The clearest indication yet that the hurdling order is changing came as Menorah, one of last season's best novices, galloped to favouritism for the Cheltenham Festival crown with an authoritative display that surprised even his trainer, Philip Hobbs, in its execution. The gelding, ridden by Richard Johnson, produced a hitherto unseen burst of acceleration to cut down his rivals.
"I'd always thought of him as a horse who'd win by staying and battling," said a slightly bemused Hobbs, "but he showed real pace today. But then, he is growing up, getting stronger physically and mentally."
Menorah, who had street-fought his way to narrow victories on his two previous visits to the track, in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle and last month's Greatwood Hurdle, is only five and two of those he beat yesterday were the outstanding four-year-olds Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti, both in their first year over obstacles.
"He's almost the perfect racehorse," added Hobbs of Diana Whateley's neat little dark bay. "He's got a gorgeous temperament and attitude, is easy to deal with and, touch wood, he's always been sound. He's clearly still improving and if he's not yet the best hurdler I've trained, he could end up being just that."
Otherwise, the afternoon belonged to Paul Nicholls, with a 254-1 four-timer headed by a majestic display from Master Minded in the Tingle Creek Chase. The seven-year-old humbled his rivals, picking off at will the pair who had set a scorching pace, first I'm So Lucky and then, in the air at the second-last fence, Petit Robin.
It was Master Minded's second success since losing the Queen Mother Champion Chase and his two-mile supremacy in March and, aided by surgery on his airway during the summer, he is back to his imperious best. "That operation has made a huge difference to his confidence," said Nicholls. "When he won at Ascot last month it made him realise he could breathe under pressure again, and it wasn't going to be uncomfortable."
Noel Fehily, in the saddle, can sympathise with that. The rider's rapid comeback from a wrist injury that threatened his partnership with the stable's Kauto Star had been almost thwarted by the authorities and had begun the previous day with a fall, but yesterday's performances – Master Minded was preceded by an equallyeasy win on the juvenile hurdler Sam Winner – reset his course to fair.
The Nicholls quartet was com-pleted by Woolcombe Folly, ridden by Ryan Mahon, and Poquelin, drivenhome under top weight by Ian Popham to became the first horse to win two editions of the handicap chase which started life as the Massey-Ferguson Gold Cup in 1963. Yesterday's version was called the Vote AP Gold Cup; its eponymous hero could trail in only 11th on Finger Onthe Pulse but had earlier scored on Karabak.