Not so much an ill wind as an evil freeze, but whatever the wicked weather its good was directed at those who braved the dank chill at Newbury yesterday. A dearth of opportunities in the past three weeks meant that more potentially high-class young horses grabbed the chances offered by the Berkshire venue to present their Cheltenham Festival claims than might otherwise have been the case.
The most exciting among them is the Nicky Henderson-trained giant Mad Max, a galloping 17-hands-plus embodiment of the time-honoured notion of hurdles exploits being but a bonus before he goes chasing. So far, his record is faultless; yesterday's win was his fourth in as many runs.
The Kayf Tara seven-year-old, 4-5 favourite for his novices' contest, dominated his 15 rivals in terms of the size of both chassis and engine, despite some over-revving and a tendency to behave like a dodgem car. He was hard against Tony McCoy's hands for much of the race and then landed clumsily four-footed over the last after clattering the top bar and had to re-gather and re-balance his massive, lolloping stride.
He still had three and a half lengths to spare over Pause And Clause and Shoreacres, who had pursued him gallantly but vainly from two out. McCoy was not blind to his mount's faults, however minor, though. "He's pretty smart," he said. "But he'd be even better if he relaxed; he was travelling a bit too well for his own good. And he sometimes doesn't respect the hurdles as much as he should, but then we'll probably not see the best of his jumping until he gets to fences."
Before that, Mad Max will be pitted against the best in his division, though his target in March has yet to be confirmed. He is double the price, around 16-1, for the two-mile Supreme Novices' Hurdle, than for the longer Ballymore Properties Hurdle. "On tacky ground like today's we might want to drop in trip," said Henderson, "but on good or faster he'd want to go two and a half. We'll sit on the fence for the moment."
One thing inked in Mad Max's diary is an appointment with the Seven Barrows vet. As with many oversized horses, every millimetre of clear airway counts in getting oxygen to his lungs and although he has already had one operation to repair a faulty soft palate, McCoy felt it was time for another. "He'll need it doing again," admitted Henderson, "but it's only two weeks off, so it's no problem."
Mad Max is the result of a flash of intuition 10 years ago from his breeder, Paul Murphy, a 59-year-old from Staffordshire whose sale of two businesses enabled him to indulge his hobby. "I saw a big, strong mare win over fences at Ascot and I determined that day to buy her when she finished racing," he said. "I succeeded, and all three of her foals I've raced have won."
The mare, Carole's Crusader, won seven times for Carole Winkworth, who now has a half-share in Mad Max with Murphy. Her other successes are Carole's Legacy and Jayne's Crusader, with two more offspring in the pipeline. "One thing they have in common is their size," added Murphy. "When I look at a field of youngsters, I know which are mine from 500 yards."
Mad Max was one of three winners for Henderson and McCoy yesterday. In the opening juvenile race, Optimus Maximus confirmed the extraordinary strength in depth of the Lambourn yard's hurdlers and in the closing bumper Zazamix added to its haul in what is another specialist subject.
Henderson has the Triumph Hurdle favourite in Zaynar, and the Fred Winter Hurdle is regarded as a more realistic target for Optimus Maximus.
Away from the gloom of Britain, the world's richest racing festival gets under way today. Nearly 30 nations will compete at the Dubai Carnival, which culminates in the World Cup at the end of March. The first card features a clash between Godolphin's My Indy and Mike de Kock's Art Of War in the first round of the Maktoum Challenge.