Noble Alan's energy ideal to channel into Power
All that remains is for the jockeys to insist that the humiliated generals of the British Horseracing Authority sit down and sign the revised whip regulations in a railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest.
At the very least, however, you would hope that all parties to the sport's latest armistice – which came into effect yesterday, of all days – are suitably abashed by the relative triviality of their remaining differences. That way, the crowds at Cheltenham today might even look upon Cleeve Hill as towards broad, sunlit uplands.
Its limestone ramparts remained hidden in mist and cloud as the biggest meeting of the jumps season so far opened yesterday. Down below, riders were extending only a grudging welcome to the latest round of concessions, announced by the BHA the previous day. Nobody will be satisfied, it seems, until the regulators reach the very edge of the precipice – at which point, presumably, they need take only one more "step in the right direction".
The jockeys should not be too stubborn, however, lest they forfeit the goodwill they have earned hitherto. It is true that they have made their own compromises, in adjusting to a challenging new regime. And it is also true, to that extent, that the BHA has achieved rather more than might be allowed by its various crass misjudgements over the past month. How fascinating, for instance, that there has been a radical drop in cases of interference and careless riding since jockeys have been restricted in their use of the whip.
Perhaps the dry autumn has helped, in steeplechases especially, but the fact remains that many races are daily being won and lost in more edifying fashion than might have been the case a few weeks ago. That is not to deny that some results will be different. Gradually, however, the sport is approaching the stage where attention is properly restored to its essential glories. Certainly, punters at Cheltenham today may well conclude that there is nothing wrong that a 20-1 winner in the big race won't fix.
To that end, an ambitious recommendation is made for Noble Alan (2.35) in the Paddy Power Gold Cup. Though 2lb out of the handicap, he won easily off a 1lb higher mark this time last year and has since hinted that he is capable of better still in two ventures over this kind of distance. Admittedly, he failed to complete on either occasion, but he was still tanking when falling three out in a similar race here last winter, and again when unseating two out at Market Rasen last time. He is actually a sound jumper and his energetic style looks ideally tailored to this kind of hectic environment.
Unquestionably, his two most interesting rivals are Mon Parrain and Wishfull Thinking. The former has been heavily backed to end Paul Nicholls' barren run in this race, and certainly looked better than this kind of mark during his first two starts for the champion trainer last year. But the tank ultimately ran dry on the second one, and for now he remains more about potential than achievement. Wishfull Thinking, in contrast, gave the subsequent Galway Plate winner 21lb at Punchestown in April, and had previously shown his mettle in championship company both at the Festival here and at Aintree. Only the memory of Long Run's eclipse here last year, under a similar weight, reminds us that defeat would by no means disqualify him as top-class.
The same holds true of Cue Card, despite discarding Joe Tizzard halfway through his second steeplechase yesterday. But he would have done well to intrude on such a thrilling performance from Grands Crus, a top-class hurdler who looked no less adept in his first start over fences. In a race absurdly staged in plunging dusk, the grey took a hair-raising chance at the ditch but was otherwise terribly slick under Tom Scudamore. "That was just a novicey mistake," his jockey said. "But it was pleasing to see how he attacked the remaining fences after doing that. I think racing against Big Buck's last season really made a man of him."
David Pipe, whose first-day treble evoked the way his father used to target this meeting, admitted that he had been concerned lest the horse race too freely. Grands Crus may well step back up to three miles now, perhaps at Kempton on Boxing Day, but nobody should be deceived that the notorious slog of the RSA Chase – for which his odds were widely slashed to around 4-1 – will play to his greatest strengths.
Past winners of this race include Denman and Imperial Commander, but no less a burden of precedent awaits in the novice race sponsored by this newspaper on tomorrow's card. Previous champions announced by the Independent Novices' Chase include Azertyuiop and Best Mate himself, and Nicholls has once again targeted the race with a good one in his quest for a fourth consecutive success. Al Ferof was last seen storming up the hill to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle here at the Festival, and potentially tops the bill even on a day that ends with Dancing Rain and Snow Fairy contesting a huge prize in Japan.
You can rest assured that Nicholls will be getting a piece of the action sooner or later, whether with Mon Parrain or Al Ferof or both, but yesterday was just like old times. Martin Pipe commended his son for being bold with Grands Crus, claiming that he would have sent him to Plumpton instead, but nobody believed that of a man who won today's big race no fewer than eight times. "That was a golden era," Pipe Jnr said. "And this is a different era. We don't have so many horses now. But we can still do it, with the right ammo."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Dorset Square (3.10 Cheltenham)
Much improved in his first season for this stable and has done well on the Flat since. Should be suited by this extra test of stamina.
St Killian's Run (3.40 Cheltenham)
Tends to travel smoothly through his races and duly produced his best effort since changing stable when dropped in trip at Thurles last time.
One to watch
Kentford Grey Lady (Emma Lavelle) bumped into a couple of useful mares at Exeter during the week but managed an eye-catching move before flattening out into third.
Where the money's going
Steps To Freedom is widely quoted 10-1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle back at the Festival in March after seeing off the promising Prospect Wells at Cheltenham yesterday.
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