The giddy cycles of boom and bust are not confined to the economy. Thoroughbreds – and steeplechasers, above all – have finite resources, and the business of predicting their career trends is no less delicate than the one that divides bear and bull in the City. Consider, for instance, the champion who won the Hennessy Gold Cup last year, and the horse who looks an outstanding bet to have his name engraved on the same trophy at Newbury today.
Twelve months before his runaway success, Denman had confirmed himself a rising star by winning a novice chase at this same meeting. There were, admittedly, only three other runners, and High Chimes, in third, was beaten 12 lengths and "a distance" – that is to say, some unrecorded stretch of Berkshire, in excess of 42 lengths. Never mind the detail, Denman was in a different league from High Chimes.
The following afternoon, the man who trains High Chimes won the Hennessy itself with State Of Play. It was a nerveless piece of planning, and the breakthrough moment in the career of Evan Williams. Denman, meanwhile, went on to win the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, and then made a spectacular reappearance under top weight in the Hennessy – a performance that permitted no doubt that he was a Gold Cup horse. In March, he duly wrested the greatest prize in steeplechasing from his next door neighbour, Kauto Star.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Williams had saddled his first Festival winner: High Chimes, no less, in an amateur riders' handicap. It was just the horse's eighth start under Rules, and since that gentle introduction behind Denman he had shown only glimpses of a kindling talent. His one and only success had come in a two-finisher Chepstow novice chase.
But he is in the hands of a master, this horse, and everything fell in place at the Festival. High Chimes travelled luxuriantly throughout and, to these eyes at least, his obvious relish for a strong gallop over the undulations of Cheltenham raised the possibility that next time he might even return for the Gold Cup itself.
Quite how diseased a fantasy that may be – perhaps the Welsh National will sooner be in his patriotic trainer's mind – should become apparent this afternoon, when High Chimes makes his first appearance since in the Hennessy. He runs off a 14lb higher mark, but the one guarantee would appear to be that Williams has yet to reach the bottom of the barrel.
Denman, in contrast, has reached his first red light in the shape of a pulmonary problem. Though everyone seems satisfied by his recovery, he will not be seen until the new year. Then there is the example of his stablemate, Kauto Star, who has given so much, so generously, that a little anxiety is inevitable after his failure at Haydock last weekend, his third in four starts. The point is that these champions cannot be expected to produce another winter of improvement – unlike High Chimes, who has so far done no more than lay the foundations.
Those who make their Saturday bets on a default setting will be looking no further than Big Buck's, from the same stable that houses Denman and Kauto Star. But Paul Nicholls confessed this week that Big Buck's is still reluctant to have a real cut at his fences, and that could prove costly in a hell-for-leather race like this.
Yesterday Nicholls saddled Kicks For Free in the novice chase won by Denman two years ago, but he was unable to cope with an assured exhibition from The Market Man. Barry Geraghty, rider of Moscow Flyer and Kicking King in his time, declared that he had never partnered a more natural jumper, and he is now quoted between 10-1 and 14-1 for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase.
Aran Concerto, viewed as the leading Irish candidate at this stage, was not declared for the Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse tomorrow, Noel Meade deciding that he might benefit from a longer break after his recent comeback from injury. But the three Grade One races on the card none the less promise their usual accurate gauge of the state of play in Ireland – with the champion bumper horse of last season, Cousin Vinny, making his first start over hurdles, and Hardy Eustace making his 37th.
Another diehard, Harchibald, meets Punjabi in the WBX Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle this afternoon – a race he has won twice already. Howard Johnson has several runners at his local track, but the stable jockey, Denis O'Regan, will naturally be at Newbury to ride Inglis Drever, who seeks his fourth consecutive success in the Toteswinger Long-Distance Hurdle.
It is that kind of weekend. Brave Inca, for instance, is another veteran resurfacing at Fairyhouse tomorrow. Time will be running out for a lot of them. Quite the reverse is true, however, for High Chimes. At 16-1, in other words, ask not for whom the bell tolls. . .September restart to Fallon's career
A SAGA of misjudgements – by the police, Crown Prosecution Service, British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and, no doubt, by Kieren Fallon himself – yesterday came to an end with an overdue outbreak of common sense.
Fallon will not face disciplinary action over his role in either the infamous race-fixing trial, which collapsed at the Old Bailey last year, or an investigation into his association with a group of punters who now face being warned off.
Some of the others exonerated in the trial may yet be charged with breaches of the rules, but Fallon, serving an 18-month drugs ban, can now look forward to resuming his career next September – provided BHA monitoring confirms his continued probity, with respect to both drugs and the new regime regarding "inside information". According to the BHA, the former champion jockey has acknowledged his attitude to the latter to have been "reckless" in the past.
In exchange, any vindictive voices within the BHA have been stifled – and quite right too, given the brazenly inequitable way Fallon was prohibited from riding in Britain for 18 months pending the trial. Given the elements of institutional paranoia within the BHA, it is good to see a proper understanding of what would have been at stake for the sport in some new, petty persecution.