For half an hour here yesterday, after the Paul Nicholls-trained hotshot in the Champion Hurdle trial was turned over, the door to the Cheltenham title remained wide open.
Then, in the gathering gloom, through it stepped a grey horse with the equine equivalent of attention deficit syndrome. Zaynar, now unbeaten in five runs over obstacles, is the latest market leader for the big one back here in March, as short as 7-2 with the day's sponsors Boylesports.
The four-year-old, last season's leading juvenile, did no more than his 1-5 starting price for the Relkeel Hurdle implied he should, but once he put his mind to it he did it in some style. He galloped along comfortably, but lazily and with a rather sloppy technique in the air at times, and it was only as Cape Tribulation increased the pace in front and began to stretched clear that he consented to answer Barry Geraghty's demands to race in earnest.
Zaynar reeled his rival in with ease and passed the post six lengths clear, but with his ears pricked and his concentration again seemingly off with the fairies somewhere. When he won the Triumph Hurdle nine months ago, he had aid of cheekpieces to hold his focus, which will be employed again in the future. "He seems to rather go walkabout at times," said trainer Nicky Henderson of the gelding, "but be assured, come the Champion Hurdle, he'll have the headgear back on."
If Zaynar is to be the new hurdling king, he will have to dethrone his stablemate Punjabi, who ran exactly as Henderson had predicted he would in the preceding Boylesports Hurdle, fading ring-rustily to fourth after showing up well for a long way on his seasonal debut.
"He was lacking in match practice," he said, "but he travelled like the best horse for eight-tenths of the race and on that showing you'd have to say he's still the one to knock off the perch."
The surprise of the £150,000 Grade Two contest, second in value among two-milers to the Champion Hurdle itself, was the defeat of 4-7 favourite Celestial Halo, beaten only by a head by Punjabi at the Festival and race-fit after an impressive comeback last month but left flat-footed by Khyber Kim up the testing run-in yesterday.
Nicholls was phlegmatic in defeat. "Horses do get beat," he said, "and this time he was, fair and square. Perhaps the ground was a little dead for him, but I'm not really making excuses, and it will be another day in March."
Celestial Halo was pushed out a point or two for the Champion Hurdle but is still pressing another Henderson inmate, Binocular, and the two Irish contenders Hurricane Fly and Solwhit near the top of the bookmakers' lists.
Khyber Kim, a 50-1 shot in the morning, is now around a fifth of that price, and after a winless two years, yesterday's £85,000 first prize was his second valuable pot here in a month for the Nigel Twiston-Davies stable. He pounced as Celestial Halo lost momentum with an over-big leap at the last, and powered away to score by two and a quarter lengths.
The seven-year-old has never been the easiest to train, even Twiston-Davies having questioned his dedication to the cause in the past. "Something may have been hurting him," said rider Paddy Brennan, "but if something was, it's not now, and he's got his confidence back. And he's now showing what he is, a two-miler with extraordinary speed."
Khyber Kim is treated with kid-gloves at home, alternating days of light exercise and being turned out in a paddock. "We do as little with him as we can get away with to try to keep him sweet," said Twiston-Davies. "He'll tell us how he his after this – he's quite demonstrative – and we may just wrap him up now until March."
It's a rare Saturday that goes past these days without a high-profile winner for the Nicholls team and Poquelin duly obliged in the feature chase, the Boylesports Gold Cup.
The well-backed 7-2 favourite sealed victory with a spring-heeled leap at the last for Ruby Walsh and powered away from trailblazing Twiston-Davies-trained Razor Royale to score by seven lengths.