When racing got under way here today, the turf on either side of the track had both the colour and consistency of bone – but an afternoon of sport was none the less prised from the muddy green strip beneath the frost blankets. It was pretty tough going, admittedly, but this is just the kind of thing Mick Channon should have known to expect when agreeing to take on a small team of jumpers on the retirement of Henrietta Knight last summer.
One of them, Loch Ba, has so flourished for the transfer to a big Flat stable that a stylish success here took his record since to two wins and a second from three starts. Knight and Channon exchanged generous compliments in the winner's enclosure – the former applauding the fitness levels achieved by the West Ilsley regime, the latter marvelling at the time invested by the woman who once trained Best Mate. "You see the work that goes into these horses," Channon said. "And it can all go wrong overnight. But while they're totally different types, the mechanics are the same."
The best of his recruits, Somersby, is due to resurface against Sprinter Sacre in the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot on Saturday. "The other one's a bit special," Channon acknowledged. "But we've never been frightened to have a go. And I'm too old to change now. Somersby has only been with us about three weeks, he had a splint the size of a cricket ball, but Hen's done loads with him and he's in great form."
The freeze could yet intervene, of course, and Paul Nicholls could be forgiven if still hankering for the Caribbean island where he has just completed a winter break. Busy catching up at Ditcheat, the champion trainer dispatched his assistant, Dan Skelton, to supervise the British debut of the stable's latest young star. Fago, second in Grade One company in France 10 weeks ago, has since been imported to run in the silks of Graham Wylie. And he made a pretty solid start, while suggesting plenty of scope for improvement – which was no less than Skelton seemed to expect.
Sent off warm favourite for a novice chase over two miles and a furlong, Fago did not attack every fence but nor did he experience any major alarms before holding off Ohio Gold by three and a half lengths – in the process earning a quote of 12-1 from Paddy Power for the Racing Post Arkle Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
"We really haven't had him at all long, and we'd be confident he will improve," Skelton said. "With the weather we've been having, he has only schooled inside and we'd have loved to get him out over a few English ditches. Remember, he's only just turned five."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Knowe Head (7.00 Wolverhampton) Flourishing since visored by his in-form trainer, just caught by an improver after showing sharp acceleration off a steady pace round this course last week.
Misleading Promise (6.00 Wolverhampton) Requires a big punt on stamina, stepping right up in trip from an extended mile to 12 furlongs, but undoubtedly equal to this kind of mark judged on his recent improvement.
One to watch
Bold Cuffs (Colin Tizzard) Travelled powerfully before tiring at Newbury yesterday and could be interesting, once handicapped, in less demanding conditions.
Where the money's going
Captain Conan is 4-1 from 9-2 with Paddy Power for the Jewson Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.