Entering the final week of the season, some fairly momentous business remains unfinished on the Flat.
Above all, there is the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs next weekend, with Goldikova seeking that historic fourth Mile. And then there is the no less durable figure of Paul Hanagan, staggering gamely towards another jockeys' championship. Having seen off Kieren Fallon, the poor chap has looked over the other shoulder to find Silvestre de Sousa still in implacable pursuit. Hanagan must be running on fumes and retained a lead of just three as they proceeded to Wolverhampton last night, but his rival flies out to Australia this evening to ride in the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday and that should just about settle it.
Before the final push, however, it is the jumpers who step forward today for much the most significant skirmish of their campaign to date. The Bet365 Charlie Hall Chase looks as good a race as Wetherby has staged in several seasons, certainly drawing a stronger field than the one beaten by Nacarat last year. In fact, an authoritative win for one of the less exposed runners might even cause the first whispers of dissent over the theory that Long Run only has to stay sound and jump round to retain the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March.
Teasingly, the most eligible horses in the field are united by a tendency to show their best form when fresh. Diamond Harry, indeed, has won first time out in each of his five seasons. On the other hand, he has managed no more than 13 starts in all, again disappearing after the Hennessy Gold Cup last November. Albeit off the bottom tier of the handicap that day, and so receiving 26lb from Denman back in third, he went through the race so powerfully that he appeared to have it won a mile out. He clearly has tons of ability and after just four steeplechase starts remains entitled to further progress.
It will be interesting to see how he gets on with his latest jockey, James Reveley, who will be hoping to match the edifying career breakthrough made by Will Kennedy on his big rival today, Time For Rupert. Whereas Diamond Harry will be having his third different partner in three starts, Kennedy has ridden Time For Rupert throughout his career and has certainly made the most of his opportunity. They pushed Big Buck's himself hard over hurdles at the 2010 Festival, and Time For Rupert was so adept in his first two chases last season that he started as short as 7-4 for the RSA Chase last March. Unfortunately, he did not look the same horse on the day, and it emerged that he had burst a blood vessel.
Horses with that kind of profile are often best when fresh and his trainer believes that Time For Rupert is primed to renew his Gold Cup candidature.
"I'm looking forward to it, but dreading it as well," Paul Webber confessed yesterday. "It's a hell of a race, a real humdinger to start the season proper. But I'm sure our horse has done enough work to do himself justice."
Time For Rupert's last six starts have all been round Cheltenham but he is unbeaten over sharp, flat tracks like this one in Aintree, Huntingdon, Catterick and Ludlow. And while Diamond Harry has looked especially comfortable in softer going, Time For Rupert might just prove more at home in these conditions.
Poquelin must prove his stamina, while Nacarat has his work cut out at the weights, and Weird Al must make a fresh start for his new trainer. The best value in the race is perhaps Chicago Grey, a Festival winner who looked as though he has returned in top fettle until unseating two out the other day. If any frailties resurface in the favourites, he could well take advantage. For now, however, it is only fair to make Time For Rupert (3.20) full value for his thrashing of Chicago Grey and another subsequent big winner, Quinz, at Cheltenham last December.
Whatever happens, let's hope the race gives us something to quicken the appetite for the winter ahead. Otherwise, once the dust settles on Churchill Downs next week, things might feel rather flat for a while.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Jet Away (4.25 Newmarket)
Suspicion that the race rather fell into his lap at York last time, but has sometimes threatened to prove even better than this grade.
Samurai Sword (2.05 Newmarket)
Would not be the first Godolphin second string to beat a more fancied stablemate and looked one to follow until beaten on his return at Ascot in the spring.
One to watch
Cameron Highland (Roger Varian) made a very promising start at Nottingham during the week, going best for longest before running green.
Where the money's going
Nahrain was again in demand with William Hill for the Filly and Mare Turf at the Breeders' Cup next week, now 5-1 from 6-1.