Master Minded hands out expected lesson to rivals

Best jumper in training posts an exhibition round to land Victor Chandler Chase
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All the running of the Victor ChandlerChase revealed about the 16-length winner, Master Minded, is that the highest-rated jumper in the world is fit, has a sound leg at each corner and will start the shortest-priced favourite at the Cheltenham Festival when he defends his two-mile crown. If the six-year-old had lost the Grade One contest it would have been a case of man bites dog; as it was, his exhibition round, with Petit Robin best of his rivals, was nothing more thanwas expected.

The Paul Nicholls-trained six-year-old started at 1-4 yesterday, and a guaranteed 25 per cent return on any investment in just 4min 16 sec compares highly favourably with any savings bank, Icelandic or otherwise. In March he will rival Flyingbolt, the winner at 1-5 in 1966, as the hottest Champion Chase shot on record.

Flyingbolt was a freak. Three months before his runaway Festival victory he had won the two-and-a-half-mile handicap that is now the Boylesports Chase at Cheltenham, by 15 lengths under 12st 6lb, and the day after finished a close third in the Champion Hurdle. Later in the season he took the Irish Grand National over three miles five, carrying 12st. At his best, he was rated by Timeform at 210, just 2lb short of his Tom Dreaper stablemate Arkle. By comparison, the racing form bible had Master Mindedon a mark of 193 yesterday.

For the gelding's jockey, Ruby Walsh, the thrill of riding such a beast cannot be expressed in pounds – sterling or avoirdupois. "I've been on horses who have done wonderful things on different days," he said. "Denman, Kauto Star, Papillon. But this fella seems to do it every day, every time. He is simply incredible to ride. He just finds everything so easy. To me he is one in a million."

If Master Minded's technique over a fence is a joy to watch – the leaps he threw in at the fourth and seventh obstacles yesterday produced gasps and ripples of applause from those in the grandstand – it is apparently even better experienced from the saddle.

"I know Papillon was only a handi-capper," said Walsh, "but he did win me a Grand National and I thought I'd never ride a better leaper again, he used to get that high and far through the air. But the way this horse does it is truly special. Most horses will raise their heads and necks going to a fence, but this one doesn't. His scope comes through keeping them still and level and jumping through his shoulders."

When Master Minded joined Nicholls' team 18 months ago as a winner of three chases in his native France, his range was apparent but relatively raw. Education and experience has harnessed and honed his talent to produce something exceptional.

"People say horses know they're good," added Walsh, "but that's not quite right; they're only horses, after all. But what they do know is the limit of their ability. If a horse refuses a fence it's because he knows he can't jump it, and if he attacks it it's because he knows he can.

"This horse is aware of his power and sometimes in the past he's been a bit too keen to use it, standing off from way too far. But as he's settled and matured he's realised that he's enough of an athlete to go to the boards of a fence and still jump it comfortably. In a top-level two-mile chase you don't have time to do any organising with strides – if you do you'll land five lengths adrift of where you were – so you have to leave it to the horse, and this one is now as good from close in as he is from far out."

The next chance to appreciate Master Minded will come next month at Newbury, where the Game Spirit Chase will be his warm-up before Cheltenham.

Others laying down their Festival credentials here yesterday met with mixed fortune. Master Minded's highly regarded stablemate FreeWorld, in the same Clive Smith colours, failed to cope with the rain-softened ground when upstaged in the Grade Two novices' chase by Panjo Bere, the surprise 16-1 winner, and Calgary Bay; young hurdlers Zaynar and Karabak both passed their tests with ease.

Panjo Bere and Calgary Bay, who was conceding 6lb and lost little caste in a three-quarter-length defeat, will meet again in the Arkle Trophy.

"To be honest," said the winning rider, Jamie Moore, son of Sussex-based trainer Gary, "I didn't think he'd be good enough to beat the big two today, but he loved the ground and was winging every fence, and every time he did he gained confidence. And as he did, I did. It was a good combination."