Flat racing obeys Nature by treating spring as a time of renewal, and so introduces us to one of the Derby favourites at Nottingham today. For the jumpers, however, these are days of valediction. The Punchestown Festival will settle both the riding and training championships in Ireland, while the big race there today represents one last lap for one of the most honoured achievers of modern steeplechasing, Beef Or Salmon.
Yesterday, however, these contrasting themes were joined in Jered, who closed his first campaign over hurdles with a performance that already kindles excitement for next winter. The decision to miss Cheltenham last month has arguably been the making of Jered, who instead fed his confidence at Fairyhouse. He won with such flair there that he was sent off favourite for the VC Bet Champion Novices' Hurdle, even though his rivals included Fiveforthree, himself a winner at Cheltenham on only his second start over hurdles. This was partly because Fiveforthree was dropping back to two miles on faster ground, but also reflected the fact that Noel Meade, his trainer, has long considered Jered a star in the making. He will not be alone in that opinion now.
In what amounted to an admission of insecurity over this different assignment, Fiveforthree was immediately sent into the lead by Ruby Walsh. Far from drawing his rival's sting, however, he succeeded only in helping Jered to settle, and Fiveforthree had already been passed by Salford City when Cork All Star, who has jumped ineptly all season, fell three out. Tony McCoy always had the new leader covered, however, and sent Jered hurtling clear approaching the last. The sponsor, Victor Chandler, promptly cut his Smurfit Champion Hurdle odds from 25-1 to 12-1.
"We've always thought the world of him," Meade confirmed. "He jumped super and has a lovely turn of foot on good ground. Missing Cheltenham worked out as the ground wouldn't have suited him. I hope he'll go to the top next year."
This nudged Meade ahead of his rival for the trainers' title, Willie Mullins, but each has ample opportunity to keep a narrow lead changing hands until Saturday. In the riding championship Davy Russell has his work cut out after Walsh's win on Twist Magic in the Kerrygold Champion Chase extended the margin between them to six.
Twist Magic had run deplorably at Cheltenham but was always going best here, despite some fairly slipshod jumping. Things got pretty desperate on the run-in, however, when his stablemate Natal challenged grimly, and it was startling to hear that Nicholls plans to run him again at Sandown on Saturday. "This ground makes a massive difference to him, and the tongue-tie worked today," he said. "It's a good pot on Saturday and he'll be out in a field in a fortnight, so we might as well have a go."
Nicholls, of course, has long sealed the defence of his own training championship – a priority that has tended to confine his Irish raids in years past. But such horses as he has brought to Punchestown have been hard to beat, and he is optimistic that Neptune Collonges can retain the Guinness Gold Cup today after excelling in his supporting role behind Denman and Kauto Star at Cheltenham.
The third Grade One prize of the day was also plundered by the British, Air Force One jumping his rivals into submission under a bold ride from Noel Fehily. Charlie Mann, his trainer, had been dismayed by his performance at Cheltenham. "But he just could not jump out of the ground," he said. "I did the right thing by missing Aintree, and going to a Mickey Mouse race at Market Rasen. He came out of that jumping out of his skin after winning by 133 lengths."
Whether the claims made for Curtain Call during the winter have been similarly exaggerated may become apparent at Nottingham today when his reappearance – and first start since his transfer from Jessica Harrington to Luca Cumani – is screened by BBC2. This fixture is usually staged at Epsom, where building continues, and as such Curtain Call's race has forfeited its merit as an opportunity for reconnaissance of Tattenham Corner.
Curtain Call was considered over the top when disappointing in the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster, but had previously impressed in a Group Two race at the Curragh. He is as short as 10-1 second favourite for the Vodafone Derby with Coral, behind Twice Over on 4-1.
CATTERICK 2.00 Syrup 2.35 Highland Laddie 3.10 Planetarium 3.45 Grand Value 4.20 Leyte Gulf 4.55 Kyzer Chief 5.30 Orotund
WORCESTER 5.35 Millitant Man 6.05 Doubly Sharp 6.35 Heebie Jeebie 7.05 Quinte Du Chatelet 7.35 Play With Fire 8.05 Blue Dark