Rugby has its six nations this weekend, racing just the five. Yesterday's most valuable race over hurdles took place in Carmarthenshire and was won by a horse foaled in France, trained by a Scot and ridden by an Englishman. The afternoon's chief contest over fences was run in Surrey and went to another French-bred, this time trained by an Englishman and ridden by an Irishman. And today Scotland and Ireland are the venues as Musselburgh and Punchestown take their turn in providing pointers for next month's Cheltenham Festival.
That Medinas took the Welsh Champion Hurdle (rather grandiosely named now that it has been reinvented as a handicap) was something of a surprise to the winning trainer, Alan King, given the six-year-old was the one of his two runners he regarded as his second string. But the contest nearly provided a greater shock to punters; it was only in the last few strides that the winner, whose chance seemed gone after a mistake at the penultimate obstacle, reeled in the 25-1 outsider Peckhamecho.
Both King and his No 1 jockey, Robert Thornton, preferred the chances of Balder Succes in the two-and-a-half-miler, leaving Wayne Hutchinson – who spent his youth wanting to play football for his beloved Swindon Town – to score as his stablemate trailed in only eighth. The betting first choice, the 7-2 favourite Oscara Dara, beat only one home.
Hutchinson waited until after the last flight to ask Medinas, who now has the Coral Cup as his Cheltenham target, for maximum effort, with his mount's gallant response and reserves of stamina getting him home by a length and a quarter.
"Once I got after him he kept finding more," said the rider, "and he's stuck it out well in tough conditions. He'd had a bit of a break before today and it felt like he's come back an improved horse."
Tough and determined though Medinas is, his performance at the Welsh track paled into insignificance beside that of the ever-popular Carruthers, who put up a tremendous trailblazing effort in the marathon West Wales National. The 10-year-old, the star of Mark Bradstock's small stable, was joined in the lead for much of the three-and-a-half-mile slog on energy-sapping ground by Shaking Hands, but his relentless gallop proved too much for that rival with four fences still to go.
He was left clear in the final straight, but though he had to regroup as Cannington Brook came to challenge after the last, he did so to such effect that he was going away again at the line. "When he heard the other horse he went on again," said his amateur rider, Nico de Boinville. "He loves it and he's a pleasure to ride. He's a horse with real heart."
De Boinville's day job is working at top trainer Nicky Henderson's yard, where he exercises the superstar two-mile chaser Sprinter Sacre every morning. Captain Conan may not operate at the same level of his stablemate, but he is still a very good athlete in his own right, and yesterday at Sandown took the day's Grade One feature, the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase. His neck success, though, was perhaps too close for those who made him 1-2 favourite, as he caught Third Intention only in the shadow of the winning post and might not have done so had his rival not idled inattentively in front.
In Captain Conan's mitigation, he had not raced since early December and so was entitled to be ring-rusty. He jumped very well for Barry Geraghty, and on his first try at two-and-a half miles proved he stayed the distance of his Festival target, the Jewson Chase. "He's a big, gross horse who takes some getting fit," said Henderson, "and he just got a bit tired."
The celebrity quality today comes courtesy of another of the season's exciting novice chasers, Overturn, who has his Arkle Trophy preparation at Musselburgh, and of the former two-mile king Sizing Europe, who warms up at Punchestown for his possible Champion Chase tilt at Sprinter Sacre.