A sabre was rattled, rather provocatively, in the owner's camp. The talk from the trainer was fighting, too, but more measured. The horse at the centre of the war of words, Exotic Dancer, didn't say much, but if his appearance yesterday morning as he cantered nonchalantly up one of the steepest hills in Gloucestershire is a guide, his future actions may speak loudly enough.
Last season the seven-year-old, star of Jonjo O'Neill's Jackdaws Castle yard, finished runner-up to Kauto Star in both the King George VI Chase at Kempton and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Revenge is the objective this term and Barry Simpson, racing manager to the gelding's owner, Sir Robert Ogden, is not only convinced it will come, but also that the unbeaten champion may not even provide the sternest opposition.
"To my mind," he said, "Kauto Star is a two-and-a-half mile horse that won a Gold Cup and he will be very vulnerable when the emphasis can be put on stamina. In fact, I am more concerned about My Way De Solzen [trained by Alan King] and particularly Denman [Kauto Star's Paul Nicholls stablemate] in the staying races."
Exotic Dancer was eight lengths behind Kauto Star at Kempton in December and two and a half lengths adrift at Cheltenham in March. Both O'Neill and Exotic Dancer's rider, Tony McCoy, feel that a true all-the-way gallop would have suited their horse better than the winner, and O'Neill did not rule out the use of a pacemaker in future.
"I don't think he might have won the Gold Cup with a stronger pace," he said. "He would have won. You always get a good gallop in handicaps, but not always in the conditions races with fewer runners, and we could put one in to help.
"But take absolutely nothing away from Kauto Star. He made those mistakes and still won, and when you do that you're some horse. We've had our chances against him and we haven't been good enough, yet.
"He's the one to be shot at, though, and we'll be having a go. He has proved he's the best, but even the best get beaten one day. You've got to be a realist, but you've got to be positive as well. There's not much point in getting up in the morning otherwise."
The first of the rematches is likely to come over two and a half miles in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree in 12 days' time. "Ours can be a bit gassy first time," said O'Neill, "and the faster pace over the shorter trip should get it out of his system."