Chris McGrath: Jumping script rewritten as Cue Card's Cheltenham curtain-raiser wins ovation

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

More than ever, now that the carousel turns all year round, they reckon the big race at Cheltenham this afternoon formally raises the curtain on the jumps season proper.

It has always been such an inviolate institution of tweedy life, in fact, that some diehards still talk of "Mackeson Day" – even though the race has been through several sponsorships since its brown ale era, and is nowadays known as the Paddy Power Gold Cup. The fact is, however, that they are 24 hours too late.

For anyone present for the first day of the meeting yesterday could not possibly mistake the exact second when the season exploded into life. Forget Kauto Star, and his pleasant trip to Co Down last Saturday. Forget Long Run, whose connections today hope to set up a showdown with Kauto Star at Kempton this Christmas. These horses are already assured top billing, on the road back to the Festival in March. Instead just take a look behind Dunraven Storm, as he came off the bridle in the novice hurdle yesterday. Look at Cue Card, still exuding such ease and power that he seems to introduce his own nimbus of warmth and light to a murky, drizzly afternoon. This same image, you may be sure, will be conjured from the flames of countless hearths during the winter ahead.

With his honest origins and breathtaking talent, Cue Card is set to become the defining sensation of the developing season. Devastating as he was in the Champion Bumper at the Festival in March, it remained to be seen what would happen once he left the ground. His first race over hurdles, at Aintree last month, was highly encouraging – so far as it went. But none of his rivals there was competent to test out his technique. Yesterday, he faced the most accomplished novice of the British season to date, ranked by no less a trainer than Philip Hobbs as one of the very best in his care. By the time Cue Card had finished with him, Dunraven Storm was gasping for mercy.

In the unsaddling enclosure, Hobbs gazed at the winner, awestruck. "Exceptional," he said. "Has to be, doesn't he? We think ours is pretty smart, and we've finished 10 lengths and more ahead of some other pretty good ones. But Richard [Johnson] came in and said it felt like Cue Card had only joined the race at the second last."

After briefly regrouping on the home turn, to digest the novelty of a meaningful challenge, Cue Card simply hurtled up the hill, eight lengths clear of Dunraven Storm. Timeform promptly saluted his performance with a rating of 156, compared with 136 for Dunguib when he was pulling up trees this time last year. Cue Card's only blemish was the rap he gave one hurdle on the far side, leaving as much the gravest reservation about quotes of 3-1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle the possibility that he might end up tackling all comers instead, in the Champion Hurdle.

Colin Tizzard, his trainer, will reserve any such debate until the new year, but reminded everyone that the horse's youth – he is still only four – need not count against any such assignment. "Arkle won the Gold Cup when he was five, so it wouldn't be the stupidest thing in the world," he remarked, before hastening to point out that he was not comparing Cue Card to Arkle. "I would think one more run, round Christmas some time. We need to keep something back for the spring. I think he had a hard enough race today and it's my responsibility not to overdo this chap. He's a serious machine. I'll never have another one this good."

Cue Card's eligibility to take the torch from Zenyatta, who produced an unmatchable parting drama on the Flat last weekend, is completed by the fact that he is trained on a Dorset farm, ridden by the trainer's son, and owned by veteran supporters of grass-roots jumping. Bob Bishop said that his wife, Jean, would divorce him had he even briefly entertained any of the huge offers they received for Cue Card during the summer.

A smart novice in another discipline emerged from the gloaming when Time For Rupert saw off several other glamorous chasing newcomers in the final race. Beaten only by Big Buck's over hurdles at the Festival, here he laid down a solid early marker for the RSA Chase, where the extra half-mile would suit well. Totesport and Ladbrokes both gave him a share of 8-1 favouritism with Mikael D'Haguenet.

In the meantime Aegean Dawn had landed a gamble with ridiculous ease on his first start for Nicky Henderson, looking rather better than a handicapper. Henderson completed a double with Dave's Dream, boosting stable morale for the searching examination awaiting Long Run in the Paddy Power. This horse is palpably a class act, but the fact remains that failing to give 16lb to Great Endeavour, or possibly 15lb to Catch Me, need by no means spell the end of his championship ambitions. Even his own stablemate, Mad Max, could prove a major handful caught fresh. At the same time, there is intimidating confidence behind Long Run, who was reckoned too near the bottom of the barrel when making those costly mistakes at the Festival. He had been on the go for several months, after starting out in France, but is evidently primed to ignite now. Even if he does so, however, he can only be joining the overture. The first, clarion note was sounded yesterday.

Loosen My Load can bear weight of expectations in key novice test

Past, present and future combine to give heady distinction to the winner of the race sponsored by this publication at Cheltenham tomorrow. Over the years, the Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase has introduced several comets to the firmament, not least Best Mate. And while it is invariably contested by a small field, the five horses lining up this time again represent some of the powerhouses of the game. You can, moreover, go back to the future just 35 minutes later when Tataniano, last year's winner, makes his return to the fray. He reiterated his credentials as the best novice around last season with a brilliant performance at Aintree in April, and very feasibly remains a champion in the making.

Paul Nicholls, his trainer, who has won four of the last eight runnings, saddles Ghizao, winner of the bumper at this meeting last year. After mixing with the best novices over hurdles, he has been quickly transferred to fences. But while he possibly needed the run here last month, on the face of it he has his work cut out to reverse form with Kilmurry, who made such an impressive debut that day for Colin Tizzard.

Captain Chris lost his unbeaten record over hurdles on his reappearance, his first start beyond two miles. Philip Hobbs reckons the fitting of a tongue strap will make a bigger difference than the drop back in trip. Radium represents another top yard, especially well versed in the development of young chasers, albeit he was not terribly fluent at Ascot last month.

Kilmurry's previous trainer, Henry de Bromhead, takes him on with Loosen My Load, a winner over timber at this meeting last year and unbeaten in three starts over fences. That edge in experience could just suffice for him to hold the back page.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Serious Drinking (9.20 Wolverhampton)

A career of fits and starts to date, but suggested that connections' patience may soon be rewarded when returning from another absence at Kempton last week, set plenty to do off a steady pace before eating up ground into fifth. Dropped another 2lb for that, but remains much the least exposed of these.

Next best

Viva Colonia (2.55 Wetherby)

David O'Meara has made a big impression in his rookie season on the Flat and this one became the latest new recruit to be immediately transformed on his debut for the yard here a fortnight ago. Has gone keenly in the past and a drop in trip could help improve past his new rating.

One to watch

Seeking Glory (E A L Dunlop)

Was stepped up to a mile for his nursery debut at Southwell on Monday but shaped as though he might sooner profit from a drop in trip, tanking along in the lead before committing pretty hard in the straight, pardonably fading into third.

Where the money's going

Paddy Power, who report Long Run as by far their worst result in their big race at Cheltenham today, have laid Sure Josie Sure from 10-1 to 8-1 in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle on tomorrow's card.