If it's tough at the top, and tougher staying there, it must be toughest of all getting back there, as Kim Bailey will surely attest. The Gloucestershire-based trainer is one of the few men to have saddled the winners of the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Grand National, and yesterday at Wetherby the upwardly mobile Harry Topper raised hopes for a return to the glory days of Master Oats, Alderbrook and Mr Frisk.
Bailey has made no secret of the esteem in which he holds Harry Topper, but the six-year-old's otherwise satisfactory low-key first campaign over fences had ended in disarray with a fall at Kelso and a pile-up at Punchestown. Pitching him against some of the best – including Long Run – in the Charlie Hall Chase on his comeback this season posed a stern enough question, but a battling neck victory in the Grade Two contest answered it pretty soundly.
Harry Topper, yesterday's 5-1 second market choice, is not easy to either train or ride, so hats off to both Bailey and Jason Maguire, who provided confidence-imbuing hands on the reins yesterday after his mount showed clumsy, rather tentative tendencies early on.
"I knew he might be a bit sticky to start with," Maguire said, "so after those mistakes I took him wide and gave him plenty of daylight at his fences, just schooled him round and then put him in the race down the back. He stays all day, so once he got going I knew he'd see it through."
As the trailblazing Benefficient, a winner at the Cheltenham Festival in March, dropped away in the home straight, Harry Topper surged to the front and led Wayward Prince and Unioniste over the last before showing commendable determination to repel a renewed effort from the 50-1 shot Wayward Prince, also runner-up 12 months previously.
But though delighted with his young charge's performance, the always realistic Bailey was making no wildly fancy plans or promises for a still-developing horse who was running in bumpers two years ago.
"He's got guts," Bailey said, "he doesn't want to be headed and in that he's like Master Oats, he'd gallop through a brick wall for you. I've always hoped for big things from him, but he has had problems with his jumping and rather has his own way of doing it, and when he was brought down in Ireland it knocked him back mentally.
"I've always had to be patient with him and although he's got all the entries you'd expect and the Gold Cup is something we'll have to think about, we won't be in a rush with him. He's only six and has his whole career in front of him. And to be honest, today's form at the minute doesn't look great. The second is an exposed nine-year-old and although Long Run ran, it clearly wasn't the real Long Run." The Gold Cup and dual King George VI Chase hero, the 5-6 favourite, was under pressure before the turn into the home straight and trailed in a long way last of the five finishers. He has been eased in the market for this year's Boxing Day showpiece at Kempton.
The season's first Grade One contest, the JNwine.com Chase at Down Royal, also provided something of a turn-up as Roi Du Mee, the 12-1 outsider of six, made all the running to see off Sizing Europe and Prince de Beauchene.
Some things, though, maintain their order. At Wetherby, the 12-year-old Tidal Bay reprised last year's success in the Grade Two stayers' hurdle, produced with perfect timing by Sam Twiston-Davies to beat Medinas cosily in the last couple of strides in his trademark style. A few minutes later the remarkable veteran's stablemate Rolling Aces made it six in a row for their trainer, Paul Nicholls, in the Grade Two chase at Down Royal. And the day's jumping ended with Tony McCoy in hot pursuit of another career milestone as More Of That took him to within six of 4,000 winners in the Wetherby finale. The 18-times champion resumes his quest today at Carlisle.
At the $24 million Breeders' Cup meeting at Santa Anita, last night's first European challenger, Dank, took this year's total to four for the raiders, after London Bridge, Chriselliam and Outstrip on Friday night. The four-year-old beat French-trained Romantica to take the Filly & Mare Turf as 6-4 favourite, a sixth success for Newmarket trainer Sir Michael Stoute at the world's richest fixture, and a fifth for rider Ryan Moore.