If Reinhold Messner can climb Everest without oxygen, then a horse can gallop three miles round Towcester on the bridle. Only rarely, however, do you see this stiffest of tracks completed with the exuberance that suffused Highland Lodge in his first novice chase yesterday.
Impressive in two novice hurdles last season, Highland Lodge disappeared after an odds-on reverse at Warwick in January. But his trainer, Emma Lavelle, having ended her best campaign to date with 42 winners, remained confident he could elevate her Andover stable to fresh heights. Sure enough, after a mild stumble over the first, Highland Lodge saw off some useful rivals with a bold round of jumping in front, easing five lengths clear on the climb to the post.
"He's a smart horse, with a proper way of doing things," Lavelle said. "When he won at Haydock last year, it was beyond bottomless – and I think he just left the rest of his season there. He hung badly right at Warwick, and I don't think there was anything left in the tank. But chasing was always going to be what he'd be best at, and it certainly looked that way today."
After Highland Lodge won a point-to-point in Ireland, Lavelle and her assistant, Barry Fenton, were convinced he would prove far beyond their budget at the sales. Yet somehow they managed to secure him for just €35,000 (£27,900). "Maybe everyone was too busy drinking," Lavelle said. "I've absolutely no idea how it happened. I remember saying there was no point even going in to see him sold, but Barry said not to be ridiculous, at least to go in and watch. We started the bidding at €5,000 and when we got him we had absolutely nothing left."
Alterations to novice chase conditions have rendered the midweek scene so competitive that it is harder to give a horse like this experience in a lesser grade. "But I wanted to get today out of the way before making any plans," Lavelle said. "We've always thought masses of this horse and were just anxious to see him do everything right. What was nice was that the ground was quite decent, so for him to show that pace opens up a few doors."
After scoring with another Irish import, Shotgun Paddy, at Chepstow the previous day, Lavelle hopes her yard has now kicked into top gear after a quiet start. "A lot of ours have started out a bit gassy, they've been fresh and needed it, whereas now, hopefully, they're a bit closer to spot on," she said. "Gullinbursti was a prime case in point, racing with the choke out at Exeter the other day, but I still thought he ran a nice race and he has come on a bundle."
Court In Motion, cantering on the home turn before fading into third at the Festival, makes his own chasing debut at Wincanton tomorrow. "That's if we get the rain on Friday," Lavelle said. "I'm not totally convinced he saw out three miles last season, so we're taking a bit of a shot in the dark over a shorter distance. But he seems in really good order, and schooled brilliantly this morning."
The Turf, meanwhile, bade a couple of high-profile farewells – one, it seems safe to say, with a rather heavier heart than the other. Frankel, who retired unbeaten after his 14th race at Ascot last month, left Warren Place for the nearby stud where he begins his stallion career in the new year. And Paul Scotney, not always a darling of the professional community during 10 years of anti-corruption work for the British Horseracing Authority, is stepping down from his full-time role by mutual agreement. A consultancy role beckons, extending to other sports.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Mawhub (7.20 Wolverhampton) Much the least exposed of these and this sharper track will suit after he just failed to see things out after travelling strongly at Kempton last month.
Get The Papers (3.00 Hexham) Deeply impressive in an Irish point-to-point, and could be value on his debut for a small yard that can be relied upon to make the most of his talent.
One to watch
Sohar (James Toller) Opened up new horizons tried over two miles at Newmarket last week, only worn down late and well clear of the third.
Where the money's going
Cue Card is 9-1 from 10-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.