White horses have been pretty much two a penny in Wiltshire over the centuries and even nowadays six ghostly etched silhouettes can be seen prancing on the Marlborough Downs between the M4 and the Vale Of Pewsey. But focus right now in those parts is on one of the real things. Medermit's coat is not yet chalk-hued, though it will be eventually with the passing of time. But the steel in his grey will do for now, matching the resolve of his trainer, Alan King.
Three weeks today, the opening afternoon of the Cheltenham Festival, the six-year-old will take his chance in the Champion Hurdle. At the same session a year previously, the five-year-old beat all bar Go Native in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, failing by just a neck to catch the Irish raider after a troubled passage. Go Native is now one of the joint-favourites for the senior crown and Medermit a 10-1 chance, despite having beaten the reigning champion, Punjabi, fair and square last time out.
Those considerations alone were enough to put a warrior's glint in King's eyes yesterday as he mustered his Festival troops – more than 20 of them at this stage – in the shadow of the snowcrusted Iron Age hill fort that gives his Barbury Castle Stable its name. Add to that his own knowledge of the gelding's well-being and his enthusiasm was understandable.
Medermit's chasing career was put on hold for his chance of atonement on the biggest stage over the smaller obstacles. "He was more than a little bit unlucky last year," King said, "he was, after all, hampered at the last and came up the hill best of all. I'm quite surprised, though, with the way he's progressed this season. After he ran third at Cheltenham on his first run, we thought we'd give him one more run over hurdles, and he ran very well at Cheltenham again, so we thought we'd have a crack at the Champion.
"He hasn't raced since he beat Punjabi in January but it was always the plan to go back to Cheltenham fresh. He's in wonderful form and he'll do a strong piece of work later this week."
Lanarkshire-born King, 43, has trained 11 Festival winners but had to wait until the final contest for last year's sole success, courtesy of Oh Crick. Before that, the season's most competitive four days had yielded four seconds and three thirds. "You can always cope if the horses are running well, and as well as they can," he said, "but the one niggle was Medermit."
King already has one Champion Hurdle on his CV, Katchit's two years ago, but his specialist subject at Cheltenham must be the Triumph Hurdle. In the past five years he has sent out two winners (Katchit and Penzance), two seconds (Franchoek and, last year, Walkon) and a third (Blazing Bailey). So that he rates this year's candidate Mille Chief just about the best of the lot can be taken as a fair compliment. The shapely bay, favourite for the four-year-old championship, is scheduled to test the opinion of both his trainer and the market in the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday.
Mille Chief's road has not been straightforward; he was brought down first time out and then badly affected by the well-documented health problems that laid Barbury Castle inmates low in the first half of the season. But his latest victory, at Huntingdon last month, was especially pleasing in the way it showed he had put previous experiences to intelligent good use.
"He settled and jumped beautifully that day," King said, "and though he has not yet set the standard on the racecourse that Walkon and Katchit did, on his homework he is as good as, if not better than, they were."
To Medermit and Mille Chief, King added novice hurdler The Betchworth Kid (Albert Bartlett Hurdle) and novice chaser Bensalem, likely to sidestep the RSA Chase for the William Hill Handicap Chase, as next month's likeliest lads. "He is rated 143," said the canny Scot of the latter, "and I'd be disappointed if he's not better than that."
King's colleague Nicky Henderson confirmed Punjabi would have his Festival prep in the race added to Kempton on Saturday to replace the Kingwell Hurdle lost to frost last weekend.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Canni Thinkaar (5.20 Taunton)
Has made rapid progress since joining his present yard after a promising comeback run following an injury, still looks value for his rating and should complete the four-timer.
Call At Midnight (3.30 Southwell)
Can benefit from the step up in trip after a likeable hurdles debut and take advantage of the weight concession from her conqueror on that occasion.
One to watch
Bene Lad (J S Goldie) travelled best of all until becoming bogged down in the closing stages at Kelso last week, his first completion over fences and, with confidence restored, can progress.
Where the money's going
Last year's Racing Post Chase winner Nacarat is down to 4-1 favourite with Ladbrokes for a repeat.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
Abey M'boy (4.20 Taunton).