A Halo slipped at Exeter yesterday, when a race that had promised to refresh the appetite of punters for jump racing instead served to remind them only of its hazards. Having finished fourth and second in the last two runnings of the Champion Hurdle, Celestial Halo would be as accomplished a hurdler as Paul Nicholls has ever sent over fences.
He duly started at odds of 1-4 to see off just four rivals for the Best Mate Novices' Chase, and everything was going according to plan approaching the fourth last.
True, he had yet to shake off Rougham, but he was still travelling powerfully under Ruby Walsh, having jumped cleanly throughout. This time, however, he misjudged the fence, hitting the top and landing too steeply. Any unworthy glee in backers of Rougham was instantly stifled, meanwhile, when he fell independently, shooting Richard Johnson into the air. Johnson very nearly landed on Walsh's head, but both men were quickly on their feet, exchanging curses and peering anxiously after their disappearing mounts. Both horses, happily, were likewise unharmed, but the same can hardly be said for Celestial Halo's status as one of the early favourites for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy.
Nicholls admitted afterwards that Celestial Halo could well be restored to hurdles. "It's always been at the back of my mind that he is by Galileo, that he's hardly chasing-bred," the champion trainer said. "Over hurdles he'd be flat out, jumping brilliantly, and it might be that he just doesn't take to fences. We'll have another school, and see where we are. It's not ideal and it's back to the drawing board. But plenty of horses have fallen on their debuts and been OK. He had jumped beautifully up to then. He just stepped at it, and that was one of his traits over hurdles."
Indeed, that was exactly how Celestial Halo had taken a horrible fall on his previous racecourse appearance, at Aintree in April. Certainly, his performance yesterday hardly measured up to that of the champion in whose memory the race was run, when he won his first chase on the equivalent card 10 years ago. Best Mate, who would go on to win three consecutive Gold Cups, beat a subsequent Grand National winner that day in Bindaree.
As it was, few punters can have backed a 9-1 winner with more protracted drama than those who were on Diamond Brook yesterday. Having had no conceivable chance turning in, he was suddenly locked in a duel for first place with a 50-1 outsider. Having got home by a head, he then had to survive a stewards' inquiry, at which Daryl Jacob was given a two-day suspension for careless riding.
No such dramas hampered another talented horse sampling a new discipline in these shallow waters. Just as Dare Me had enjoyed a far happier experience on National day at Aintree, finishing second in the big bumper, so he managed a carefree start to his hurdling career at Exeter, making all and coasting home by a dozen lengths. Dare Me looks one of the season's best young prospects for Philip Hobbs, already quoted at 16-1 by Coral for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
There is still unfinished business on the Flat, of course, with the final Group One of the British season to be staged at Doncaster on Saturday. Paul Hanagan, the champion jockey-elect, has been booked to ride Native Khan for Ed Dunlop. The colt has been previously ridden by Eddie Ahern, who is injured, and Kieren Fallon, who partners another unbeaten contender in Titus Mills.
Chris Mcgrath's Nap
Newzflash (5.50 Kempton) Showed pace to halfway before fading into midfield when returned from a break for his nursery debut at Nottingham last time, over 6f in testing ground. Now drops in trip, off a 5lb lower mark, with a pair of blinkers and a rails berth.
Brave Tiger (6.20 Kempton) Returns to course and distance of his well-backed success last month, having since failed to match that improvement on turf and over a sixth furlong respectively. Made all that day and has the perfect draw to repeat those tactics.
One to watch
Captain Macarry (J J Quinn) has tumbled 20lb in the handicap during a dismal season but bounced back on his return from after a break at Catterick on Saturday, pulling five lengths clear of the third and unlucky to bump into one off an even better mark.
Where the money's going
Great Endeavour is 7-1 from 8-1 with the sponsors to maintain the Pipe stable's superb record in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham next month.