When hindsight tells you exactly the same as first impressions, seeing really can be believing. It is all too easy, of course, to get carried away with the sort of performance that won both the novice chases at Newbury yesterday. With experience, you learn to restore perspectives – to remind yourself that championship races will ask very different questions from those answered so extravagantly, at the expense of just three and five rivals respectively, by Michel Le Bon and Riverside Theatre. But then you remember Denman.
Three years ago, Denman came to this meeting and looked a Gold Cup horse in the making as he outclassed just three others. Sure enough, after returning here the following year to win the Hennessy itself, he proceeded to Cheltenham and won the Gold Cup.
Clearly, things seldom work out quite like that. This afternoon, however, Punchestowns will seek to borrow the same air of destiny when he lines up for the equivalent race, likewise against just three rivals. And, in fairness, you could not be at all certain where Michel Le Bon will discover the limits of his potential.
Paul Nicholls knows that some day he will have neither Denman – who must give weight to 20 others in his bid for a second Hennessy tomorrow – nor Kauto Star. And that is where an exquisite tension enters the early career of a horse like Michel Le Bon.
Having proved his mastery with the type, Nicholls is not going to ask this one to run before he can walk. Michel Le Bon can certainly gallop, as he showed in freewheeling clear of Pettifour – who eventually discarded his rider two out, exhausted by his pursuit – in the GPG Novice Chase over three miles. But despite being so obviously built for fences that Nicholls confined him to three starts over hurdles last season, he cannot yet be said to jump.
Not so much because he hit a couple of fences – after all, he also made several pretty flamboyant leaps under Tony McCoy – but sooner because of the caveats offered by Nicholls himself. "He has obviously got a huge engine," the champion trainer said. "But he's just been very green, schooling. I had him ready to run at Wincanton a fortnight ago, but he wasn't jumping well enough. He has schooled every day this week. Tony was brilliant out there, and will have taught him a lot. Today could be the making of his career. He's going to be some horse one day, but I'm not going to be aiming too high until I can get some more experience into him. He just wants nurturing, and it might be that we don't see the best of him until next season."
Over barely two miles, in contrast, Riverside Theatre looked a natural, jumping briskly throughout under Barry Geraghty and careering 28 lengths clear in the colours of Jimmy Nesbitt and his partners. The actor's involvement will certainly enliven this horse's journey over fences, potentially all the way to the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham – for which Totesport is already quoting him at just 12-1.
His trainer, Nicky Henderson, felt that Riverside Theatre had relished the strong gallop. "They didn't mess about out there and that's the way he would want it," he said. "He was very good in the jumping department – he was good long, he got height, and when he reached for the cross fence, he was away and out from it, and gone."
Henderson would probably settle for something half as good from Punchestowns, a top-class hurdler who has long looked a chasing type. His good form was later reiterated by Oscar Whiskey, who landed the odds in the bumper, and today the yard also introduces a smart graduate from that sphere, Bellvano, in the maiden hurdle.
The card, meanwhile, opens with a good opportunity for Mille Chief to confirm the impression he made on his British debut at Market Rasen, still cantering when brought down two out. Alan King has a fine record with juveniles and this one, imported from the same French stable as Walkon last year, is already favourite for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
Ruby Walsh will be at Newbury today for Nicholls, having yesterday turned down Michel Le Bon in order to ride for his other main patron, Willie Mullins, over at Thurles. Nor did the novice he ended up riding instead offer him any kind of reward, Apt Approach throwing away victory when demanding a rodeo recovery over the last; Equus Maximus, meanwhile, disappointed behind Coolcashin, who confirmed himself the latest tough nut in the care of the Bowe family. It was only 11 days since he had a very hard race at Punchestown, but he responded gamely to get up by a neck and is clearly hewn from the same rock as Limestone Lad and Solerina.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Capone (3.05 Lingfield) Has made quick progress for his new stable, much improved when foiled only by a thriving rival at Kempton last time.
Bob's Dream (1.30 Newbury) Faces a potential banana skin here in Rivaliste. However, Bob's Dream pulled clear of a well treated rival at Kelso last time.
One to watch
Brimham Boy (M Keighley) failed to get home in the testing ground at Uttoxeter yesterday, but left no doubt that he can prove better than his rating.
Where the money's going
British raiders Presvis (3-1) and Youmzain (7-2) were yesterday installed as Coral's second favourites for the Hong Kong Cup and Vase respectively at Sha Tin next month.