Even in its quieter reaches, the unfolding themes of the season grow steadily more apparent. What had looked one of its least instructive weekends ultimately reiterated not only that the best novice hurdlers in Britain appear to be divided between Nicky Henderson and Philip Hobbs, but also that the Irish may have still better ones.
Several persuasive Cheltenham prospects were paraded at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, and yesterday Noel Meade strengthened the Irish hand when saddling Monksland for a breakthrough success at Naas.
Having previously won a bumper and maiden hurdle, Monksland was stepped up in both class and distance for the Slaney Novice Hurdle. Travelling well throughout, he took over from another unbeaten hurdler, Dedigout, after producing much the better leap over the second last, and went readily clear on the run-in.
True, a flick of the tail made for a somewhat resentful demeanour as he did so, but for now that should be indulged as inexperience. It was four and a half lengths back to Lyreen Legend, with the imposing Dedigout looking gawkily impatient for fences in third.
Certainly, it is not difficult to picture Monksland, switched off by Paul Carberry, relishing a bigger field and stronger gallop come March in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle at the Festival, for which Paddy Power's quote of 25-1 looks pretty generous.
Meade indicated that Monksland has had some growing up to do. "He was a difficult horse to break when Willie Slattery had him, and when we had him first he wasn't straightforward," he said. "But he's fine now. He had earplugs in, as he used to be very nervous, but he has relaxed and never turned a hair today.
"That went exactly to plan. I thought he'd win, to be honest. He's very good – good enough for Cheltenham. I'm not sure whether he will run before that, as he's easy to get fit. And he should handle better ground."
The Neptune market offers a useful measure of the landscape as it stands. It is headed at around 5-1 by Fingal Bay, who extended his unbeaten run for Hobbs at Newbury nine days ago, while a Willie Mullins trio – Make Your Mark, Boston Bob and Sous Les Cieux – feature prominently despite each having different options. The leading British challengers to the favourite are, meanwhile, reckoned to be Simonsig, Darlan and Captain Conan, all trained by Henderson, though again each might end up targeted elsewhere. Darlan, for instance, perseveres at shorter distances when continuing his education at Taunton this afternoon.
Regardless – and just as in the other races, over two miles and three – the bookmakers appear to have little interest for now in any hurdler stabled with the champion trainer. Last year, Paul Nicholls ended up saddling Zarkandar, Al Ferof and Rock On Ruby to finish first, first and short-head second in novice hurdles at the Festival, and he does major in chasing types anyway. It would be absurdly premature to perceive some long-term shift in the balance of power. At the same time, both the horses who dominated Saturday's 32Red Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown – the winner trained by Henderson, the runner-up by Hobbs – themselves look a pair of chasers in the making.
That would seem especially true of Captain Conan, making his first start for Seven Barrows after his arrival from France. He was lucky to reel in Colour Squadron, who threw the race away by hanging across the track, and Henderson suspects that he might find the demands of the Festival coming a year too soon. "I did say after one hurdle that we were wasting our time jumping these things," he said. "He's a chaser. But he's very, very talented, and he'll certainly be entered for Cheltenham."
Arguably, however, the weekend may have reserved its very best to last. Though the form cannot amount to much, the swaggering style of Un Atout's debut at Naas surely identifies him as one of the best in another dazzling crop of bumper horses trained by Mullins. In the ubiquitous colours of Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud, the four-year-old coasted 24 lengths clear. "He looks like a racehorse," Mullins said. "He's a cool customer, very relaxed, and jumps well at home. We're looking forward to going jumping with him next season."
Chris McGrath's Nap: Carrickmines (3.10 Taunton)
Up in the weights since winning here last month but still on a fair mark on his best chase form, and set plenty to do off a steady pace last time.
Next best: Rangitoto (2.10 Taunton)
Paul Nicholls clearly reckons this progressive animal is feasibly handicapped after predictably taking well to fences at Wincanton on Boxing Day.
One to watch: Alwaystheoptimist (Charlie Longsdon) made a fine start for this stable at Ludlow last week, where he was unlucky to bump into a thriving rival. Both were miles clear of the rest.
Where the money's going: Quel Esprit is 25-1 from 40-1 for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup with Paddy Power after reviving Irish interest with an easy win at Thurles on Saturday.
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