However transformed the milieu and racing surface, the many different trials staged in such grim conditions over the weekend can hardly lose all their pertinence come the Cheltenham Festival. A colossus for all seasons bestrode proceedings both at Leopardstown yesterday, when Hurricane Fly coasted through a squall of snow for his 14th Grade One success, and at Cheltenham itself the previous day, Sprinter Sacre serenely extending his unbeaten spree over fences under the whitened crags of Cleeve Hill. Horses of such class and energy are hardly going to look any more vulnerable restored to spring ground. In many other cases, however, the ink on the signpost may well prove too damp to remain legible in March.
The Cheltenham management deserves congratulation for staging the meeting at all, but some who undertook Festival reconnaissance on Saturday would not join that general vote of thanks. After congealing beneath snow-covered frost blankets for several days, the track seemed to gnaw at the limbs of many who laboured up the hill to the line. Sprinter Sacre was so superior in the Victor Chandler Chase that he proved quite impervious, but others can be indulged defeat after not quite seeing out that final climb.
These include Imperial Commander, who made a really heartening return to the fray after 22 months off the track. Admittedly that absence entitled him to receive as much as 10lb from some rivals in the Argento Chase, but he deserves credit for the undiminished enthusiasm with which he saw off all bar the highly progressive Cape Tribulation. With so much in his favour – not just the weights, but also a superb record when fresh and over this track – some will dismiss the 2010 winner's chances of now regaining the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup at the age of 12. But they should make allowances for the attrition of a race completed by only four of the 10 starters, Cape Tribulation only getting up close home with the other two beaten out of sight.
Imperial Commander is 25-1 for the Gold Cup with some bookmakers but his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, relieved to discover no sign of past infirmities yesterday morning, takes a characteristically bullish view. "It was heartbreaking to see him mugged on the line, but yet again he showed all his doubters wrong," the trainer said. "Hopefully, he is as good as ever and I think all he can do is improve. He's 100 per cent, not a bother on him."
Cape Tribulation himself was maintaining a steep curve of improvement that included a Festival success over timber last year. That was one of two in fiercely contested handicaps at the meeting for Malcolm Jefferson, and he warrants due respect for his view that Cape Tribulation has every chance of making the frame in the Gold Cup – for which he can be backed at 33-1.
It was another good day for a trainer with rather deeper resources. Aside from Sprinter Sacre, Nicky Henderson introduced a smart juvenile import from France in Rolling Star, and also seemed satisfied that Oscar Whisky had concluded the debate over his stamina when just failing to reel in Reve De Sivola in the Cleeve Hurdle – arguing that the horse would not have to be ridden so conservatively next time, not least on better ground. The two protagonists share 5-1 favouritism with the sponsors for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
Henderson was also entitled to satisfaction with Binocular's comeback effort when third to Hurricane Fly at Leopardstown. He and Willie Mullins will plainly be squaring up at the Festival as the respective flag-bearers of the home team and the Irish, and the Stan James Champion Hurdle will be the focus of their mutual attentions on its opening day. Henderson certainly has the quantity, through Grandouet and Darlan as well as Binocular, but the star quality for now remains vested in Hurricane Fly, 11-4 favourite from 7-2 with the sponsors after easily recording a third consecutive success in the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle.
"Ruby [Walsh] said he's as good as he ever saw him," Mullins said. "He gave him a squeeze off the last bend and said it was just like he had jumped in. He took off like he was on summer ground, and I just hope to keep him in that form over the next few weeks. I've had faith all year that he seems to be in the sort of form he was two years ago."
Mullins contrived a rewarding afternoon despite saddling odds-on losers in the first two races. One of them had finished behind his second string, after all, and there then followed another stylish success for Pont Alexandre in a Grade Two novice hurdle. Ladbrokes halved his odds for the Neptune Investments Novice Hurdle to 3-1. Mind you, Pont Alexandre has only ever run in deep ground, so once again punters might yet find the goalposts moved in March.
CHRIS McGRATH'S NAP: Diplomatic (1.50 Kempton)
NEXT BEST: Dixie Gwalia (1.40 Wolverhampton)
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