Vile weather, worse ground and, in Aran Concerto, a horse like a golden shaft of sunshine. It was almost as though the jumpers were announcing their accession to centre stage, after another Flat season was interred in the mire at Doncaster on Saturday. For conditions at Navan yesterday reiterated not only the sobering questions asked of steeplechasers, hurdlers and the certifiable men who ride them, but also the intoxicating joys that come from answering them.
In making only his seventh start on the cusp of his eighth year, Aran Concerto exemplifies the travails risked and endured. It was fully 18 months since he had last been seen, a beaten favourite at the 2007 Cheltenham Festival. While he recuperated from a tendon injury – the chronic curse of jumpers – Noel Meade had ample opportunity to reproach himself for tempting fate with that notorious declaration, so early in his career, that Aran Concerto might be the best that he has ever trained.
But it remains easy to see why he should have nursed such expectations of a horse whose build and breeding always promised a tangent of long-term progress. Though Meade was disappointed that he could finish only fifth at Cheltenham, in hindsight the big horse can be readily exonerated, proving just too inexperienced and clumsy to cope with a big field on faster ground. The fact that he was forced into a series of mistakes by no means augured poorly for his prospects when stepping up to fences.
Sure enough, he made an immaculate chasing debut yesterday, albeit he could again outclass his rivals at his leisure in the soft ground. Once or twice he slowed into fences, but overall he jumped as smoothly as you would expect in the gossamer hands of Paul Carberry. As ever, Meade's stable jockey kept his mount on the bridle and reserved a couple of insouciant glances over the shoulder for the last rivals to stay with him. But while Aran Concerto galloped on to win by seven lengths, he gave the impression that he might not have had much in reserve on the day.
"He got a bit tired," Meade admitted. "You are always worried with an injury like that. He had split a tendon and was at Newmarket for three months. We nearly had him ready to run a few times last year, but it didn't happen. I'm just pleased to have him back, and we'll see how he is in the morning before we think about any plans."
One obvious possibility is the Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse at the end of the month, already the target for two of Ireland's early stand-out novices in Tranquil Sea and Forpadydeplasterer. For now Coral have made Aran Concerto 14-1 for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at Cheltenham.
Of course, for Meade's stable to flourish at this time of year is one of the sport's most familiar cycles. He had two other winners on the card, and while the cash went to the exposed Watson Lake in a valuable conditions chase, the kudos was claimed by Pandorama, winner of two bumpers by an aggregate of 36 lengths and here no less impressive in his first start over hurdles. "If he stays right, he could be anything," Meade said, a view shared by the bookmakers who already have him as low as 7-1 for the Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle.
It is safe to predict that several key players at the Festival will be found on reconnaissance at Cheltenham's first big meeting of the campaign, which starts on Friday. They may yet include Chomba Womba, the mare who dished out a second successive defeat to Katchit at Wincanton on Saturday, under a penalty in the valuable Greatwood Handicap Hurdle on Sunday's card.
Katchit himself was reported in good shape by his trainer yesterday. "I was perfectly satisfied," Alan King said. "It was a tough ask, but I wanted to get some more match practice into him before we head to Cheltenham next month for the Boylesports International."
As for the Flat horses, they contrived a brief hiatus before the all-weather campaign opened at Kempton yesterday when the floodlights failed at Wolverhampton on Saturday evening.
It remains an inexcusable state of affairs, that neither Flat nor jumps communities get even a few days' respite. At least on the Flat the absence of turf provides an intelligible change of environment, and a certain coherence to the various championships concluded at Doncaster.
Remarkably, a year after Messrs Spencer and Sanders tied for the senior title, the apprentice crown was likewise shared, both William Buick and David Probert ending up with 50 winners. Both these teenagers are a feather in the cap of their employer, Andrew Balding, and further improvement seems guaranteed, with the former heading to Dubai for the winter, and the latter to Australia. A tie was certainly equitable, Buick having sat out the last two days with suspension, while Probert finished second in his final three rides.
Ryan Moore (left), having been injured last year, duly ran away with the championship, finishing 69 clear of Richard Hughes. His most significant breakthrough came at the Breeders' Cup, albeit the Californians were nonplussed by his dependably cheerless, monosyllabic demeanour.
The trainers' championship on both sides of the Irish Sea went to a man whose genius becomes more familiar, communicable and precious by the year in Aidan O'Brien. The wheels came off in the end, and doubtless Ballydoyle will make another slow start in the boggy spring, but it is a safe bet that Rip Van Winkle will be ready to run for his life at Newmarket on the first Saturday in May.
A first owners' championship for Princess Haya, the wife of Sheikh Mohammed, implied that O'Brien's patrons at Coolmore face a renewed challenge from the sport's other great empire. But the reality is that both New Approach and Raven's Pass were acquired off the racetrack, as proven members of the elite, and their skilled handling reiterates an urgent need for higher standards at the Maktoums' principal stable.
It was the shortcomings of Godolphin that obliged the Sheikh to retire both New Approach and Raven's Pass to stud, in the hope of invigorating the stock entering training. It is a pity that their endeavours in 2008 leave no guarantee of a vintage 2009.
Royal & SunAlliance Chase (Cheltenham, March)
Coral: 12-1 Breedsbreeze, Cooldine, 14-1 Aran Concerto, Tranquil Sea, 16-1 Fiveforthree, The Tother One, Wichita Lineman, 20-1 Beshabar, Forpadydeplasterer, Nevada Royale, The Market Man, Trafford Lad, What A Friend.
Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle (Cheltenham, March) Coral: 7-1 Pandorama, 12-1 Hurricane Fly, 16-1 Diamond Harry, Massasoit, 20-1 Corskeagh Royale, Hell's Bay, Mad Max, Thundering Star, 25-1 Apt Approach, Door Boy, Mahonia, On Raglan Road, Shoreacres, The Nightingale, Touch Of Irish, Uimhiraceathair.
Nap: Smalljohn (Wolverhampton 3.05)
NB: Role On (Carlisle 1.20)