Having won the Tingle Creek Chase on the horse who is officially the best jumper in training, Master Minded, Tony McCoy admitted that he is not looking forward to the gelding's challenge for a second successive Queen Mother Champion Chase come the Cheltenham Festival. "The chances are that I'll be riding something else," he said, "in which case all I'll get is a view of this one's backside."
That McCoy was drafted in to ride the Paul Nicholls-trained crack yesterday with the Somerset stable's number two rider Sam Thomas, himself deputising for injured Ruby Walsh, suffering a crisis of confidence after a series of missed sitters, has been well documented. On the book Master Minded, making his seasonal debut, was a penalty kick but, given the pressure of the importance of victory, never can a goalmouth have looked so small.
If any man could step up to the plate ice-bloodedly, though, it was 13-time champion McCoy. "There is pressure in this job to a certain extent every day, which you get used to," he said, "but obviously there is more with the bigger races, and with certain sets of circumstances, and if you don't feel it then you're not doing the job right. But out there I have to forget it and just try to put the horse in the right place to jump the fences and run to his best."
To that end, McCoy found the posts moved further inwards at the first fence, where German raider Fiepes Shuffle over-jumped and came down in the lead and Master Minded, next over the obstacle, had to react with mental and physical agility to skip over the sprawling form. Then, as the faller got up unscathed and overtook his rivals, he became a hazardous mobile chicane.
Master Minded, not knowing the potential for disaster a riderless horse represents, jumped accurately, cleverly and boldly in front, leaving his jockey to fret. "The whole way round all I was worrying about the loose one,"McCoy said. "I couldn't relax until he peeled off and went up the hurdles track on the home turn. After that, I was able to ask mine to quicken and win the race. The acceleration he produced was like the excitement of holding a winning lottery ticket.
"Riding a two-mile chaser with his speed and power is what you live for as a jump jockey. He's an absolute machine. I've always thought Moscow Flyer was the best two-miler I'd ever see but this guy could be better."
Master Minded produced a showboat leap at the last and strode up the hill to win by 10 lengths from the Howard Johnson-trained Tidal Bay, followed in by another Nicholls runner, Takeroc. The third from the yard, last year's winner Twist Magic, fell two out when in contention for a place.
Master Minded is now long odds-on for another Champion Chase and Tidal Bay will not be taking him on again. "He showed his battling qualities and wasn't punished for second," said Johnson of the seven-year-old, who may step up to three miles in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.
The Grade One feature was the second leg of a 196-1 four-timer for McCoy (his second on successive Saturdays), after Clay Hollister and before Sunnyhillboy and Kilbeggan Blade. But even he could not galvanise Free World to repel the late thrust of Araldur, a giant chestnut of infinite potential trained by Alan King, as the two French-bred four-year-olds left their rivals behind in the Henry VIII Novices' Chase.
At Chepstow, hapless Thomas continued his rocky spell. He rode four favourites and ended his day with a win, two seconds, an unseating and a one-day ban.
Nicholls preferred to concentrate on the positives, though he admitted to relief after Master Minded's dominant performance. "Things have been up and down and there has been pressure," he said, "but that is the nature of sport. You can't win every time and you have to take the rough with the smooth. People have been making rather too much of the fact that we seem to have been having a bad time but we have actually made a better start to the season than ever before."
Master Minded's pre-Cheltenham target is likely to be the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February. "He's still improving and can only get better," added Nicholls, "and today was the perfect start for him."
A good start to the campaign, too, for two hurdlers with the top title as their target. At Wetherby, in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Punjabi rallied to beat Sublimity a neck. Punjabi, the 15th winner for Nicky Henderson in 14 days, is now on the trail of a £1m bonus which will be his should he win Kempton's Christmas Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle itself.