Plenty to engage the head, but plenty to stretch the heart as well. At the end of a difficult week in which his beloved Kauto Star left Manor Farm Stables under controversial circumstances, Paul Nicholls saddled four winners, including the remarkable four-year-old Unioniste and Champion Hurdle contender Zarkandar. But even that silver lining had a cloud, for their talented stablemate Cristal Bonus suffered a fatal injury and did not go home to Ditcheat.
Conditions on the rain-sodden track were gruelling – the novices' chase won by Highland Lodge, for instance, was timed at a minute longer than standard – with some slow-motion finishes from tired horses up the climb to the winning line, and whether yesterday's results can be reprised on the faster ground usually found at the Festival remains to be seen.
With titles in March in mind, some of the country's best operators over the smaller obstacles put their markers down. In the International Hurdle the 6-5 favourite Zarkandar, with Ruby Walsh making the most of his mount's race-fitness and a 4lb pull in the weights, forced the pace and, after being briefly passed by Rock On Ruby, rallied going to the final flight and determinedly outslogged Grandouet, who had stalked the leading pair, to score by two lengths.
Zarkandar and Grandouet are now vying for second favouritism for the Champion Hurdle behind the Irish-trained Hurricane Fly, winner of the title last year under Walsh. Rock On Ruby, the reigning two-mile champion, came in six lengths adrift and has dropped down the betting lists.
"I don't think he was himself last season," said Nicholls of the winner, the best juvenile of the 2010-11 campaign, "but he's picked up and is enjoying his schooling again. I think he's still improving and if Ruby wants to pick Hurricane Fly come March there's never a shortage of other jockeys. But today will have reminded him of this horse's ability."
Nicky Henderson, the trainer of Grandouet, was by no means disheartened by his charge's defeat on his first run since taking last year's edition of the Grade Two contest. And there are several others at Seven Barrows with Champion Hurdle claims, including Oscar Whisky, who yesterday bloodlessly repeated his success in the Relkeel Hurdle, by 19 lengths at 1-5. The seven-year-old's specialist subject is two-and-a-half miles, which leaves him in no-man's- land at the Festival and his target – the Champion or the three-mile World Hurdle – will be ground-dependent. "If it came up really soft," his rider, Barry Geraghty, said, "you'd have to really fancy him for the shorter race. But that's all another day's work."
Walsh rode Nicholls's first two winners, Far West and Shooters Wood, but had the grim task of pulling up Cristal Bonus in the feature chase, the Paul Stewart Ironspine Charity Challenge Cup, after the six-year-old broke a hind leg on the flat. The race went to Unioniste, who provided a landmark for his trainer's nephew Harry Derham and put his own name in the record books as the first of his tender years to take the all-aged Grade Three handicap.
"He's just a baby, but he never missed a beat," said Derham, riding his first winner under his newly lowered 5lb claim. "They went quick enough for him early, but he just jumped himself into the race."
The youngster, a 15-2 shot, led three out and stayed on strongly to shake off a persistent challenge from the favourite, Walkon, by 11 lengths. He had made the cut as bottom-weight only after another horse dropped out on Friday morning, much to the satisfaction of his trainer, who reckoned the 12-1 offered ante-post too good to miss.
"It was a good little plan," Nicholls said. "I was pleased with his mark, he knows how to jump and I thought he wouldn't get a chance in a race like this again."
The loss of Kauto Star came after an uncomfortable public spat with the great horse's owner, Clive Smith. "I can assure everyone I've never had a more embarrassing or unenjoyable week in my life," said Nicholls, "but it's over. So onwards and upwards."
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