Nicky Henderson was left with an expensive dilemma after welcoming his charge Dave's Dream into the winner's circle after the Imperial Cup here yesterday. The six-year-old, ridden by Barry Geraghty, had just turned the competitive two-mile handicap into a procession with his seven-length rout of Seven Is My Number, Prince Taime and 17 other rivals, and galloped to favouritism for the County Hurdle at Cheltenham on Friday in the process.
And with a £75,000 bonus on offer from the bookmaking firm Paddy Power should yesterday's winner follow up at the Festival, Henderson is now in a dither. "This is a gorgeous horse," he said of the 12-1 shot. "He's had his problems, but we've been patient, and we really think he could win a Gold Cup one day. And you just wonder, with such a lovely baby, whether we should throw him into another battle just six days later."
Henderson and veteran owner David Murdoch will sleep on their decision. "If you've got a good horse, you've got to treat him like a good horse," added Henderson. "It's not a bad predicament to be in, and these big bonuses are great things, but they do sometimes force your hand."
It was Henderson's first victory as a trainer in the historic contest, initially run in 1907, although he did win as a jockey, on Acquaint 31 years ago. Yesterday Geraghty could hardly have had an easier passage, steering Dave's Dream to the front going to the final obstacle.
The David Pipe stable, which supplied both Seven Is My Number (backed from 7-1 to 7-2 favourite) and the fourth, Mr Thriller, successfully launched the highest-profile partnership of Cheltenham week when Big Eared Fran took the opener.
The gelding is owned by a Scots businessman, Thomas Barr, who has replaced the Pipe stable jockey, Tom Scudamore, with Andrew McNamara on his horses. On Tuesday the Irishman will ride Osana, runner-up in last year's Champion Hurdle and third favourite to go one better, and Torphichen, second market choice in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
It was McNamara's first ride at the tricky Esher course and all did not go entirely to plan. "It was a bit of a messy race down the far side," he said, "and I found myself further back than I'd hoped. But in the straight it all opened up nicely."
Big Eared Fran, a 13-2 shot, rather dived over the last, but surged up the hill two and three-quarter lengths clear of trailblazing What A Buzz, who was caught close home by fast- finishing Bakbenscher. "I left it to him over the hurdle," added McNamara, "and instead of going in and popping it, he took off on the long stride. But he found his balance quickly."
The two and a half-mile contest, for which ex-Flat runners are ineligible, is designed to produce chasing stars of the future, and indeed Albertas Run, the winner two years ago, was one of 17 horses remaining in Friday's Gold Cup after yesterday's penultimate confirmation stage. But although Big Eared Fran, named after former England footballer Francis Jeffers, did not appear on the Flat, he was certainly bred for it, being a son of Danehill. "The drying ground helped today," said Pipe, "and also the fact he was racing against non-Flat horses." The sprightly grey is now favourite for Friday's inaugural running of the conditional jockeys' race that bears the name of Pipe's father, Martin, and the two in the bush principle is unlikely to apply.