Perhaps the most piquant aspect to the retirement of Inglis Drever, announced yesterday, is that he should so narrowly have missed the opportunity to measure the pretensions of his obvious heir. There is no doubting the regal bearing of Punchestowns, whose accession as the new monarch of staying hurdlers could well be hastened at Cheltenham on Saturday. Thus far, indeed, he has gone about things with rather more panache than Inglis Drever. But it would be unusual for any horse to dominate this exacting discipline without also disclosing a coarser grain, and Inglis Drever would never have surrendered his crown without an almighty scrap.
As it is, the substance of his achievements can be represented at the Festival in March only by Kasbah Bliss, the French horse who made him work so hard for that unprecedented third success in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle last year. In the meantime, Inglis Drever will abide in the esteem of all and the affection of many.
He did not go out as he deserved to be remembered, pulled up lame at Newbury in November. He had also been below his best at Aintree in April, only the third time in 21 completed starts over hurdles that he had failed to make the first two. With hindsight, Howard Johnson must wish he had persevered with his original instinct to retire him at the end of last season, when recognisably in his pomp.
The trainer has little else to regret in his supervision of a horse whose influence on his own career can scarcely be exaggerated. For it was Inglis Drever who convinced Graham Wylie that racing could become a conduit between his wealth and pleasure, and that Johnson was the man to trust with the project.
"Inglis Drever instilled in me such a passion," Wylie said yesterday. "More than any horse – probably apart from Lord Transcend – he was the one who got me seriously interested in racing. People might think Cheltenham gave me my favourite memories of him, but it was a day at Haydock in 2005 when both he and Lord Transcend won."
Inglis Drever left the door ajar by apparently recovering from his Newbury injury, but Johnson explained: "We put shoes on him the other day, rode him out, and he didn't even want the jockey to get on him. He was telling me he'd had enough. I think I've done the right thing for the public. I didn't want to go to Cheltenham against younger horses and be pulled up or get beat 20 lengths. One day we might find another like him. But we'll struggle."
Inglis Drever introduced his owner as a man agreeably lacking airs, while Johnson's bluff Geordie cadences also enriched the tale. Then there was the horse's groom, Ginni Wright, whose emotional celebrations were shared by many who learned of her battles with cancer. But the central character was always the horse. His habit of hitting a flat spot before gathering momentum implied a latent vulnerability – a pleasing sense that it did not come easily, but that he would always do his utmost.
His eventual capitulation to the fragility of his calling provides a sobering perspective on the return of Denman, at Newbury a fortnight on Saturday. Yesterday, however, his part-owner, Paul Barber, could not have spoken with greater conviction about Denman's recovery from a cardiac problem.
"I can assure you in the last couple of months he's working supremely well," he said. "He goes up the hill three times, I've seen him in the indoor school and he looks great. When I see him in the yard he's macho, his ears are back. He can't wait to go racing again."
So the stimulating possibility persists that Denman may contest the Grand National. Should the race retain a more conventional complexion it may pay to monitor the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park today.
This race announced Aintree winners in Hedgehunter and Numbersixvalverde. The latest edition is competitive too, but preference is for Hoopy, who won under a "borrowed" whip at Cheltenham in November.