You might call it the best of both worlds, or simply a maddening clash that guarantees neither carnival will receive due attention. The sport's gourmets, certainly, will be exasperated to be mixing the irreconcilable flavours of Chester and the Punchestown Festival. One serves as a sort of delectable bisque on the Flat racing menu; the other, as the final course of the jumps season, is more in the order of a suet pudding. For racing gourmands, however, the late scheduling of Punchestown this year creates a quite marvellous banquet.
Overall, Chester warrants priority as the opening stage in a series of Epsom trials over the coming days, proceeding via Lingfield, Leopardstown and York. With Frankel staying at a mile, after all, a fresh map must be drawn of the Investec Derby landscape. Punchestown, in contrast, represents the last leg of a long campaign for the top jumpers. Some will doubtless prove over the top, while others will be taken off their feet on the fast ground. Just for today, however, respect for years of past service demands that Kauto Star tops the bill in the Guinness Gold Cup.
His every step now, after all, seems more precious than ever. Connections have promised they will not persevere past the first hint that he may no longer be enjoying a career that has qualified him, in his pomp, as one of the best steeplechasers of the modern era. They were vindicated in proceeding to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, after his odds-on failure at Kempton in January, albeit in the end he was again beaten a long way behind the new champion, Long Run. But the bottom line remains that he has not shown his very best form in nearly 18 months and, while short odds are guaranteed by his residual class, most will be content to back him with their hearts, rather than hard cash.
Those unsentimental enough to recognise the value elsewhere will focus on Nacarat and Kempes. A really energetic horse when on song, Nacarat has already shown no mercy to Kauto Star's longstanding sidekick, Denman, beating him out of sight at Aintree last month. Denman, in fairness, had been given little time to get over Cheltenham, whereas Kauto Star has enjoyed a nice interval to freshen up. Regardless, at 9-2 with Stan James the pick of the prices is probably Kempes, who did not run his race when sent over to Cheltenham but has otherwise progressed really well since stepping up to this kind of distance. In fact, his coming of age was in the novice championship at this meeting last year, confirming Kempes (5.30) to be especially at home on this track and ground.
The equivalent race was won yesterday by Quito De La Roque, as at Aintree not looking terribly comfortable on the going but making his class count. One or two key rivals fell, admittedly, but he has been beaten by just one horse in six starts through his novice season.
His trainer, Colm Murphy, had already won the big prize of the opening day with Big Zeb, who reversed Cheltenham form with Sizing Europe in a wholehearted duel for the Boylesports Champion Chase. Ridden by Timmy Murphy, in the absence of the injured Andrew McNamara, Sizing Europe jumped well and was again committed a long way out. This time, however, he could not break free of Big Zeb, who closed to jump the second-last upsides and had edged into the lead over the last. After Barry Geraghty dropped his whip, however, the favourite rallied to confine the margin between them at the line to three-quarters of a length.
"He's good and he's gutsy," Geraghty said. "He's willing to take a chance and Sizing Europe is the same – they don't back off. I was always able to sit comfortably behind him today, but at Cheltenham I couldn't. I suppose the spring ground here is that bit fresher, and just helped my fella. He travelled better, and jumped better."
On the first day at Chester, a suitably competitive field has assembled for one of the Turf's most venerable races, the Totesport Chester Cup. Funnily enough, two of the leading fancies could easily have run at Punchestown this week. Overturn, back to his best over hurdles last time, is ideally drawn for a front-runner but guarded preference is for Dirar (2.55). Winner of the Ebor last year, he shaped well at the Cheltenham Festival last time and you would not rule out this trainer turning him into a Cup horse in time. Tastahil, already established as one, merits huge respect as he is much better drawn than when sharing a photo last year.
The first Classic trial of the meeting is the Weatherbys Bank Cheshire Oaks, where it looks significant that Wonder Of Wonders (2.20) is shipped over just six days after her maiden success.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Blue Jack (3.30 Chester) Class act at this level, showed he goes well fresh at Newbury last year, and sure to have been primed for this by local yard, having handled track well to win a Listed race last summer.
He's So Cool (1.45 Chester) Trainer excels with precocious juveniles and this one showed ideal speed for this track when winning the Brocklesby, never looking likely to be reeled in.
One to watch
Though bred for middle distances, Cloud Rock (Peter Chapple-Hyam) was dropped to 6f for his handicap debut at Newmarket on Saturday. That looked an inspired move, despite a midfield finish, so strongly did he travel in heavy traffic.
Where the money's going
Recital, one of several Ballydoyle entries for Sunday's Derrinstown Trial at Leopardstown, is 10-1 from 12-1 with Ladbrokes for the Investec Derby.