Noel Meade has not been finding it especially easy to lure either Nicanor or Aran Concerto from their stables, but at least they cannot read newspapers. Otherwise they would never show their faces outside Co Meath again.
Aran Concerto would know that their trainer had identified him, before he had jumped a hurdle, as potentially the best he has ever had in his care. And now Nicanor would be sharing some of those pressures as well, albeit this time the compliments are coming from the formbook.
The astounding performance of Denman at Newbury last Saturday took his career record to 11 wins in 12 starts. The horse responsible for that one blemish is Nicanor, who beat him over hurdles at the 2006 Cheltenham Festival. Nicanor followed up at Punchestown, but suffered a tendon injury last autumn and has not been seen since.
Happily, he is now nearing a comeback. "Yes, I suppose that adds to the pressure a bit," Meade acknowledged yesterday. "He beat Denman over a staying trip, as well, so it wasn't some kind of freak result. My inclination with Nicanor is not to extend to three miles, but to go back to shorter distances."
Nicanor certainly had too much pace for Denman that day, on good ground over two miles and five furlongs, and Meade is thinking of starting him over half a mile less in the Durkan New Homes Novices' Chase at Leopardstown on 26 December. He has no reservations about pitching him straight into Grade One company, though the availability of his stable jockey, Paul Carberry who may be needed for Harchibald at Kempton the same day could prove critical.
"At least in a race like that you would one of maybe eight or nine runners, whereas you could find yourself up against 25 in a beginners' chase somewhere," Meade said. "He has schooled over fences a few times and his jumping has been pretty good. If he stays sound, I'd hope he would be nearly ready at Christmas.
"Touch wood, everything's been good. They say that you can no more have a minor tendon problem than be a little bit pregnant, but it really was only a very slight touch he had." While Nicanor recuperated last March, Aran Concerto started favourite for the same Cheltenham race he had won the previous year. But he had done everything so easily on softer ground in Ireland that he proved too innocent for the task, jumping ineptly before getting hampered. All in all, he deserves credit for managing fifth, especially since Meade has always believed him "an out-and-out chaser" in the making.
Unfortunately Aran Concerto then picked up an injury of his own, damaging a hock, and spent the summer in veterinary care in Newmarket. "He's still a bit behind Nicanor (in fitness)," Meade said. "Ian Wright has done a masterly job with him, and I'm very pleased with his progress. But we're taking it day by day and he's not galloping at this stage. He's looking great, moving great, but we might be lucky to have him back on the track by the end of January." If lack of experience was a factor last season, then Aran Concerto looks doomed to gain precious little before the big spring meetings. "I must say if it got very late, then we might just stay over hurdles with him," Meade admitted. "The novice season means so much over fences. The programme is so good that even a top horse gets the chance to run somewhere just about every week. It gets so much harder to place them the next season." The leading trainer in Ireland is once again approaching Christmas with his string in rampant form. Last weekend alone Meade won three Grade One hurdles: with Harchibald at Newcastle, and with Aitmatov and Muirhead at Fairyhouse.
True, there are those who suspect that Meade's travails at Cheltenham over the years reflect the consumption of too much fuel in the first half of the campaign. He has too many horribly unlucky horses there for that theory to be watertight, though it must be granted that last season he had fewer winners in January, February and March combined than in either December, November or October. Regardless, it must be ominous for the opposition that perhaps the two best prospects in his care will be fresh for the second half of the season.
As for those who were digging deep over the weekend, all seems well. That is especially good news for Harchibald, who had struggled with setbacks but seems back to his best. "He was a bit stiff afterwards," Meade said. "But now he's strutting round like a peacock."
* Tony McCoy, who was found guilty of careless riding when winning on Nacadour at Leicester yesterday, was given a four-day suspension and will miss 17-20 December.
Nap: Mighty Matters
NB: Art Value
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