They don't call it the Winter Festival for nothing. Well, they do actually, in common with every other racecourse that falls prey to this distressing compulsion for re-branding. But none here yesterday could deny that it felt very apposite. Happily the frost blankets had done their work, and hopes remain high for the remaining two days of the meeting, as well. They were left with no chance for Newcastle tomorrow, however, with seven inches of snow on the track, and negotiations are under way for the transfer of the "Fighting Fifth" Hurdle, probably to Wetherby next weekend.
Nicky Henderson was eagerly monitoring developments, on behalf of his champion hurdler, Binocular. But in the meantime he saw something here to warm the cockles in Finian's Rainbow, whose first steeplechase on the whole sustained the belief that he will prove one of the season's outstanding novices.
Like Denman, who seeks an unprecedented third Hennessy Gold Cup tomorrow, Finian's Rainbow learned the ropes in Ireland with Adrian Maguire. The former jockey held him in similar regard, and the horse's only defeats since joining Henderson both came over two miles and five furlongs – first here, last Christmas, and then at the Cheltenham Festival. He did not seem to get home on either occasion, and Henderson duly dropped him half a mile for his reappearance.
Faced by only two rivals, the odds-on favourite sauntered a dozen lengths clear of Hell's Bay, and essentially enjoyed a schooling session out in front. A couple of early blemishes did invite some anxiety about his proficiency in a bigger field, but the way he warmed to his task certainly satisfied his trainer. "I thought he was pretty tidy, for a big horse," Henderson said. "Some of it was spectacular. I think we'll stay at two miles. The way he wants to jump is to open up and go, and you can't do that over a trip – you'd never get home. When one of the others came to him, out the back, he wasn't going to get past. I do think he's very good. I hope he's top class."
Over the years Henderson has trained some brilliant chasers at this trip, and his testimony makes bookmakers seem unusually charitable in leaving Finian's Rainbow at 12-1 for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy back at the Festival.
Having said that, the hazards of his new calling became bitterly apparent in the other novice chase on the card when Tell Massini took a fatal fall at the cross fence – a devastating blow for everyone at Tom George's stable. Paul Nicholls was unaware of the calamity as he welcomed Aiteen Thirtythree, who had been left clear in the Denman colours. "I've always loved this horse, but he has just been immature," the champion trainer said. "Noel [Fehily] said he was still tanking when the other one fell, and that he just pulled himself up a bit in front. If we nurture him this season, he could come back next year for the Hennessy."
Aoup Royale (1.0 Newbury) Chasing type who travelled and jumped brightly when switched to fences on his return, only fading late over a longer trip.
Kitty Wells (7.05 Wolverhampton) Top-class pedigree and will surely improve past an initial rating of 68.
One to watch
Willie Hall (W Amos) Was decent in bumpers and was not punished after a blunder at Kelso last week.
Where the money's going
Hurricane Fly is 2-1 from 5-2 with William Hill for the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday.Reuse content