His first Festival as a jumps trainer could hardly have left John Ferguson better versed in the extremes of his new calling. He arrived at Cheltenham with a strike rate that reflected the high standards – both in the quality of horses, and their preparation – he had introduced from his continued service as bloodstock manager to Sheikh Mohammed. But he came away only with bittersweet satisfaction: in one of the novice hurdles, Cotton Mill had still been going great guns when running out at the second last; while New Year's Eve ran a blinder in the bumper, only to bump into a Willie Mullins special.
At least both had reiterated Ferguson's astute sense of where his horses properly belong. And his judgement will duly command utmost respect, when he finally settles on a target for Cotton Mill this time round. Having kept his powder dry until the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury last month, Ferguson was delighted to see Cotton Mill beat all bar the scintillating novice My Tent Or Yours. Now he must choose between another handicap, either the Coral Cup or the County Hurdle, or the Stan James Champion Hurdle itself.
"I suspect that he will end up a weight-for-age horse," Ferguson said. "In which case, this might be his last chance [to run in a handicap]. Obviously, that makes it very tempting. On the other hand, so is the Champion – because he's a good horse, and things happen in horse racing. The great thing is that we don't have to decide yet. So we won't, until the middle of next week at least."
If running in such a competitive race first time out looked fairly audacious, it was no mere stunt. "Although he's a Tiger Hill, and they tend to love soft ground, I just felt running him on heavy wouldn't do him any good," Ferguson explained. "Remember, he's a brother to an Irish Oaks winner, a relatively fragile horse with bags of enthusiasm. So while we had him ready to run at various times, we refused to pull the trigger. We did end up doing quite a lot of hanging around, but it nearly paid off at Newbury."
There was talk afterwards that My Tent Or Yours might himself be fast-tracked to the Champion, but he will instead start hot favourite for the big novice race that opens the meeting on Tuesday week. "If My Tent Or Yours didn't exist, and we had won the Betfair, you'd very much be thinking of the Champion," Ferguson admitted. "And, of course, My Tent Or Yours is not running there, so maybe you should continue thinking that way. Equally, if you can be placed in a Champion, you should be able to win a County."
The gruelling midwinter conditions also prevented Ferguson giving some of his next crop of novices the education he feels imperative for the Festival. As a result, he expects to end up with a pretty small team. "I would think Whispering Gallery, for instance, will miss Cheltenham," he said. "We'll run Darley Sun [the 2009 Cesarewitch winner] at Huntingdon on Sunday, and then see what might still slot in and where. I do think you have to build these young horses, and because of the bad weather we haven't been able to do that. Bordoni and Ruacana have had their grounding, and they'd be ready for the Fred Winter and Triumph. But I don't want to overface those that have had just one or two runs."
The Weatherbys Champion Bumper is a different ball game, of course, and Purple Bay is expected to build on a narrow debut success at Doncaster. "He had a wall of horses to get round as the second went clear," Ferguson said. "It was nine lengths back to the rest and he has come out of it very well."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Angelina Ballerina (8.40 Wolverhampton) Restored to senior professional after just failing to reel in the winner in a boys' race last time.
Sommersturm (5.40 Wolverhampton) Responding well to a typically no-nonsense campaign for his new trainer.
One to watch
According To Trev (Nigel Twiston-Davies) Is expected by his trainer to prove a different horse on better ground in the Pertemps Final at the Festival.
Where the money's going
Anquetta is 14-1 from 20-1 with William Hill for the Grand Annual Chase at Cheltenham.