As Master Minded repelled Somersby by the width of his whiskers after a down-and-dirty scrap in the mud to take the Victor Chandler Chase here at Ascot yesterday, the first reaction of his trainer,Paul Nicholls, was consternation. A win it was for the eight-year-old, his seventh at Grade One level, but the former two-mile champion is associated with imperious wide margins, not desperate, diminishing short-heads.
After talking to the winning rider, Tony McCoy, though, Nicholls breathed more easily. The form of the five-times champion trainer's string has been under scrutiny, even though the man himself is happy that his recent poor strike-rate is merely his usual January dip before the build-up to Cheltenham. But Master Minded, the former two-mile champion and rated a long way clear of any of his rivals yesterday, was supposed to steady the ship. "I was pretty disappointed, no question, that he didn't win more easily and was thinking that maybe we really were in a bit of trouble," said Nicholls. "But the first thing Tony said to me was that even though he'd won, he'd given him a bollocks of a ride, making too much use of him too soon in heavy ground. And that was a relief."
Master Minded travelled comfortably behind the pace for the first half of the contest, jumped level with the leaders at the eighth fence and was in front by the next. From there, McCoy pressed on up the climb from Swinley Bottom and was well clear – and confidently looking behind for dangers – as he swung round the home turn with two to jump.
But in the straight, the 4-7 favourite began to falter and Somersby, the only one able to keep tabs, started to close the gap. To Master Minded's credit his jumping held together and, despite tiring, a fine leap at the last maintained enough momentum to hold on, just.
"They went a real good gallop early and when he came back on the bridle and went to the front I let him run when I shouldn't have done," admitted McCoy. "I should have just sat and waited and let him fill up more and then fired him up the hill. He did very well to win, but then he's a class act."
It was 20 lengths back to the third, Mad Max, and Somersby's fine effort under Hadden Frost has presented his trainer, Henrietta Knight, with a dilemma. The seven-year-old's Cheltenham target had been the two-mile five-furlong Ryanair Chase, for which he is now second favourite, but Knight admitted the lure of the two-mile championship may prove too strong. "It's the traditional race," she said, "and having won it once [with Edredon Bleu] I'd love to win it again. He's only young and we can always go further another year."
Master Minded, whose talent has been rekindled this term with the aid of surgery to help his breathing, retains his place at the top of the Champion Chase market ahead of Big Zeb, who thwarted his bid for a three-timer last March.
"They can't always run to their very best," added Nicholls. "But come March, when the horses will be in better form, they'll be right there."
Today at Leopardstown, ChampionHurdle second favourite Hurricane Fly runs in the Irish version. But the loss of yesterday's Haydock card to frost meant that unbeaten Peddlers Cross missed his Cheltenham prep and may now lock horns earlier than planned with the reigning champion Binocular, at Sandown next month.