This was one of those weekends when the dread of a facile solution caused many seasoned punters to miss the easiest one. On Saturday, Kasbah Bliss and Voy Por Ustedes rose superbly above the ghastly conditions that had threatened to drag them into unseemly difficulties at Haydock and Ascot respectively.
And then at Leopardstown yesterday Neptune Collonges and Cooldine compounded the delusions of favourite backers with routine wins in two of the three Grade One races. It took the denouement of the other one to restore a proper sense of instability to proceedings, and remind punters that they mistrust these animals for a reason.
The Deloitte Novices' Hurdle had seemed to lose much of its fascination when Hurricane Fly, the likely favourite, was found to be lame in the morning and withdrawn. It was a poor reward for Willie Mullins, who had been prepared to run his two outstanding young horses against each other, but the trainer could comfort himself that Cousin Vinny had now become odds-on in a field of only four.
Cousin Vinny was the champion bumper horse of last season, and his partnership with Mullins's teenage son, Patrick, represented an additional source of pride. Certainly it had been edifying to see the horse's owners share his fidelity – despite the availability this time of the stable's principal jockey, Ruby Walsh.
And all was going smoothly as Cousin Vinny cruised alongside Pandorama approaching the final flight. Mullins Jnr was so certain that he had Paul Carberry's mount covered that he borrowed from that rider's repertoire, taking a long look over each shoulder to satisfy himself that the game was also up for the stragglers. In doing so, however, he roused those capricious National Hunt gods from their weekend slumbers.
As it happens, Cousin Vinny jumped the hurdle pretty well, but he stumbled on landing and gravity did the rest. His rider, poor fellow, sprang to his feet only to be flattened by Western Charmer, and the only comfort in observing his vivid misery – he got up a second time and hurled his helmet away – was that only his pride had been hurt.
Pandorama was left to coast home by 10 lengths, but if he is ever going to prove top class himself it now seems pretty plain that he will have to wait for fences. At least Noel Meade, his trainer, seems pretty comfortable with that prognosis, albeit he may first try his luck over a longer distance at the Cheltenham Festival, in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.
"Next year is the one for Pandorama," Meade emphasised. "He's going to go chasing, and I don't want to sicken him with too many hard races this season. He won't run in Cheltenham if it is quick ground. He wasn't right when he was beaten by Mikael D'Haguenet at Navan, he was lame behind for a full week. I feel very sorry for Willie, but you need a bit of luck, and we are all out there to win."
Cousin Vinny meanwhile clearly remains eligible for a second Festival success, whichever race Mullins ultimately favours. "The horse half knuckled and slipped on landing," the trainer said. "Patrick set him alight going to the last, to get some experience of jumping fast before going to Cheltenham. He'd never jumped a hurdle that fast in his life."
As for Hurricane Fly, Mullins is cautiously optimistic that a foot injury will be resolved in time for the Festival next month. "It is a boney problem," he said. "Hopefully he has just given it a knock. We'll poultice it and cold-hose it. It's not the ideal preparation, but at least he's had a fair bit of work into him."
This proved only a blip in what has been an astonishing winter for the stable, and Mullins promptly came up with a new favourite for the RSA Chase after Cooldine and Walsh rallied past Forpadydeplasterer in the PJ Moriarty Chase. The runner-up did seem exhausted by that stage, but there is no doubt that Cooldine will be suited by a test of stamina at the Festival.
"He stayed every inch of the trip and the RSA Chase looks the obvious race," Mullins said. "I would have preferred a longer gap between now and the Festival, but Ruby said he was idling in front, so maybe he won with a bit left in the tank."
Walsh, of course, divides his services between champion stables either side of the Irish Sea, and followed up for Paul Nicholls in the day's most valuable prize, the Hennessy Gold Cup. Neptune Collonges had fallen here at the Christmas meeting – when still going well at the second last – but on the whole jumped very positively this time, in the process making Notre Pere look as slow as he is spirited. Which, given the heroically fruitless nature of his pursuit, is very slow indeed.
Neptune Collonges was the horse who completed that famous 1-2-3 for Nicholls in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup last year, and the new vulnerability in Denman will have his owners coveting at least one step higher on the podium this time.
"We've done a lot of work on his jumping," Nicholls said. "He had got quite lazy, and wasn't too brilliant for the first week after he fell here at Christmas. It's come together well, and he will improve for the run, so I'm really looking forward to the Gold Cup."
Likewise Christian Williams, the obvious candidate for the mount, with Walsh and Sam Thomas again riding Kauto Star and Denman respectively. He may acknowledge that the other pair have more obvious chances, but anyone who witnessed Cousin Vinny's misfortune will be taking nothing for granted.
Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup (Cheltenham, 13 March) Totesport: 7-4 Kauto Star, 5-1 (from 11-2) Neptune Collonges, Denman, 6-1 Madison Du Berlais, 10-1 Exotic Dancer, 16-1 Barbers Shop, Notre Pere, 20-1 Albertas Run, Star De Mohaison, 28-1 Air Force One, 33-1 others.