On a day when tailbacks in and out of Newbury amply testified to the appeal of a free day at the races, plenty seemed eager enough to look a gift horse in the mouth.
For while those closest to Long Run expressed unqualified satisfaction with his Festival rehearsal, others discerned fresh grounds for hope that they can relieve him of the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup next month.
Regardless, his success in the Betfair Denman Chase yesterday represented a legitimate tonic to Sam Waley-Cohen, the dashing amateur who was finally riding a first winner under Rules this season. Sporting the silks of his father, Robert, he had found himself prey to some fairly witless barbs after consecutive defeats this winter at the hands of a rejuvenated Kauto Star. And, albeit in a field lacking numbers or aggression to put his mount off his stride, Waley-Cohen got a pleasing round of jumping out of Long Run before driving him out to beat his stablemate, Burton Port, by half a length.
It was the best part of four lengths back to What A Friend and, with the placed horses receiving a hefty 10lb, that must be counted pretty solid form. It looked hard work on the run to the line, however, and it was difficult to say quite how much Long Run had in reserve. Waley-Cohen was adamant that he was merely idling but Burton Port, given a judicious ride after his long absence, was closing with every stride.
The Gold Cup sponsors measured these ambiguities by easing Long Run to 5-2 from 2-1, and trimming Kauto Star to 3-1 from 7-2. Burton Port, last seen finishing with similar purpose over the same turf in Diamond Harry's Hennessy, is down to 14-1 from 33-1.
Nicky Henderson, trainer of the first two, only found reasons to be cheerful. "Long Run has jumped great and taken him there tanking," he said. "Sam said there was loads left. But the other horse will go there, as well. He always did it on the track, but he has been amazing us all at home. He seems a completely different horse."
Waley-Cohen was justifiably relieved. "This is what it's all about," he said. "All those mornings in the frost and rain are worth it for something like that. He was a bit cocky at the water jump, and he'll learn from that, but otherwise he jumped really well. Everything about him today suggested he was really up for it. That'll be good for his confidence, and for mine as well."
His father expressed the hope that nobody will persist with quibbles over Long Run's jumping. "I couldn't be happier," he said. "He was giving a lot of weight to good horses, and will be meeting them on levels in the Gold Cup."
Come the Festival, though, it would be a bit much for anyone to hope that Long Run could match the extravagance of Sprinter Sacre in the opener. This horse has the clear potential to overtake even Long Run in the pecking order at Seven Barrows – or anywhere else, for that matter. Tried against seasoned rivals here, he looked as though he were simply lobbing down to the start as he retained a lead of six lengths on the run-in. He is now no better than 6-4 for his return to novice company in the Racing Post Arkle Chase.
"I'm not sure I've ever ridden anything like that," his jockey, Barry Geraghty, confessed. "He's electric. You can never take anything for granted – Cheltenham's a different place, and he'd want to switch off as well. But he's an unbelievable horse."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Art Professor (3.35 Ascot)
Raised only 1lb for a superb effort in defeat at Cheltenham last time, rallying up the hill through a field full of unexposed rivals, and has long promised to relish this longer distance.
Little Josh (3.00 Ascot)
Could be the value here after shaping well on his comeback last month, failing to get home over a longer trip but travelling like a horse ready to resume the progress of early last season.
One To Watch
Hada Men (Brian Ellison) has prospered since changing stable.
Where The Money's Going
Sir Des Champs is 7-1 from 8-1 with William Hill for the Jewson Novices' Chase at Cheltenham next month.