To a man like Paul Nicholls, precedent is always approached as a crossroads. It can point out some broad, familiar highway; or suggest some faint path, seldom taken, to uncharted horizons. The latter beckons the champion trainer this morning, when he calls Kauto Star's owner, Clive Smith, to plot a pioneering route to a fifth consecutive King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. But it was the former that brought him here yesterday, to win the race sponsored by this newspaper for a remarkable seventh time.
Nicholls has become so accustomed to the demands of the Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase that he broke with habit to have a bet on Ghizao, the outsider of five runners. On the face of it, Ghizao had his work cut out to reverse form with Kilmurry, who beat him readily here last month. But Nicholls was certain he would make radical improvement for that run, his first since a wind operation during the summer, and that conviction had been fortified by a "brilliant" piece of work with Master Minded last Wednesday.
Sure enough, Ghizao was full of gusto throughout, jumping very accurately, and the effort of trying to match strides with him from three out eventually saw Loosen My Load, winner of three steeplechases in Ireland, collared for second by Captain Chris. They were clear of Kilmurry, who did not seem at home on this tacky ground and beat only the hesitant Radium. Ghizao had meanwhile kept up the gallop to reach the post 10 lengths clear, immediately seeming a formidable candidate for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Festival back here in March. Widely quoted 8-1 favourite, he can be backed at 12-1 with Paddy Power and Stan James.
Precedent, in this instance, could only encourage anyone tempted by those odds. Several stars in the making have announced themselves in this race, not least Best Mate himself, and Nicholls himself has demonstrably tended to target it with one of his very best novices. "The Arkle will be the plan," he confirmed. "I could not believe the price he was, and had a nice bet at 8-1. I have always believed in him and he has proved himself today."
Nicholls's next task was to saddle last year's winner, Tataniano, for his comeback in the "Sinbad" Testimonial Chase – a race honouring that cherished stalwart of Gloucester rugby, James Simpson-Daniel. Tataniano had duly gone on to prove arguably the best of last season's novices at two miles, impressing on spring ground at Aintree, and Nicholls professed himself well satisfied after he faded into third behind Gauvain and, runner-up for the seventh time running, Forpadydeplasterer, beaten four and six lengths. "The ground was probably a bit soft for him," Nicholls reasoned. "And he will come on enormously for the run."
The winner, always travelling powerfully on his first start in 576 days, became the latest to amplify the singular gifts of Nick Williams. Previously with Charlie Mann, Gauvain had been treated for tendon problems during his absence, and suddenly looks a legitimate contender for the Queen Mother Champion Chase for which he was introduced by Totesport at 14-1, with Tataniano 8-1.
"I'm as shocked as everyone else," Williams claimed. "We were just hoping for a sign that he was on the way back. It's his first season out of novice company, and a horse like that can always improve a bit. I suppose one or two more before the Champion Chase, but it won't be an arduous campaign."
As for poor old Forpadydeplasterer, Tom Cooper suspects that better ground and a longer trip might together end his sequence of near misses, and will now train him for the King George. His rivals there will include Long Run, despite defeat behind Little Josh here on Saturday, while Imperial Commander makes his return at Haydock on Saturday.
In the meantime the big question remains whether Kauto Star will be kept fresh for his date with destiny, or risk a ground-breaking handicap appearance in the Hennessy Gold Cup on Saturday week. Reading between the lines yesterday, Nicholls may well advise Smith not to risk forfeiting the King George with a hard race at Newbury, but promised a decision between them today.
While Solwhit was proving himself alive and well over at Punchestown, comfortably seeing off a small field, there was fresh Stan James Champion Hurdle blood here when Menorah managed to give 27lb to Bothy in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle. It was five lengths back to the fancied Manyriverstocross, and Philip Hobbs acknowledged a rock-solid comeback by the Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner. "He's only five so hopefully there's improvement to come," the trainer said. "His jumping wasn't brilliant today, and he had to go wide for the better ground, so he has done well to win. He needs a strong pace, which is why we came here, and I certainly hope he can become a Champion Hurdle horse."
Hobbs hopes that Menorah will measure up to Rooster Booster and Detroit City, who broke into the elite in this same race in 2002 and 2006 respectively. It can only help his cause for the Festival that he is so palpably at home over this course, and much the same is true of Ghizao, who had won the bumper on this card last year. No less striking, this time round, was Rock On Ruby – also trained by Nicholls. For horse and trainer alike, another road seems to be mapped out already.
* Chris McGrath's nap
Final Drive (4.40 Wolverhampton)
Shared his stable's quiet summer but is down to a handy rating. He was unlucky not to win in his two latest starts, finishing late over eight furlongs at Kempton and then collared over 10 furlongs at Lingfield. This looks a perfect compromise off the same mark.
* Next best
Lost In Paris (4.10 Wolverhampton)
Has flourished and suggested that he is notfinished yet when just shaded in a strong handicap at Southwell last time. He tanked through the race and this sharper test looks likely to suit him well.
* One to watch
Equuleus Pictor (J L Spearing) was rated 11lb higher this time last year but served notice of a revival when third at Southwell last week.
* Where the money's going
Menorah is 8-1 from 16-1 with Ladbrokes for the Champion Hurdle after his success under a big weight at Cheltenham yesterday. Solwhit is 12-1 from 14-1 after proving his well-being at Punchestown.
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