The more horses tell us about themselves, the harder they become to predict. Denman, who tops the bill on the second day of the Punchestown Festival, was once viewed as the epitome of hardiness in body and soul. Since his success in the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup, however, a variety of physical and mental frailties has been proposed to account for a record of only one win in six starts. Admittedly, these defeats include excellent seconds in both subsequent Gold Cups, but his connections nowadays increasingly acknowledge that he has a mind of his own.
He arrives for the Guinness Gold Cup miles clear on the ratings, and is perfectly capable of finishing the race the same way. At the same time, the memory of his fall at Aintree last spring will make him an unnerving proposition at short odds – regardless of all this talk about his latent quirks. He was flat to the boards in similar conditions that day, and it would be no surprise to see Cooldine, only fifth at Cheltenham, prove a tougher opponent today.
In fading uncharacteristically on the hill, Cooldine may not have been quite on top of his game after a campaign restricted to just two previous starts. Certainly, he retains every right to retrieve the promise of his brilliant performance in the RSA Chase last year, and his trainer began this meeting yesterday in the sort of form that was at once familiar and astonishing.
Willie Mullins saddled no fewer than a dozen winners last year, and promptly won all three of the Grade One prizes on the opening card this time round – through Blackstairmountain, Golden Silver and Kempes. The first two were ridden by Paul Townend, seizing the opportunity to confirm his coming of age as deputy, in the Mullins yard, to the injured Ruby Walsh.
Golden Silver beat the inevitable Forpadydeplasterer – second, unbelievably, for the fifth time in five starts this term – in the Boylesports Champion Chase, with Sizing Europe back in third. Having proved himself the best novice over two miles at Cheltenham, he acquitted himself honourably in open company for the first time, jumping well in front. But his trainer, Henry de Bromhead, was vexed by the lack of pace, feeling that Sizing Europe had been ill-suited by making his own running. (Twist Magic had refused to start.) This experience will doubtless pay off next season, but Golden Silver – himself well down the field at Cheltenham, behind Big Zeb – emerged in his slipstream turning in, still tanking. He saw off Forpadydeplasterer by two and a half lengths, in the process disproving that he needs softer going.
"I was a bit worried about the ground," Mullins admitted. "But we changed our tactics and it seems to have worked. He's a horse with a lot of ability, more than he shows at home, and we're just getting the hang of him."
Blackstairmountain had earlier shown in the Evening Herald Champions Novice Hurdle just why his trainer had been so disappointed with his own, midfield finish at Cheltenham. Turned over since in bad ground at Fairyhouse, this time he was always cruising under Townend and, having asserted approaching the last, idled conspicuously as he held his stablemate Flat Out by two and a half lengths. General Miller, favourite after beating Menorah at Aintree, was clearly off his game 11 days later – predictable enough, you might say, but for the fact that Blackstairmountain could easily have left this prize behind at Fairyhouse.
"The ground was horrible that day and he had a really hard race," Mullins acknowledged. "He didn't work particularly well during the week, but we said we'd take a chance – there would be no point having him right next week. He loves this ground and it has made a huge difference to him. He has had an easy season, so might have a couple of runs on the Flat before we put him out. We will stick to hurdling next season."
Kempes, pulled up at the same Fairyhouse meeting last time, was another to relish the better conditions in the Growise Champion Novice Chase. He was always going smoothly under Tony McCoy before closing out the race decisively from China Rock.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Kajima (5.15 Epsom) Clearly considered better than his rating, heavily backed on his return; strong finish then suggests extra furlong could make the difference.
Hevelius (2.55 Epsom) Only a couple of pounds higher than when unlucky at Newmarket last autumn.
One to watch
Cityscape (R Charlton) Disappeared after finishing lame in the 2,000 Guineas last year but his comeback at Newbury last Saturday, weaving through into fourth, confirmed his calibre.
Where the money's going
Coral have cut Rumoush to 8-1 from 10-1 for the Stan James 1,000 Guineas.