Hard though it was to believe, as frost sugared every twig in the surrounding hills today, plenty of intriguing sport seems guaranteed at Cheltenham over the next two afternoons. The cross-country track still requires an inspection this morning, but the remainder of the card should be staged in as much comfort as rain, wind and one of the shortest, darkest days of the year permit.
While Midnight Chase is probably happiest on better ground, he so adores this track that he will command many loyal wagers even under top-weight in the day's most valuable race. After a respectable comeback behind Silviniaco Conti at Wetherby, he is only 5lbs higher than when winning the equivalent contest two years ago. In three visits since, he has finished fifth and seventh in the Gold Cup itself and made all in an Argento Chase. "Though he has to give weight all round, at least he is meeting them on the right terms," Neil Mulholland, his trainer, said today. "Whereas he has been wrong at the weights in some of the conditions races he has been running in."
Midnight Chase will have to be near his peak, however, to concede 13lbs to the thriving Quartz De Thaix – or 15lbs to the bold Becauseicouldntsee (1.55). Twice runner-up at the Festival here, the Co Clare raider has not lived up to expectations in the National but shaped as though coming to hand when third over hurdles a fortnight ago.
Another Irish horse summoned home from home is Uncle Junior (2.30). He has discovered a new lease of life over these varied obstacles, where an inflated rating seems less pertinent than in everyday disciplines. It looks significant that Willie Mullins has also put Inish Island (3.05) on the boat, presumably considering him well treated after an impressive start for the stable at Downpatrick last month.
Unfortunately the novice races, over fences and hurdles respectively, both elude terrestrial coverage but either could volunteer an improver eligible to return here for the Festival in March.
Meanwhile the British Horseracing Authority disciplinary panel today rejected appeals against two contentious punishments in recent days: one for Daryl Jacob, after momentarily appearing to mistake the winning line at Wincanton; and another for Oliver Sherwood and Leighton Aspell, who were both incensed by the suggestion that Furrows should have been given a more searching ride in a novice chase at Hereford.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Royal Sea (6.20 Wolverhampton) Had been green in qualifying for a mark and still seemed short of experience when favourite for his handicap debut, regrouping well and looking ready for this extra furlong.
One to watch
Basle (Michael Blake) Made the perfect start for her new trainer at Lingfield on Tuesday.
Where the money's going
Cristal Bonus has been slashed from 10-1 to 5-1 by Coral for the Paul Stewart IronSpine Charity Gold Cup at Cheltenham tomorrow.