McNamara ready to strike up the band for the Irish with unexposed Ponmeoath

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The Independent Online

As a rule, the Flat tends to lose its fizz long before dribbling to an end, but last Saturday Jamie Spencer and Seb Sanders kept shaking the bottle until the cork finally burst free in the very last race of the season. But now is the time for a different type of stimulation: a less effervescent brew, maybe, but a more potent one. Prompt to their cue, this weekend the jumpers celebrate the first big carnival of their season.

Cheltenham could not have looked more bewitching as the meeting began yesterday, with Cleeve Hill dozing in a hazy wash of sunshine. But it would hardly matter if it were pouring with rain, as is regrettably the forecast for tomorrow's card. Seven Festival winners ran at this meeting last year, and nobody who wants to make money here in March can afford to miss this essential reconnaissance.

True, it still feels irritating when the management expect people to refer to this as The Open Meeting, just as when the appearance of Kauto Star at Haydock next Saturday is supposed to form part of something called the North West Masters. At this rate the Grand National will be decided on Stableford points.

For the moment, however, it still remains possible for one of the Paddy Power Gold Cup favourites to miss the cut because their handicap is too low. Such was the fate of Abragante, but Granit Jack was luckier yesterday, the last of the 20 overnight declarations to slink inside the safety limit.

It is a good job that Granit Jack was not aware of his perilous situation during the week, as he was apparently found to be suffering from stomach ulcers after disappointing his new trainer around this time last year. He bounced back in the spring to finish second to Ebaziyan at the Festival, a performance that suggests him to be well handicapped for his return to fences – over which he won four times in his native France.

Granit Jack has a bare 10st to carry and when Ruby Walsh goes without breakfast, people expect him to pay for their supper. But the horse can hardly be considered value, remaining more or less an unknown quantity as a steeplechaser, whereas Ponmeaoth (2.35, nap) unquestionably deserves far closer consideration than odds of 25-1 imply.

Given their depredations here in recent years, it remains a mystery why the Irish have been unable to win this prize since 1980, when Bright Highway won what was then known as the Mackeson Gold Cup. But Ponmeoath, still unexposed in handicaps, looks a fascinating candidate to end that barren run.

Last off the bridle when an excellent fourth at the Festival, he gave the impression that three miles round here might be just too much of a test. True, Eric McNamara's runner has since managed to win the Kerry National over that trip, but over a very sharp, flat track. And while he ran creditably enough when fourth in the Munster National on his only subsequent start, that was a much stiffer test of stamina and may have come a bit too soon after his exuberant display at Listowel anyway.

Vodka Bleu slipped back down the weights after, very excusably, finding only Exotic Dancer too good last year and represents a stable that historically lusts for winners at this meeting. Crozan has also shown flashes of class round here, too, but Ponmeoath is no mug himself. As a novice last winter he ran Snowy Morning – subsequently runner-up to Denman in the SunAlliance Chase – to half a length at Gowran, and he was always travelling best at Listowel. In what may not prove a vintage field, the odds against him seem pretty outrageous.

Meade's heart to be mended by Ebaziyan

It might be argued that the most significant race of the weekend is not at Cheltenham, but at Punchestown tomorrow, where some of the best jumpers in Ireland convene for the Maplewood Developments Hurdle. A couple of veterans, Macs Joy and Harchibald, tackle emerging stars in Ebaziyan and Clopf, while Newmill warms up for a return to fences.

So impressive at the Cheltenham Festival, Ebaziyan ran horribly behind Clopf at Punchestown but shaped with plenty of encouragement on his reappearance at Down Royal a fortnight ago. Harchibald must show whether the old fires still burn, not least because the merest breath of wind has sometimes been enough to blow them out.

Certainly it would gladden Noel Meade's heart to see him run well, because yesterday the same trainer had a ghastly experience with Iktitaf, the best of his hurdlers nowadays. Iktitaf suffered "a bad cut" in a schooling accident and Meade's assumption is it will have "put paid to his season". Four horseshoes are not enough to bring luck to Iktitaf, who was still barrelling along when tumbling at the third last in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle last season.

Leslingtaylor to stake Festival claim

Another big name at Punchestown is Rindoon, who has sought easier pickings on his doorstep rather than face the usual strong home team in The Independent Novices Chase at Cheltenham tomorrow. Previous winners of this race include Azertyuiop and Best Mate himself, and success in this contest would identify an obvious favourite for the Arkle Trophy back here in March.

Leslingtaylor (1.10, tomorrow) made an impeccable start to his chasing career at Aintree last month, comfortably seeing off the same horse that had previously given Tramantino a race at Cheltenham. These two will set Papini a stiffer task than he faced at Ascot, though perhaps the most intriguing runner is Predateur, who gets a generous allowance as a four-year-old.

Tomorrow's card also features the resumption of Voy Por Ustedes (2.20), who ostensibly has his work cut out giving away so much weight in a handicap, but lacks credible opposition. The biggest pot of the day is the Greatwood Hurdle, where there is no more fascinating runner than Mountain, who once divided Dylan Thomas and Youmzain on the Flat – something that took the Longchamp stewards 35 minutes after the Arc. He remains an inexperienced hurdler, however, so Chivalry (2.55), good enough to win a Cambridgeshire on the Flat, can confirm that he is back on the straight and narrow on only his second start for his new trainer.

'Spot' pleases the crowd in many ways

Talk about respect for the elderly. As Spot Thedifference rallied on the climb to the line in the BGC Chase at Cheltenham yesterday, it was difficult to imagine what could possibly happen here to provoke a louder, more joyous din, even at the Festival in March.

The answer came within five minutes when "Spot", now just weeks short of his 15th birthday, strolled out gingerly unconcerned from behind the green screens that had been hastily assembled around him when he fell to the ground, almost a furlong after the winning post.

As it turned out, he had merely skidded in pulling up too hastily, and the old boy felt like a rest before getting up again. Nobody was to know that in the stands, of course, and there was an exultant roar when he reappeared and was led back to the winner's enclosure.

This was his seventh success over the cross-country course here, and his long career has single-handedly preserved this hybrid discipline from a tide of indifference.

Unfortunately he has yet to penetrate certain numb sensibilities, and as the screens went up nobody had the sense to delay a bombastic presentation of the national equestrian team. The hapless Olympians deserved better than to be cast as villains during this moment of intense communal emotion.

JP McManus has palpable affection for his horses of every type, but has loved few more than this one. "You just knew how much you'd miss him when you saw him down on the ground," he said. "I think he has a place in everyone's heart. He only came to life when he was 10 or 11.

"He had problems earlier in his life and we thought he was retired four years ago. I think I went through every emotion out there, though I never thought he was beaten."

McManus reiterated his debt to the horse's trainer, Enda Bolger, and will leave all decisions on the horse's future to him. "Spot" was one of three Irish winners on the opening day.

Newton Bridge won the Royal Bank of Canada Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle, only to be followed in by Hordago; a first Cheltenham success for Katie Walsh, sister of Ruby, and a prolific winner of bumpers back in Ireland. And a fine ride it was, too, stealing a march on Henry's Pride and holding on, all out – much to the joy of her father, Ted. "Anybody who is a parent will know what I'm feeling," he said. "Katie is the baby of the family and my heart was in my mouth. She'll remember this day for the rest of her life."