Chris McGrath: Punchestowns can land a blow for pretenders as bell tolls louder for old guard

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Nobody had the foggiest idea what to make of his comeback – quite literally.

By the time he emerged from the mist at Newbury last month, Punchestowns was already deep in a duel to the line with Pride Of Dulcote. At Cheltenham today, however, he gets the chance to match the recent, unequivocal revival of his stablemate, Long Run, as a Gold Cup contender. Should he do so, moreover, he will only stress the way the wind is already blowing.

To any neutral observer, a crop of younger steeplechasers is unmistakably emerging to challenge the old guard. An early skirmish, back in November, produced Diamond Harry; and then Pandorama threw down the gauntlet for Ireland. Much the most significant breakthrough, however, came in Long Run's defeat of Kauto Star at Kempton a fortnight ago.

Connections of the beaten champion insist he is not yet over the hill. And in fairness to Kauto Star, who bled from the nose that evening, he has since been found to be suffering from "a low-grade infection" – a discovery perfectly consistent with a mild dip from the usual, unrelenting strike-rate of the champion trainer. Paul Nicholls can be readily indulged, moreover, a somewhat defensive approach to those writing off a horse he will always cherish more than any other. But the same exoneration cannot be extended to anyone else contributing to the unworthily peevish tone already infecting the debate about Kauto Star's prospects of retrieving the Gold Cup.

If Kauto Star were somehow to pull it out of the fire, it would be one of the great moments in steeplechasing history – one that should join everyone together in ungrudging joy. With that in mind, it is a little unnerving to see trenches already being dug for a tense stand-off between the horse's "knockers" and those piously keeping the faith. Whatever happens, it would belittle a gripping endeavour for anyone to talk in terms of Nicholls trying to "prove the critics wrong".

That's not what this is about. It's an epic tale of an ageing king who has suffered a chastening reverse, at the hands of a young pretender, and is now trying to regroup for what may or may not prove his last stand. Some, admittedly, wish he would abdicate now. They dread the potential consequences of a more bruising defeat next time. Others, however, can still envisage perhaps his greatest glory yet. The thing is that nobody can know for certain – and that should be celebrated as part of the sport's infinite, unravelling fascination.

The responsibility lies with both camps. It is understandable for Nicholls to feel indignant over what he considers the impertinence of outsiders, whose evidence is naturally confined to the horse's public appearances. And it would be a dreadful shame should such a man – as marvellously open with the public, in heart-breaking defeat, as he is in victory – feel in any way hurt by some of the things he hears or reads in response.

In turn, however, Nicholls has to accept that it is all part of the same process; that it all stimulates public interest; and that it is possible for people to reach different conclusions even about the very best horses. For instance, you would be entirely within your rights to dismiss as far-fetched the reproof that Kauto Star is being "judged" on one disappointing run. Since his astonishing performance in the 2009 King George, he has jumped horribly in the Gold Cup, looking lucky to walk away; had a fairly undignified scrap with a doubtful stayer at Down Royal; and now come up with this run back at Kempton.

Regardless, this is just part of a much broader dynamic, one that exposes Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander – who have between them maintained a vintage standard over four Gold Cups – on the burning deck as the likes of Long Run and Diamond Harry swing across the bows.

Whether Punchestowns can now join them is one of the key questions on Festival Trials day. Nicholls himself, as it happens, could soon be contributing to the next wave, with Pride Of Dulcote favourite to exploit Pandorama's absence from the Irish Hennessy at Leopardstown tomorrow week. He will duly be curious to see how Punchestowns fares against three of his more seasoned operators in the Argento Chase.

Punchestowns certainly remains entitled to further progress, after just four starts over fences. He had sound excuses for disappointing in the RSA Chase, and any dismay over his narrow failure to see off Pride Of Dulcote is easily qualified. Quite apart from the likelihood that he needed the run, he may have stumbled into a very smart rival – and Tatenen, who emerged from the Newbury fog fully 40 lengths in their wake, bolted up in a valuable handicap at Ascot last weekend.

Tidal Bay is the most talented of his senior rivals today, but only belatedly consented to close the gap when Imperial Commander made his only appearance of the season so far, at Haydock in November. Tidal Bay receives 5lbs from Punchestowns and has an excellent record round here – beating Time For Rupert over hurdles on this card last year – but will be dependent on the others to set up his finish up the hill.

In the absence of Time For Rupert, who has an infection and goes straight to the RSA Chase, the fact is that this field depends entirely on Punchestowns for its untapped potential. Victory for the young horse, then, will perhaps represent another toll of a bell that grows ever louder.

A few Big reasons to avoid Festival complacency

Few people truly appreciate the significance of sheer constitution to every champion racehorse. Certainly one of the things that separates Big Buck's from the rest is that he always seems to show up – in every sense of the expression. Looking at the odds, mind you, anyone would think that's all he has to do to win a third consecutive Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Festival in March. Having finished miles clear of the pack in the past two years, after all, Punchestowns and Time For Rupert have both sought sanctuary over fences. It's not impossible, however, that Big Buck's may have to look to his laurels this time round.

Mourad, for instance, confirmed that he is developing legitimate menace when cruising away from some pretty fair types at Gowran yesterday, only his third start at three miles. "He seems to be improving, and getting stronger with age," Willie Mullins, his trainer, said. "And he'll be better on better ground."

Mourad is 9-1 from 12-1 with Coral, and bookmakers will also be keeping an eye on the Rewards4Racing Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham today. Bensalem has been in the wars since last seen, but his trainer reckons him ready to do himself justice – and likewise, clearly, the punters who backed him so purposefully during the week. Grands Cru was spectacular off an indulgent mark in two handicaps in the autumn, and could yet break into the elite, but the value is rather Organisateur, who has been excelling off much higher ratings and could improve again for this stiffer test. As a stablemate of Big Buck's, he can put some of the pretenders in their place.

Big Zeb meanwhile prepares for the defence of his own Festival crown at Punchestown tomorrow, where his opponents include Sizing Europe – significantly dropped back to two miles, after an experiment over three. And if even backers of Big Buck's can't afford complacency, then nor can those of Big Zeb.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Khachaturian (3.20 Doncaster)

Back over fences for the first time this season, off a 3lbs lower mark than when running a stormer in a hot handicap at the Cheltenham Festival. Jumped well that day and perhaps committed too far out, even so only fading out on the climb to the line.

Next Best

Cunning Clarets (4.10 Cheltenham)

Did not fulfil promise he had shown in bumpers when first sent hurdling but ended up with a useful rating as a result, and took advantage in decisive fashion on his recent return at Ayr. Has not been punished unduly for that, and sneaks on to the bottom rung here.

One to watch

Aikman (James Ewart) did well in point-to-points and looks a useful recruit for his go-ahead stable, latterly when doing much the best of those who shared a generous pace at Musselburgh on Wednesday, keeping on for second in a manner that promised better still over longer distances.

Where the money's going

Get Me Out Of Here is 9-1 from 10-1 with the sponsors to repeat last year's success in the Totesport Trophy at Newbury on 12 February, while The Midnight Club is 20-1 from 33-1 for the John Smith's Grand National after finishing second in a valuable handicap at Gowran yesterday.