It had seemed remarkable enough that two of the first five in the JCB Triumph Hurdle market – Minsk and Dildar – were yet to leave the ground in public. Still less accountably, however, Dildar was actually eased in the betting after duly making a winning start to his hurdling career at Taunton yesterday.
Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh, respectively his trainer and jockey, both seemed delighted by the way the French import went about his first assignment in the 40 Commando Royal Marines' Novice Hurdle. But while some firms left him at 10-1 for the Festival, Paddy Power pushed him out to 14-1 – unimpressed, plainly, that Dildar won by barely a length from a horse recently beaten in mediocre company at Plumpton. The pair went well clear on the run-in, however, Dildar asserting readily enough despite one or two ponderous leaps through the race.
"He picked up really well," Walsh said. "He was a bit novicey, a bit careful, but it was his first time and he'll improve a lot. I gave him plenty of cover, to teach him something, and when I needed a good jump, at the third last, I got it."
Nicholls added that the tacky conditions would not have helped, and plans to give him more experience at Kempton on 25 February – in the very race in which his Triumph winner last year, Zarkandar, made his first start over timber. To that extent, Dildar is well ahead of the game. Beaten only five and a half lengths by Pour Moi himself at Longchamp on the Flat in May, he could yet contribute to the changing profile of the Triumph Hurdle – which appears to be making rather less brutish demands since some of the lesser juveniles were sieved into a new handicap at the Festival. Minsk, likewise, was very accomplished on the Flat, and his trainer, Dessie Hughes, is even contemplating giving him a first start over hurdles at Grade One level at Leopardstown on Sunday week.
Though Dildar was always going to win, he certainly had to work harder than the stable's two other winners on the card. Sanctuaire, increasingly temperamental over hurdles, appeared to turn over a gleeful new leaf in the novice chase; while Ted Spread, himself useful on the Flat, proved miles ahead of his initial rating when fast-tracked to a handicap. He had been thrashed on his last visit to Taunton by Grumeti, who shared that bare-knuckle scrap with Pearl Swan – another of Nicholls' Triumph candidates – at Cheltenham last weekend. Nicholls feels Walsh was harshly treated by the stewards there, given a three-day ban for careless riding as the photo-finish placings were reversed, but was delighted by Pearl Swan. He had made his hurdling debut only nine days previously, again at Taunton, and Nicholls indicated that Dodging Bullets might yet add his name to the Triumph mix at the track's next meeting, on Thursday week.
Chris McGrath's nap
Douryna (3.00 Leicester)
Jumped well when introduced to this promising young rider last time and is on a good handicap mark.
Tap Night (3.20 Newcastle)
Thrashed a dual subsequent winner in a handicap last time, coasting clear, and his new mark suggests he should be equal to a penalty.
One to watch
Sivola De Sivola (Tom George) Stormed up Cheltenham's hill for fourth on Saturday. Might well return for the Pertemps Final in March.
Where the money's going
Tap Night is 7-1 from 8-1 with William Hill for the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.