Noland makes case for joining Festival party

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The Independent Online

The gulf between the Cheltenham Festival and a four-runner race at Folkestone is perhaps greater still than that which yesterday divided Noland from his owner, John Hales. The horse, racing for the first time since his success at the 2006 Festival, was obliged to show his class in filthy conditions: the ground was heavy, the wind wild, and the skies grimy with rain. Hales, meanwhile, was watching in a betting shop in Barbados.

It must be said that a similar distance had already been implied between Hales and Noland's trainer, Paul Nicholls. By the time the race was run, however, Nicholls had reduced any suggestion of a rift to a polite fissure. He did admit himself "somewhat surprised" to have opened the trade newspaper Racing Post to discover that Hales did not want to risk taking Noland back to Cheltenham this season. But the idea that they were falling out over the horse's future was "absolutely ludicrous". Nicholls remains confident of talking Hales round on his return from the Caribbean.

His first piece of evidence will comprise this fluent exhibition from Noland, who jumped with economy rather than flair but could hardly have made a better start over fences. His rivals were by no means mediocre, and the freewheeling nature of this track might conceivably have embarrassed a horse that still has Ruby Walsh wondering whether he will ultimately prefer longer distances. But Noland left no doubt that the old fires still burn after his long absence, easing into the lead leaving the back straight and responding readily to a couple of reminders as he idled in front.

"He had his ears pricked all the way up the straight," Walsh observed. "He was deadly. Paul wanted him to have a really good blow, that's why I kicked on. He's tough, he's gutsy, and the day he won at Cheltenham he really stayed. Maybe he wants a bit farther. Time will tell."

Hales owes his reluctance over Cheltenham to the death of his promising novice Granit Jack at the same track in November, and has instead been talking of Aintree and Punchestown. But he should be familiar with the bitterly random nature of such calamities, having lost his best horse, One Man, at Aintree in 1998. Noland, of course, has already proved his proficiency round Cheltenham, having last been seen pouncing on Straw Bear there – with the subsequent champion hurdler, Sublimity, back in fourth.

Nicholls had promised that Noland would "improve enormously" for the run, and his assistant, Dan Skelton, was on hand to confirm as much. "That was the perfect start and it was great to see after such a long lay-off," he said. "With a horse like this you have to mind their legs, so we haven't gone overboard with him at home. That would be the most serious piece of work he has done. John watched the race in Barbados and couldn't be happier. There's no reason not to be thinking about Cheltenham. What has been written should be disregarded."

The bookmakers certainly took that view, offering no better than 10-1 against Noland for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, albeit he will also have the option of the Royal & SunAlliance Chase.

The same dilemma – two miles or three – faces Willie Mullins with Glencove Marina, the Arkle favourite after impressing in both his chasing starts over intermediate distances in Ireland. It would certainly suit Walsh, who rode Glencove Marina at Leopardstown last time, if they ended up in different races.

On a vile afternoon, the sunshine broke through for Jonjo O'Neill, who sent out two winners. In contrast to his string, few trainers have been in better form than Nicky Henderson, who introduced another smart novice when Dave's Dream won the opener. During the morning William Hill had laid 80-1 against this horse, a bumper winner on his sole previous start, winning a Gold Cup by 2015.

O'Neill, of course, is hoping to win that race as early as March with Exotic Dancer – runner-up last year, and evens with Coral to win his second Letheby & Christopher Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday.

* Today's cards at Leicester and Sedgefield are abandoned due to waterlogging.

LETHEBY & CHRISTOPHER CHASE (Cheltenham, Saturday) Coral: evens Exotic Dancer, 9-2 Our Vic, 6-1 Neptune Collonges, 12-1 Simon, State Of Play, 16-1 others.