Trials are all very well, but the value of some traditional pointers for the Cheltenham Festival remains to be seen. Yesterday's rehearsals, as has been the norm during this wet and soggy winter, favoured horses who exhibited qualities more associated with 4x4s than high-octane sports models.
But there has not been a heavy-ground start to jump racing's showcase occasion since 1982, and most bookmakers continue to dismiss the game's mudlarks on the assumption that it will indeed one day stop raining.
The weather gods, or perhaps more prosaically the behaviour of the jet stream, will decide the wisdom of leaving a Champion Hurdle contender such as Melodic Rendezvous as an outsider. At Wincanton yesterday the admirable eight-year-old took his win score to six from eight over obstacles with a cosy success over solid yardstick Zarkandar in the last of the recognised preps for the Cheltenham two-mile crown, the Kingwell Hurdle.
Given a cool, composed ride by Nick Scholfield, he showed smart acceleration – a feat in itself given the testing underfoot conditions – to squeeze though a gap between his rival and the rails on the run-in and score by half a length.
Other Cheltenham prospects have beaten Zarkandar by further – notably The New One and Annie Power this season – and Melodic Rendezvous remains as long as 25-1 for the Champion Hurdle. But under his favoured conditions, he should not be underestimated. And neither did yesterday's race pan out as the gelding's trainer, Jeremy Scott, had hoped. "The others ignored my pacemaker [Notarfbad], which I feared they might," he said, "and it all turned into a bit of a sprint off the bend for home. So it was lovely to see him pick up and battle.
"The ground was not only heavy but sticky, and I'm not sure he was enjoying it. If conditions are OK for him, not too quick, he'll take his chance in the Champion. I don't know if he'll be good enough to shake up Hurricane Fly, but he deserves to take his chance. And he would not be without an each-way chance."
A few minutes after Melodic Rendezvous presented his credentials, one of Ireland's rising young stars followed suit at Gowran Park. Un Des Sceaux, like Hurricane Fly trained by Willie Mullins, had little more than an exercise gallop as he made undeniably impressive short work of three rivals, taking his unbeaten run to seven and confirming himself a powerful understudy to his stablemate, the reigning and dual champion.
Whatever the conditions when Cheltenham opens four weeks on Tuesday, one yard has been making hay when the sun doesn't shine. In January, 18 of Venetia Williams's charges ploughed through the mud to give their trainer her best-ever monthly score, and February has continued with a similar splash. Yesterday Rigadin Du Beauchene, ridden by apprentice Robert Dunne, became No 16 as he took Haydock's Grand National Trial, followed in for good measure by stablemate Emperor's Choice.
It was a fine conditioning effort by Williams and her team, for although Rigadin De Beauchene had finished runner-up in the marathon 12 months previously, he had not been seen in public since last April. "We had planned a race for him before Christmas," she said, "but he was scoping badly and we had to abandon that and aim for this instead."
Rigadin De Beauchene is not entered in the National, but last year's Aintree third, Teaforthree, most certainly is, and is now favourite to go two better after a fine effort in defeat at Ascot. The 10-year-old, trained by Rebecca Curtis, went under by just a neck to a resurgent Restless Harry in the three-mile handicap, conceding the winner 8lb, and is now as short as 10-1 National favourite.
Horses for courses is a time-honoured cliché, as Captain Chris tends to show at the Berkshire track. Yesterday in the Ascot Chase he gained compensation for last year's unlucky loss in the Grade One contest, outclassing the opposition to come home 19 lengths clear under Richard Johnson. The classy 10-year-old is infinitely better going right-handed, and so remains about 25-1 for the Gold Cup around left-handed Cheltenham.