Tonight Kempton hosts potentially the most significant all-weather race ever staged in Britain, the winner of the Kentucky Derby Challenge being automatically eligible for a start at Churchill Downs on 2 May. Even those whose perspectives are more parochial will recognise the race as a reminder that a new turf season starts on the Flat at Doncaster tomorrow week. The sap is already rising in those who yesterday shared a sudden plunge on Expresso Star, in the William Hill Lincoln Handicap. This colt won three races for John Gosden last autumn, and has clearly resumed his progress on the gallops, cut to 5-1 favourite from 10-1 by the sponsors.
Here, however, even a golden spring afternoon remained redolent of Cheltenham last week, when fresh perspectives were applied to another muddy winter's work from the jumpers. For Tony McCoy, indeed, an interval of seven days was hopelessly inadequate to stifle the memory of Binocular's defeat on the opening afternoon of the Festival. To many witnesses, McCoy's handicap success on Wichita Lineman, 40 minutes before the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, stands as one of the defining performances of his career. But to McCoy himself, consolation for Binocular's narrow failure probably now rests with that unrequited craving for a first success in the John Smith's Grand National.
"It was a disappointing week," McCoy admitted. "Mainly because Binocular got beaten. I have my own ideas on the reasons, but I've watched it again plenty of times, and I certainly wouldn't have done anything different. The truth is that he was a much better horse at Ascot – and in my view that was nothing to do with the track. I can still look forward to riding him in the race next year, and I certainly wouldn't be scared of taking on the same horses again."
His trainer, Nicky Henderson, has already conceded that the high-risk strategy of giving him just two starts in the first half of the season – both in small fields, where nothing got him off the bridle – left Binocular vulnerable when snow intruded on his Festival preparation. Both Henderson and McCoy are adamant that the horse has no problem with the Cheltenham hill, while those who suggested that McCoy left him too much to do must accept that the horse was simply not as responsive this time.
As for Aintree, McCoy faces the same dilemma as last year, when he chose Butler's Cabin ahead of King Johns Castle. His mount fell at Becher's second time round, still going well in the van, while King Johns Castle found only Comply Or Die too good. King Johns Castle confirmed himself over a setback when resurfacing over hurdles at Naas last Sunday, while Butler's Cabin showed signs of renewal in an amateurs' race at Cheltenham.
McCoy's employer, JP McManus, also has Garde Champetre, but another cross-country success at the Festival reiterated how sweetly that horse goes for Nina Carberry. "I haven't spoken to JP yet but King Johns Castle and Butler's Cabin are the obvious ones," McCoy confirmed. "Butler's ran OK at Cheltenham, though I'm wondering whether he should have been winning that if he's going to have a chance in the National. It wouldn't put me off that he fell with me last year – he just knuckled over at Becher's, and he'd jumped as well as anything up to then. I suppose Garde Champetre might come into the thinking, but we'll see what the boss says."
There is only ever one guarantee, of course. "I know we'll have all the usual talk about when I'm going to win it," he shrugged. "But I always think this will be the year."
Though set for his 14th consecutive championship, last week McCoy had to endure his great friend and rival, Ruby Walsh, also being recognised by a broader public as a colossus of the age. No doubt he attributes Walsh's seven wins – a Festival record – at least in part to the superior resources of Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, which certainly show no sign of running low. Yesterday Mullins saddled Fiveforthree, himself a winner at the 2008 Festival, to cruise home under Walsh in a race at Wexford. It was his first race in 11 months, but now that he is back on track Mullins hopes to take him to Aintree and maybe Punchestown.
Here, Nicholls did have a rare reverse here, when Conflictofinterest contrived to get himself beaten at odds of 1-10 in the opener. But for McCoy, as for any of the game's professionals, the inherent lesson was amplified by the name of the winner. Nothing's Easy.
NB: Izita Star