On a day of trials, there was the odd tribulation. The Ascot Chase confirmed the six-length winner Cue Card's Cheltenham target as the Ryanair Chase, for which he is now as short as 3-1 favourite. But whether or not he would have taken the Grade One prize had not Captain Chris made a juddering error two fences from home, when upsides and arguably travelling more strongly, is moot. And afterwards the victorious seven-year-old's trainer, Colin Tizzard, leant towards the Festival's mid-distance championship, rather than the Queen Mother Champion Chase, only rather grudgingly.
Cue Card's enthusiasm and speed through the air when allowed to take a race to his rivals from the front, as he did yesterday under Tizzard's son Joe, is a pleasure to watch, but it is a style that puts a premium on any reserves of stamina and lays him open to being mugged in the closing stages. As the Gold Cup-bound King George runner-up Captain Chris, with his proven staying power, seemed poised to do when he stood off half a stride early at the penultimate obstacle, and sprawled on landing.
But for Colin Tizzard and his stable star, as for others, there is a seemingly immovable object blocking any challenge for the two-mile crown, the looming dark shape of the long odds-on favourite Sprinter Sacre. "I know we shouldn't be scared of just one horse," he said, "but that big black one is a bit frightening. If he wasn't in the Champion Chase, that race would be very tempting indeed. It looked to me like Captain Chris had just taken us and was in front when he made his mistake, and though Joe said he'd got another couple of gears, I'm not so sure."
Cue Card was beaten fair and square by Sprinter Sacre in last year's Arkle Trophy, but had previously performed with great credit over longer distances. "Ours is favourite for the Ryanair and 10-1 for the other race and that probably tells the story," Tizzard added, "but he'll stay in the Queen Mother and I suspect we'll make a late decision. But I suppose if Sprinter Sacre is there on his 'A' game we'll go the other way."
Tizzard Jnr was more convinced that the Ryanair, over yesterday's distance of two miles, five furlongs, was the right route. "I was chuffed to bits with him," he said. "My plan was to let him enjoy himself but make sure I kept enough so he got the trip, which he did very well. If he did make an error or two they weren't serious and must look worse than they feel. He just wants to get on with it and he rides like a good jumper. He uses himself and makes a shape over a fence, like a showjumper."
At Wincanton, Zarkandar took his Champion Hurdle prep, the Kingwell Hurdle, as smoothly as a 1-3 shot should have, one of five winners during the afternoon for Paul Nicholls. Ridden by Daryl Jacob, the six-year-old led two out and came home four-and-a-half lengths clear of Khyber Kim to make it three for three for the season.
"Job done," said Nicholls. "He had a nice gallop round without having a hard race in that testing ground."
The Grand National Trial that took place at Haydock yesterday was one in name only; just one in the field, Teaforthree, held the Aintree engagement and was undone by the heavy ground, trailing in 10th to Well Refreshed. But at Ascot last year's National fourth, Cappa Bleu, ran a tremendous race, staying on second to Well Refreshed's Gary Moore stablemate Vino Griego in the three-mile handicap. He is now, at 16-1, perceived to be the best of the home side.
On the other side of the world, one of the sport's superstars made a welcome and victorious return in Melbourne yesterday. The peerless sprinter Black Caviar, not seen since her agonisingly narrow success at Royal Ascot last year, took her unbeaten run to 23 as she won the Lightning Stakes – now named after her – in record time.