After nine degrees of frost and a dusting of snow, the hills around Jackdaws Castle remained petrified in the sunshine yesterday. Even in the afternoon, the temperature could not fumble past minus two, yet midwinter finds a new bloom in the steeplechasers stabled on this Cotswold redoubt.
Three of them – Exotic Dancer, Albertas Run and Butler's Cabin – look especially eligible, come the spring, to confirm Jonjo O'Neill in the affections of a broader public. All three ran during the Christmas holiday programme, and all showed signs of renewal.
The only one actually to win a race was Exotic Dancer, but then his whole career has testified that fulfilment, in this sphere, is a fitful, cumulative process. And while the performances of the other pair, in defeat, left no doubt as to their ultimate targets, O'Neill admitted yesterday that Exotic Dancer could yet be diverted from the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.
If his runaway success in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown represented an overdue Grade One breakthrough, he had not necessarily got the measure of Neptune Collonges when that horse fell two out. Neptune Collonges, of course, had been third in the Gold Cup last year behind the two outstanding champions also stabled with Paul Nicholls, Denman and Kauto Star. Nicholls, moreover, also trains Star De Mohaison for Sir Robert Ogden, the owner of Exotic Dancer.
Should Star De Mohaison build on his excellent run at Cheltenham last month, Exotic Dancer could yet end up missing the Gold Cup in favour of the Ryanair Chase. He has unusual speed for a staying chaser, and first made his name two years ago by winning successive handicaps at the course, over similar trips.
"We entered him for the Ryanair Chase today," O'Neill revealed. "Obviously he'll be entered in the Gold Cup as well, and we'll see nearer the time which he goes for – it'll be up to Sir Robert, and Barry [Simpson, Ogden's racing manager]. He does have a lot of pace, travels really well, and jumps better when they go a good gallop. They didn't really go mad in front, at Haydock the time before, though in fairness I couldn't work out that run at all. It was a funny kind of race. In the end, it almost looked as though he had been outstayed."
Exotic Dancer has long been troubled by his dorsal ligaments, and there was no mistaking the freedom of his performance at Leopardstown. With thoroughbreds, these problems can seldom be approached as red or green lights, and O'Neill acknowledged that Exotic Dancer tends to show "amber" more often than not. "But he has come out of the race good, and seems fine at the minute," he added. "Where he goes next remains to be seen, but it will be between the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham, the Aon Chase at Newbury, and the Hennessy Gold Cup back at Leopardstown."
Ogden and Simpson must fit Star De Mohaison into one of those races, which will in turn be under consideration by O'Neill for Albertas Run, who bounced back from two disappointing runs in the autumn to get closest to Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day. As a winner of the RSA Chase at the Festival, Albertas Run has a similar profile to Mr Mulligan, who won the same race as a novice and would have finished second to One Man in the 1996 King George VI Chase but for unseating at the last. He went on to win the Gold Cup, and O'Neill believes that Albertas Run will likewise prove better suited by the demands of that race.
"He stays really well, and has to have a crack at it now," he said. "He has run a blinder at Kempton, because that wouldn't really be his track. He must have goodish ground – I think he's getting a bit fussier about that as he gets older – but if he's right on the day he'd take a bit of whacking."
Funnily enough, Albertas Run began his season tailing off in a conditions race at Carlisle, just as Exotic Dancer did two years previously. "In hindsight, I shouldn't have run him there," O'Neill said. "The ground was desperate, but the plan was the Hennessy at Newbury, and we needed to get a run into him.
"Then when we got to Newbury, we wanted the same strip on the inside as everyone else, and after a while he said 'no thanks'. So it's nice to see him come back. We were going to the races full of confidence, and getting a bit of a dusting, and finding nothing wrong."
On the same Kempton card, Butler's Cabin ran much his brightest race of the season, keeping on into midfield in a handicap hurdle. This was the horse who was still tanking along when coming down at Becher's second time at Aintree in April, a twist in the knife for O'Neill and Tony McCoy three years after Clan Royal, in a clear lead, had been bulldozed by a loose horse at exactly the same stage.
"Butler's Cabin has been a bit unfortunate in life," O'Neill said. "He collapsed after he won the four-miler at the Festival, and while he didn't quite go down after the Irish National, it was a bit the same, and then the poor devil fell at Becher's. So I was worried he wouldn't be looking forward to going back to the racecourse.
"Running him over hurdles has nothing to do with the weights. He's low enough as it is, and was lucky to get in. The idea is purely to get his motivation back. That's why we were all so pleased to see him really battling and enjoying himself again at Kempton. Unfortunately he knocked a leg, so I don't know where he'll go next, but there's no rush."
Horse and trainer certainly share a heavy responsibility, if they are to relieve McCoy's anxious wait for a first National. At the same time, the champion jockey himself would love to win the race for O'Neill, whose talents he considers to be underestimated because of the superior calibre of horses corralled by Nicholls and others.
In turn, O'Neill reckons that McCoy has become an even better rider in the service of their mutual patron, JP McManus. Certainly it is hard to believe McCoy would have ridden Exotic Dancer with such conspicuous patience in the old days.
"He's improved a ton, really," O'Neill said. "He knows when the gallop's good, and knows when it's not. It's probably his greatest asset now, his judgement of pace. Mind you, he can ride a bit as well."