Alpha to omega; Arkle to Zenyatta. The thoroughbred spectrum has seldom been condensed as richly as over the past week. Last Saturday, one of the modern breed's most momentous tapestries – the unblemished, 14-race career of Zenyatta – was completed under the bleached ribs of the San Gabriel Mountains. Today, the backdrop will again be formed by some petrified seizure of geology, as rain clouds roll down the crags of Cleeve Hill. And however events compare on the track, the setting and occasion at Cheltenham are guaranteed a historic resonance of their own.
The biggest prize of the biggest jumps meeting of the season to date – nowadays sponsored by Paddy Power – will today be contested for the 50th time. The inaugural winner, Fortria, returned in 1962 to win the third running as well. On that occasion, Tom Dreaper and Pat Taaffe had teamed up earlier in the afternoon to introduce an animal named Arkle to the British racing public. The Honeybourne Novices' Chase, over two and a half miles, was his first start over fences and he won at his leisure, by 20 lengths.
Remarkably, only two other Irish horses have emulated Fortria in all the years since, Skymas in 1973 and Bright Highway in 1980. In the meantime, through lean years and fat, the Irish have not mustered a single winner to measure against the eight saddled by a single British trainer, Martin Pipe. But all that could be about to change.
For one thing, they have been preceded here by weather that promises congenial conditions for Tranquil Sea, who loves testing ground and has been the subject of corresponding ante post support. His trainer, Edward O'Grady, is in the middle of a voracious run of winners and Tranquil Sea made his own contribution on his reappearance at Naas. Admittedly he was receiving plenty of weight that day, but he looks on a fair mark for a horse who won a Grade One hurdle in his youth at the expense of a couple of high achievers in Fiveforthree and Trafford Lad.
Having said that, Northern Alliance (2.35) has a very similar profile, as a smart novice last season, and their contrasting fortunes at the Festival here in March suggest him to be a better bet at 11-1.
For while Tranquil Sea did keep on for sixth that day, he had lost all chance with a clumsy jump at the 10th and must be counted author of his own demise. Northern Alliance, in contrast, was closing down the leaders when hampered three out and then stayed on again for fourth. And he really came of age when trying three miles for the first time on his latest start, always going sweetly and well on top after idling in front in the valuable Kerry National. Lightly raced, with a touch of class, Northern Alliance will love everything about this race and nor will he lack assistance from the saddle. Paul Carberry – smarting over an imminent, humiliating suspension for failing a second breathalyser test – will be eager to remind everyone that he is, first and foremost, the right type of artist.
The serial misfortunes of Paul Nicholls in this race are nearly as bewildering as those of the Irish – and not merely because half their best young prospects seem to end up in his yard. The champion trainer arrives in belt and braces this time, but Chapoturgeon, impressive winner of the race contested by Tranquil Sea and Northern Alliance at the Festival, has soared 18lb since; Tatenen must prove his stamina; and Poquelin wants better ground. The most respected members of the home team are instead Ballyfitz and Bible Lord.
For Nicholls, the biggest priority of the weekend will presumably be a smooth resumption from Master Minded in the Connaught Chase tomorrow. As at Aintree the previous season, his gauge dipped into the red when he persevered beyond the Festival last spring, scrambling home at Punchestown. Freshened up, he will want to be in top order to give 10lb to Well Chief if he is anywhere near peak form.
Tomorrow's card also features the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle, which has a tendency to introduce a horse to the Smurfit Champion Hurdle picture, but the key race of the weekend in that context is surely one scheduled at Punchestown 20 minutes later. It features only four runners, but they include the outstanding novice of last season – and many previous seasons, too – in Hurricane Fly, as well as Solwhit, who sets a pretty solid standard on behalf of the established elite.
Punchestown also hopes to host Dunguib, perhaps a still more freakish talent, in his second start over hurdles this afternoon. But the ground is already heavy and more rain is forecast, so keep an eye on the result of an inspection this morning.
The weather could certainly have a dispiriting role in the weekend's entertainment. Still, the Irish will keep the home fires burning very cheerfully indeed should Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe and Dunguib live up to previous impressions, at Punchestown, and Northern Alliance end their mysterious drought in the big race over here.
After all, they can't all be California girls. And even in California you don't very often find girls like Zenyatta.
Punters warming to the obstacle course
It is fair to say that the construction of a cross-country course on the infield at Cheltenham by no means enchanted absolutely everyone, overnight, but the success of Garde Champetre in the Glenfarclas Chase yesterday surely ensured that it will keep growing on the punters.
They have discovered that variety in the obstacles serves only to bring out metronomic reliability in this horse; and also that he could not be in more dependable hands than those of Enda Bolger and Nina Carberry. In the circumstances, even odds of 4-6 were like finding money in the street.
Bolger, the undisputed master of these races, saddled Spot Thedifference to win seven times round here, but Garde Champetre is well on his way now with four. "Nina is the key to him," Bolger said. "She just puts the horse to sleep, stalks the guys and then away she goes."
The Irish also exported the Sharp Novices' Hurdle through Loosen The Load, though Some Present did well to close him to half a length after being caught flat in a sprint finish. Something pretty similar had happened on his previous start, and Tom Mullins was not amused. "We'll run him in the Breeders' Cup next, and hope there's a good pacemaker in there," the trainer said wryly.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Northern Alliance (2.35 Cheltenham) Most Irish raiders in British handicaps run off inflated ratings but this one, on 147, has just won a valuable prize off 140 on home soil.
Vinnes Friend (3.45 Cheltenham) Landed a gamble in stunning fashion at Wexford last time.
One to watch
Loyal Royal (JM Bradley) can win again at a suitably modest level this winter, judged on his fourth when poorly drawn at Kempton in midweek.
Where the money's going
Paddy Power report further support for two horses in the Greatwood Hurdle tomorrow – Harry Tricker (4-1 from 5-1) and Ronaldo Des Mottes (5-1 from 7-1).