The Argento Chase here yesterday had something of the feel of a cup semi-final between, say, Derby County and Brighton. It might have been a good rollicking spectacle, but come the big day, the second-tier underdogs will surely be put in their proper place. But just don't express such views too strongly in front of Neil Mulholland, the trainerof Midnight Chase, who blew some fellow Gold Cup contenders apart in the three-and-a-quarter-miler over the Gold Cup course.
"We'll know whether this was his cup final or not when we're back here in March," he said. "Yes, neitherLong Run nor Kauto Star were here today, but they're just about the only ones who weren't, and look what he's done to the ones who were here. He was fifth in the Gold Cup last year and he's in the same sort of form now, except he's got stronger and more mature."
The previous three of Midnight Chase's victories had also come at what is clearly his favourite course – he has now won five times here. Sent into his trademark trailblazing role by Dougie Costello, he saw off his rivals with a relentless rhythm and accurate technique. Of those with Gold Cup hopes, Captain Chris was pulled up early after jumping markedly right, Diamond Harry was outpaced from the second last and Time For Rupert was outpaced before staying on into fourth.
It was left to the enigmatic Tidal Bay to chase Midnight Chase home, a well-held two-and-three-quarters of a length adrift. Costello gave his mount an excellent ride but made light of his contribution. "When you get a horse who loves a course and jumps it like he does," he said, "all you have to do is aim him and try to be the best passenger possible."
Midnight Chase is now judged a 16-1 shot for the Gold Cup by sponsors Betfred, cut from 40-1. Mulholland knows the pride of his 30-horse yard near Tiverton better than most trainers do their charges, as he rides the 10-year-old daily.
"OK," he did admit, "maybe we're not going to win a Gold Cup, but we will certainly enjoy being there to give it another try. And if we could finish third it would be a proper resultfor a small operation like ours."
The most obvious Festival winner on show at yesterday's so-called trialsday, the last fixture at the track beforethe four-day extravaganza that starts six weeks on Tuesday, was the peerless marathon man Big Buck's, who stretched home by seven lengths under Ruby Walsh in the Cleeve Hurdle. And if his slight flat spot in running two-thirds of the way round was inevitable, so was the inexorable, smooth power with which he reeled in Dynaste going to the last. The gelding, trained by Paul Nicholls, now only needs one victory to equal the all-time winning streak over jumps of 16, set by Sir Ken during the Fifties.
It would be appropriate if it should come with an unprecedented fourth success in the World Hurdle, for which he is as short as 1-2. "He's just a brilliant, brilliant horse," said Walsh. "Stayers shouldn't quicken and win on the bridle like that, but he just pricks his ears and goes."
Walsh's day began with a ban, a three-day suspension after the stewards judged his handling of Pearl Swan, who inched home in front of Grumeti in the juvenile hurdle after bumping his rival, to be careless. The ex-French Pearl Swan, having only his second outing for Nicholls, was demoted to second but promoted to favouritism for the Triumph Hurdle. Walsh, scheduled to miss the ride on Nicholls' Champion Hurdle candidate Zarkandar at Newbury on Saturday week, is considering an appeal.