Incongruous as it seems to be suddenly engrossed by jumps racing, so soon after one of the epic occasions in Flat history, in a way it is the only possible solution. How else could you tolerably follow the deeds of Goldikova and Zenyatta, at Churchill Downs last Saturday, than with a complete shift of focus?
By its own lights, moreover, the biggest meeting to date takes the jumps season from third gear to fourth, rather than simply out of neutral. Kauto Star himself, after all, had his pipe-opener at Down Royal even as the Breeders' Cup approached its crescendo. And the opening card of a three-day fixture at Cheltenham features one of the most exciting young hurdlers to have emerged since – well, since Dunguib 12 months ago.
Dunguib, in fairness, looked the best novice in many years, having annihilated his rivals for the Champion Bumper at the 2009 Cheltenham Festival before taking slickly to obstacles. In the event, he was turned over at odds-on when returning to the Festival, in March, but his story is by no means over.
And Cue Card, every bit as dominant in his Champion Bumper as Dunguib had been 12 months previously, made just as persuasive a start over hurdles when sent up from Dorset to Aintree last month. Though he had every right to outclass those prepared to take him on that day, it was none the less an arresting performance. Stepped up in trip, he was far too keen during the early stages, but was still able to coast clear on the bridle. The return to two miles today should suit him well, but he faces much tougher rivals – several of them far more seasoned and one or two very well regarded in their own right.
Philip Hobbs, for instance, rated Dunraven Storm as one of the two best young hurdlers in his powerful stable after a proficient exhibition at Ascot a couple of weeks ago; while Paul Nicholls fields King Of The Night, the easy winner of a maiden hurdle here last month.
Horses of that ilk will provide a far more searching test of his jumping technique, but it would be dreadfully disappointing should Cue Card (1.50) fail to preserve his unbeaten record. Colin Tizzard, his trainer, certainly sounded fairly sanguine yesterday. "I didn't expect anything other than a very good race," he said. "It's Cheltenham, and at this time of year everyone wants to know how good their horses are. I think we'll find out a fair bit more about him. But on our bumper form we're a fair bit in front of these."
The other race on the card most likely to have a bearing on events back here in March is the last one. Time For Rupert and Reve De Sivola are already among the favourites for the RSA Chase, and as such could hardly be set a less indulgent task for their first steeplechase, not least with Mr Thriller and Quantitativeeasing also making a nuisance of themselves.
Reve De Sivola did not show much respect for his hurdles, proving one of the best of last season's novices even so, but has the physique and stamina reserves to reach new heights as a staying chaser. Time For Rupert, however, was thwarted only by Big Buck's himself in open company at the Festival. It is hardly a race to bet on, but an imperative one to watch, albeit that privilege will not be available to viewers of terrestrial coverage.
Those who require a rock-solid wager have one in Garde Champetre (3.00), his partnership with Nina Carberry having already proved so fertile over the cross-country fences. And Rivaliste (2.25) looks very interesting, still unexposed since his arrival from France. Nicholls had hoped that Rivaliste would prove much better than his present rating at the Festival, but his jumping let him down. If he is sharper over his fences this time, the drop in trip could prove the key to his untapped potential.
The big handicap of the meeting is the Paddy Power Gold Cup, on tomorrow's card. Last year's winner, Tranquil Sea, made a smooth resumption at Clonmel yesterday, in the process fortifying morale among those who have backed his stablemate, Catch Me, to follow in his footsteps against Long Run and company tomorrow.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Supatov (7.20 Wolverhampton) Has been given a fairly indulgent education in three maidens and retains far more scope for improvement than most eligible for such a lowly race.
Beauchamp Xerxes (7.50 Wolverhampton) Listed winner who bounced back to form after a break – gelded in the meantime – at Newmarket last month.
One to watch
Skilful (J H M Gosden) Should flourish over middle distances next year so his debut over 6f at Doncaster last weekend was an auspicious one.
Where the money's going
Big Fella Thanks is 12-1 from 16-1 with William Hill for the Hennessy Gold Cup after a promising debut for Ferdy Murphy at Carlisle on Monday.Reuse content