After their usual, drowsy start, this is the week when Flat horses shake off the stiffness of hibernation with a series of Classic trials. But it began yesterday with a race that perfectly condensed the courage and romance provided, during their absence, by their steeplechasing cousins.
You will certainly see quicker horses than Niche Market during the months ahead, but you will see none bolder. Nor, equally, will many of the great prizes offered on the Flat be won by a man as amiably unaffected as Bob Buckler, or by one whose resources are no less modest. But his skill and patience were yesterday rewarded with his finest hour as a trainer when Niche Market won the Powers Whiskey Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse. And if there is a sense that Buckler has long deserved days like this, then the young man who rode Niche Market is scaling the heights with almost indecent haste.
Harry Skelton is still only 19, but the horsemanship and nerve he showed on the big stage yesterday imply he may conceivably achieve a stature, in his chosen walk of equestrian life, commensurate with that of his father – the Olympic show jumper Nick Skelton.
Niche Market started at 33-1 after disappointing at the Cheltenham Festival, but was always going exuberantly among the leaders. Church Island had gradually exhausted all other pursuers, but Niche Market retained enough energy, two out, to make a prodigious leap into the lead. With the final fence dolled off, Niche Market idled in front, but there were still two lengths in it at the line, the pair eight clear of a third outsider in A New Story.
As well as its unpredictable joys, jump racing had also disclosed its excruciating sorrows. Wichita Lineman, celebrated for that never-say-die ride from Tony McCoy at Cheltenham, had fallen fatally at the first. After coming down on the first circuit, meanwhile, Drumconvis was being treated behind green screens at what should have been the final obstacle. The incongruity of that melancholy scene, as young Skelton joyously punched the air passing the post, achieved an emotional intensity seldom approached on the Flat.
Those who spend their lives with steeplechasers never tread the margins between glory and despair as finely as at Aintree – but that must surely be Niche Market's destiny now. He had only narrowly missed the cut there nine days previously, but it is imperative he gets his chance next year.
That is for another day. After all, Niche Market had nearly missed this race, having been cast in his box and pulled off a shoe only on Sunday. Whatever the future may hold, he has amplified Buckler's understated talents.
This season, Buckler's first since moving to a new yard on the Dorset-Somerset border, had already been his most productive. But he still has barely two dozen horses, and it is to be hoped that the man who sees himself as "taking on tanks with a .303 rifle" will now be sent some heavier ordnance.
As for Skelton, he is already accustomed to handling some of the biggest guns around. Working for Paul Nicholls, the champion trainer, he recently rode Denman, Twist Magic and Master Minded in successive lots.
"A win like this can only help my career," he said. "But in this game you are never at the top, the bar keeps on rising. You only need to look at Tony McCoy, he's at the top of his game but he's always trying to improve. But it's probably the greatest achievement of my life so far, and my dad is here to enjoy it, so it's absolutely unbelievable."
McCoy's distress over Wichita Lineman was not the only reminder of the way jump jockeys' feet are kept on the ground. The success of Big Zeb, earlier on the card, brought to mind Matt O'Connor, who enjoyed the biggest win of his young career on this horse at Leopardstown in December.
O'Connor is still in hospital after suffering head injuries in a ghastly fall at Thurles last month. Big Zeb himself had fallen on his last two starts, but yesterday Colm Murphy restored his confidence, and will now send him back over fences at the Punchestown Festival. These Flat horses must wait a while yet before the stage is fully their own.
Nap: Mizen Raven
(3.30 Market Rasen)
NB: Bullet Man