This was all about absent friends. Most obviously, the exuberance and vitality of The Listener evoked a grim disparity in the condition of his trainer, Robert Alner, still stricken three months after his car accident. But for those who could bring themselves to dwell on the more trivial dimensions of the Dorset grey's success in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup here yesterday, it also called Denman to mind.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Denman had reiterated his status as an authentic threat to his next-door neighbour, Kauto Star, with another brutal exhibition at Newbury. But he only had three inferiors to put to through the shredder there, and his Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials gained far more substance from what happened at Leopardstown.
The Listener, making his sixth visit to Ireland in seven starts, had been bludgeoned into submission by Denman when they ran over course and distance at the Christmas meeting. The runner-up, Turko, is trained by Paul Nicholls, who also happens to train both Kauto Star and Denman and candidly acknowledged that it would be "pointless" for Turko to take them on at Cheltenham. And while the third home, Snowy Morning, ran so well that he is now clear favourite for the John Smith's Grand National, he was thrashed 10 lengths by Denman when they met as novices at the Festival last year.
The inescapable conclusion is that Denman, who has barely come off the bridle over fences, will surely provide the most searching test of Kauto Star's career. It is now a case of praying that all remains well with both horses until 14 March, not least with Kauto Star's projected rehearsal at Ascot on Saturday in mind. "It's a career best by Turko," Nicholls noted dutifully. "But yes, it's not a bad result for Denman either. The form's outstanding."
Denman was one of four winners for Nicholls at Newbury, and while Martin Pipe may once have achieved similar supremacy in terms of quantity, not even he ever had such depth of quality. Ruby Walsh, who has already surrendered Denman to his deputy, Sam Thomas, in the Gold Cup, now faces another awkward choice in the Queen Mother Champion Chase: Master Minded, himself breathtaking at Newbury, or Twist Magic?
Either way, Walsh's chief patron on this side of the Irish Sea, Willie Mullins, will be optimistic of prising the best National jockey of his generation away from Nicholls for Snowy Morning. At Aintree, admittedly, the horse might not get away with the sort of mistake he made at the third last here, but Walsh was very taken with the way the horse rallied up the straight.
The Listener had long since fled, however, responding to a bold ride from Daryl Jacob with several leaps that would serve him well in a National, if ever he were given an entry. He did drift right a number of times times, enabling Mister Top Notch to close smoothly on the home turn, but he was soon bounding clear again and had five and a half lengths in hand at the post.
Even a prize like this can scarcely be proposed as any kind of tonic to Alner and his wife, Sally, just now. But he has been making sufficient progress to have been stirred by their success in the Welsh National with Miko De Beauchene, and this most popular and respected of horsemen will apparently have found no less comfort in The Listener.
"Robert is getting better and is now being taken outside for fresh air by the hospital staff," Nick Mitchell, his assistant, explained. "He has a TV and a computer next to his bed, so he will have been fully aware of what has happened."
The Listener was only 11th in the Gold Cup last year, and Mitchell acknowledged that the Ryanair Chase might prove a more suitable option at the Festival. "Most horses who win this race walk up the run-in, but he has pulled away again when they came to him," he observed. "That's down to the ride Daryl gave him, keeping a little up his sleeve. We fell short against Denman last time, and I can't really see it being turned around, and he does have enough pace for the Ryanair. But we'll think about it. Kauto Star and Denman might scare a few away."
Coral pointed them towards the shorter race, where he is their 4-1 favourite. He is 25-1 for the Gold Cup. The best prices against the big two now are 5-4 (Totesport) against Kauto Star, and 2-1 (Ladbrokes and Hills, among others) against Denman.
Mullins indicated that Snowy Morning would complete his Aintree preparations in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse next month. He had earlier saddled J'y Vole to profit from her mares' allowance in the Dr P J Moriarty Novices' Chase, rallying past Big Zeb after losing momentum at the final ditch. "She did everything wrong today but still won," he said. "She must have a huge engine to win after that mistake. But three miles might bottom her at Cheltenham, and she might not have enough speed for the Arkle."
There was no equivocation over the destination of Forpadydeplasterer after his game defeat of Cork All Star in the other Grade One race, the Deloitte Hurdle. Trained by Tom Cooper for a raucous syndicate – headed by a one-legged publican – this horse will cause bedlam at Cheltenham if he wins the Ballymore Properties Novice Hurdle. "We've been running him over shorter to teach him to race at speed," Cooper explained. "He will be twice the horse over a trip. And wait till you see him over fences next year!"
Though maybe even Cooper might not be in too much of a hurry to meet Denman.
Nap: Half Cocked (Plumpton 4.55)
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