If jump racing has come in from the cold, on the thawed turf of Cheltenham, then Henrietta Knight wouldn't mind the opportunity to do just the same herself.
Today she returns to the scene of Best Mate's three consecutive Gold Cups with her most exciting prospect since, while doing her best to stem the callous tides of fashion. She has saddled just seven winners in 2010, and nowadays even Best Mate's owner is sending his horses to Paul Nicholls at Ditcheat.
At the time, Knight endured plenty of criticism for campaigning her champion so sparingly. But Nicholls and others clearly recognised the dividends, and the three horses who have shared the last four Gold Cups – Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander – will perhaps make just one public appearance between them before March.
Like many pioneers, Knight was left to scale the heights without the ropes and harness of convention. So much for lacking adventure. In the old days, remember, trainers viewed races as integral to the conditioning schedule of horses. Nowadays, thanks to improved training facilities and veterinary practice, horses tend to be given a run to prevent them becoming too fresh and fizzy. And, knowing that they can get horses fit at home, trainers dread the engine roaring into life when they only want to check the electrics.
Knight's judgement of these new challenges proved impeccable. Moreover she and her partner, Terry Biddlecombe, showed that character and horse lore offer a timeless enchantment far beyond the reach of marketing strategists. How edifying it would be, then, to see them restored to centre stage by Somersby in the Keith Prowse Tingle Creek Chase, a prize salvaged from Sandown last weekend.
Somersby jumped with real flair in a light first season over fences, and the way he pursued Sizing Europe up the hill here at the Festival suggested he might yet prove a King George horse this Christmas. But his jumping subsequently lost some of its rhythm, at Aintree in April and then when tiring on his comeback at Exeter last month. In persevering over two miles today, Knight would doubtless settle simply for a positive, purposeful finish.
For, almost inevitably, he finds himself up against one of the real Ditcheat monsters in Master Minded. There have been times in his career when this horse has prompted the sacrilegious suspicion that Kauto Star is not even the best horse owned by Clive Smith. But he has never shone as reliably as the lodestar, and proved disappointing on two of his three starts last season. In fairness, tangible physical explanations were found, and he produced a marvellous, uninhibited round of jumping on his return at Ascot last month. Nicholls himself would be relieved just to see him put two good runs together, but if he does show his very best form, this will be a race for second.
True, there is no knowing the further improvement that Nick Williams might yet find in Gauvain. And the beauty of jump racing remains that it is possible, thanks to the vagaries of pedigree, for a really good horse to flourish for any trainer whose skill is matched by corresponding fortune.
That's one of the joys of Cue Card, who exposes his unbeaten record to its most searching test in the Stan James Bula Hurdle. His connections, all well-seasoned in the ups and downs of their calling, have always got the best out of the animals within their reach. Now their collective endeavours over the years seem to have been vindicated by one of quite freakish ability. Cue Card is surely the most impressive British horse to have announced himself in bumpers, and has made a dazing transition to hurdling.
He faces a much tougher examination today, mind. Everyone is treating him as already past the post in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, back here in March, and would treat success today as the cue to tackle the Champion Hurdle itself. But his opponents include Menorah, who has actually won the novice championship on grass, rather than on ratings; and Nicholls's latest star, Silviniaco Conti.
Menorah's brave and classy performance in a valuable handicap here last month confirmed that he adores a strong gallop, and his trainer has taken the precaution of running a pacemaker. But there is simply no knowing how much is still to come from these two precocious four-year-olds, Silviniaco Conti having mocked established hurdlers at Ascot, and Cue Card exuding such quality that you could not possibly oppose him until you finally see him beaten.
It is an engrossing card, all round. There will be some, admittedly, who have barely noticed the recent hiatus in jump racing. They can find their succour in a very different environment, early tomorrow, when the likes of Snow Fairy and Paco Boy contest the International Carnival in Hong Kong. Those who can also love in a cold climate, however, will instead be rapt by the prospect of Riverside Theatre taking another step towards the big time at Huntingdon a few hours later. His owners include that most engaging of actors, Jimmy Nesbitt, a man handsomely equipped to reach the sort of audience once delighted by Knight and Biddlecombe.
In the meantime, romantics will acknowledge the possibility that both Master Minded and Silviniaco Conti can consolidate the Ditcheat hegemony. But they will mean Nicholls no malice in hoping that Somersby, and Cue Card, will be warming the cockles instead.
Brave Fehily falls again on a day of dramatic reversals
As it turned out, he should have taken another day off, after all. Noel Fehily's return to race-riding at Cheltenham yesterday – just a fortnight after a fall at Newbury seemed to have broken not only a wrist, but his new partnership with Paul Nicholls – had been on, off and on again at various stages on Thursday. With his wrist strapped, he was finally cleared by the racecourse doctor to ride Al Ferof, a top-class bumper horse who was making his hurdling debut in the last.
But the grey took a crashing fall two out, catapulting Fehily under the rail. It was a relief to see both horse and rider quickly back on their feet, but for Fehily this was scarcely the ideal preparation for several high-pressure mounts on today's card.
Al Ferof was still in the lead at the time, but palpably menaced by Prince Of Pirates. Earlier races permitted no complacency about his lasting home, conditions having proved tiring after a week under the frost blankets.
Rebel Du Maquis, for instance, appeared to have the opener in the bag after going clear four out, but ultimately staggered in last of three finishers behind Reve De Sivola, who had been tailed off early. And there was another dramatic reversal of fortunes in the card's most valuable prize, Midnight Chase having been swamped by Presenting Forever after pecking three out. Backers of the favourite had given him up as a lost cause, but a sudden roar swelled through the stands as Presenting Forever began to idle on the flat. Midnight Chase regrouped fiercely to make it six wins in his last seven starts.
The trainer Neil Mulholland will now prepare Midnight Chase for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. The sponsors offer 25-1 but Mulholland, as a former jump jockey, knows that even those who look impossible to beat should not count their chickens.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Taurakina (6.20 Wolverhampton)
Missed an engagement last week but positives all hold true for this Italian import, who laughed off her initial rating at Kempton before managing only fourth under a penalty here the following week. Consumed a lot of fuel retrieving a slow start there, but race may have come too soon anyway.
Northern Alliance (2.30 Cheltenham)
Recent two-mile spin over hurdles unlikely to get to the bottom of him and had previously acquitted himself well when rallying after a blunder in the Kerry National. Caught the eye when fourth at the 2009 Festival here, and a top-class claimer takes off 5lb.
One To Watch
Aather (A Fleming) lasted a long way on the bridle before fading on the climb to the line at Cheltenham yesterday, but conditions were tiring and a consequent nudge down the handicap could prompt a return to form when the emphasis is back on speed.
Where The Money's Going
Silviniaco Conti is 11-4 from 3-1 with Totesport for the big hurdle race at Cheltenham today, while Redwood is 11-1 from 14-1 with William Hill for the Hong Kong Vase early tomorrow.