For the swings and roundabouts nature of the game, look no further than the Alan King stable. Since the turn of the year horses from Barbury Castle have struck form with a vengeance, Mille Chief here yesterday being the ninth victor of the month to maintain a strike rate double that in November and December. But yesterday, too, came the news that stable jockey Choc Thornton may be out of action for three weeks after his crashing fall at Leicester the previous day.
Thornton damaged his back when Cracboumwiz came down, sustaining bruising to three lower vertebrae, but does not expect his prospects of riding at the Cheltenham Festival meeting to be compromised. "It's a non weight-bearing injury," he said yesterday after a night in hospital, "and I'll be starting physiotherapy straight away. I hope to be back in two weeks, maybe three."
Wayne Hutchinson proved a more than able deputy on Mille Chief, who consolidated his place at the head of the Triumph Hurdle market at around 7-1 with a thoroughly competent performance against his elders in the second division of the novice hurdle. The four-year-old, a dual Flat winner in his native France, won as a 2-9 shot should, pulling six lengths clear of his nearest pursuer with little apparent effort in soggy, testing ground.
Mille Chief had shown a tendency to over-rev on his two previous hurdles runs, but this time showed a pleasing attitude as he continued to absorb his education over obstacles. "He settled very well," reported Hutchinson, "and jumped like a professional. He got in a little tight two out, but was very quick on his feet and when I gave him a squeeze he was off like a rocket. On that ground, he showed a real good turn of foot."
King has a fine Triumph Hurdle record, having sent out Penzance, in 2005, and Katchit, in 2007, to win and Franchoek and Walkon to finish second in the last two years. Mille Chief, who carries the same McNeill family colours as Walkon, will be sent on the path to Cheltenham taken by Penzance, who won here and again when stepped up in grade at Kempton three weeks later.
This flat, featureless track, seen at its least inspiring on a dank, chill afternoon, produced a second genuine prospect for top honours at the Festival in March when Mighty Man, formerly a high-class staying hurdler, sealed his reinvention as a novice chaser with his second victory over fences in as many runs.
The RSA Chase is now his target. And though the age of 10 may be later than usual to make the transition from one branch of the sport to the other, Mighty Man has taken it in his bouncy stride. The little gelding produced a foot-perfect display, took the lead with his ears cheerfully pricked between the last two fences, and came home eight lengths clear. "It's like riding a rubber ball," said jockey Richard Johnson. "He's not the biggest chaser I've ever ridden, and there's not a lot in front of you. But he's clever and athletic, gets his front end up and his legs out in front, so you always feel safe."
Though Mighty Man, owned by Joss and Nick Hanbury, has won at the top level over hurdles, he always found one or two too good in the marathon Grade One at Cheltenham and will not cross swords again with Big Buck's, who beat him into fifth on his return from a two-year lay-off last March.
"To see him do that today," said his Ludlow-based trainer, Henry Daly, "carrying a penalty and on ground he hated, has more or less decided us which route to take. We'll try to find one more run for him over fences before Cheltenham." Mighty Man is judged a 14-1 shot for the Festival three-miler in a market dominated by the Nicky Henderson-trained pair Punchestowns and Long Run.
*The Epsom trainer Terry Mills died yesterday, aged 71. His horses included the 2002 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes victor Where Or When and Royal Ascot winners Bobzao and Mitcham.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Snow Bay (7.25 Kempton) Creeping up the handicap but won more easily last time than the short-head verdict suggested and the step up to a mile on this evening's quicker surface should suit.
Chartreux (2.30 Ffos Las) Stayed on dourly to take his bumper over two miles on today's track last month and, as a point-to-point winner, has already shown he can jump.
One to watch
Cannington Brook (C L Tizzard) Switched to hurdles after a clumsy effort over fences, was the only one able to go with the well-regarded Watamu Bay at Towcester at the weekend and should find compensation over the smaller obstacles.
Where the money's going
Welsh National winner Dream Alliance came in for support for the real thing at Aintree yesterday, 33-1 to 25-1 with Paddy Power.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Bakbenscher (2.55 Warwick).Reuse content