of those immaculate Cheltenham afternoons, the earlier races unfolding in delicate sunlight beneath a hill dressed in its autumnal tweed of woodland, meadow and crag. To the latter, however, it was a pretty grim business.
After a wet autumn, and two days of racing, the track had congealed into such a vile gloop that Nicky Henderson withdrew both the horses at the top of the bill, Sprinter Sacre and Darlan. Yet his resources nowadays are such that he still came away with the most exciting winner on the card.
The novice chase won by Captain Conan has announced a number of elite steeplechasers over the years. Best Mate himself was one, while last year's winner, Al Ferof, heads for the William Hill King George VI Chase on Boxing Day after his impressive success here on Saturday. With his brawny physique, moreover, fences have long appealed as Captain Conan's obvious vocation. He duly produced a flawless exhibition of jumping under Barry Geraghty before breezing into the lead three out and readily seeing off Sire De Grugy by two lengths.
"We've had seconds and thirds over the past couple of days but were waiting for this one to come out," Henderson said. "I don't think he has touched a fence. He has matured into a mighty, powerful horse, and he's very brave. Barry was trying to get him to pop the odd one, but that's not something he does yet – he's got such scope."
Captain Conan is 8-1 from 10-1 with Coral to return to Cheltenham in March and emulate Sprinter Sacre in the Racing Post Arkle Chase. "He's not as flashy as Sprinter Sacre," Henderson observed. "But he has got gears, though no horse is going to show you that in this ground."
Finishing second to a horse as fleet as Darlan round Aintree had testified to that speed, and the stable has a long tradition of exuberant two-milers. Indeed, Henderson has another cracker for this division in Simonsig, likely to start his own chasing career at Newbury next week. Sprinter Sacre, meanwhile, waits for Sandown on 8 December, but options vary for Darlan after his defection from the Racing Post Handicap Hurdle.
Henderson nearly won that valuable prize anyway, Cash And Go travelling strongly throughout but unable to wear down Olofi in the brutal climb to the line. Runner-up last year, Olofi is trained just down the road by Tom George and may now be aimed at the Champion Hurdle. "He'll have to improve," George admitted. "But he travels well and the one thing I'd guarantee is that he's still with those good ones at the second last."
As the light faded, a couple of younger prospects emerged with luminous promise in the gloaming.
Coneygree, a half-brother to Carruthers bred by the late Lord Oaksey, provided edifying relief from the increasing hegemony of jumping's biggest stables with a decisive success in the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle for Mark Bradstock, while Mags Mullins exported the bumper to Ireland through Anonis.
Admittedly, the horrible going had made the whole weekend seem rather less pertinent than usual, as far as the Festival was concerned.
By the same token, however, it was marvellous to see Go Native run so well on his return to hurdles over at Punchestown. Unfortunately, he lost his footing as he landed over the last, leaving Hurricane Fly to coast home. But he had been closing purposefully, and it looks as though Noel Meade already has Go Native back near his best after that long absence through injury.
Following a pipe-opener on the Flat last month, this was Go Native's first start over timber since starting favourite for the 2010 Champion Hurdle. He is 14-1 from 25-1 with William Hill for the 2013 running, while Hurricane Fly is out to 6-1 from 5-1.
In fairness, the winner may not have been suited by making the running, but Willie Mullins felt he had little option against just two rivals. "As he gets older he seems to settle better, and hopefully he'll improve from that," the trainer said. "He's certainly a different horse to last year. I was not happy with him last season."
CHRIS McGRATH'S NAP: Badea (5.30 Wolverhampton)
Will find the company less demanding than that of the two thriving, well-bred three-year-olds who beat him last time.
NEXT BEST: Formal Bid (5.0 Wolverhampton)
Ran well despite meeting traffic over an inadequate trip last time and looks well treated for an ideal test round this sharp track.
ONE TO WATCH: Captain Sunshine (Emma Lavelle) refused to race the other day but warrants perseverance after getting bogged down in the slowest ground at Cheltenham yesterday.
WHERE THE MONEY'S GOING: Minsk, impressive at Punchestown on Saturday, is 12-1 from 16-1 with Paddy Power for the Neptune Novices Hurdle at the Festival.
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