With Cheltenham now just 16 days away and the senior stars fully honed, ready and waiting, it was the turn yesterday of the young guns to get in one last bit of match practice before the big game.
None of them made more of an impression than Irving, who confirmed himself the leader of the home side's challenge for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle with a comfortable success in the Grade Two trial at Kempton. The Paul Nicholls-trained six-year-old now has only Vautour, from Willie Mullins's yard, ahead of him in the betting for the two-mile novices' crown, setting up a classic Anglo-Irish showdown in the Festival opener.
Irving, sympathetically ridden by Nick Scholfield, cruised past the trailblazing Amore Alato after the second-last obstacle and, despite a misjudgement at the last, pulled five lengths clear on the run-in. He is now four from four over hurdles and, in the opinion of both his trainer and rider, will improve for underfoot conditions less testing than yesterday's.
"The ground was holding and dead," said Scholfield, "and early on he wasn't travelling with his usual zest, though he picked up well on it when I asked. He'll be so much better when I can let him stride on and wing them."
The Singspiel gelding, recruited from Germany after winning four times on the Flat, is judged a 4-1 shot for the Supreme by sponsors Sky Bet, with Vautour 11-4. "He's got all the speed in the world," said Nicholls, "and faster ground will sharpen his jumping. He's a proper horse."
The victory of Activial in the equivalent juvenile contest was as authoritative, but whether or not he lines up for the Triumph Hurdle remains to be seen. "We've loved him since the day he turned up in the yard," said his trainer, Harry Fry, "but he'll be better next year and is a chaser for the future."
Activial's three-and-a-half-length defeat of Commissioned had the knock-on effect of his own last-time-out conqueror, Calipto – in the care of Nicholls, Fry's old boss – hardening as 5-1 favourite for next month's four-year-old feature. Commissioned's trainer, John Ferguson, was encouraged by his inexperienced charge's performance, knowing he has a much better one at home in Broughton.
The afternoon's richest prize went to the smallest stable represented, that of Caroline Keevil, as Bally Legend stayed on stoutly to beat Bury Parade, blocked and switched in his challenge, and the favourite, Tour Des Champs, in the BetBright Chase. The 28-1 chance, ridden by Ian Popham, was the Dorset-based Keevil's 100th runner of the season (Bury Parade was Nicholls's 415th) and the £100,000 Grade Three handicap the biggest success of her career.
At Newcastle, Wyck Hill and Smoking Aces notched a one-two for their owner, J P McManus, in the Eider Chase, at four miles and a furlong the third-longest race in the domestic calendar and a traditional Grand National pointer.
The winner, trained by David Bridgewater, can now be backed at 25-1 for the Aintree showpiece, as can On His Own, who gave Mullins his fifth success in the Bobbyjo Chase in 10 years as he turned one of Ireland's most reliable National trials into a procession.