Noland victory a tonic for Thomas

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The Independent Online

For Sam Thomas, the race was about renewing belief; for Mouse Morris, in contrast, it became a test of faith. Either man, however, could easily correct any loss of perspective if pausing to consider the name on the trophy they both sought at Punchestown yesterday.

The John Durkan Memorial Chase commemorates the young man who fancied that a horse named Istabraq might make a serviceable foundation stone for his training career. Durkan was then diagnosed with leukaemia, and the horse was stabled with Aidan O'Brien, pending his recovery. By the time Istabraq had won the first of his three Champion Hurdles, Durkan was dead.

Ten years later, the cruelty of his loss still seems fresh to his many friends in racing. Certainly it reproves the hysteria prompted by the recent travails of Thomas, the young rider who has already won a Gold Cup despite still being in the early stages of his own career.

His success on Nolan yesterday reminded everyone – not least Thomas himself – that he has not become a second-rate jockey as suddenly as he emerged, last season, as a legitimate substitute for Ruby Walsh. This time last year, when Walsh was injured, Thomas had a charmed run on horses trained by their employer, Paul Nicholls. This time round, with Walsh again sidelined, so many things have gone wrong that Nicholls could not face Thomas riding Master Minded at Sandown last Saturday, instead summoning Tony McCoy.

Whatever might be said of the way he has been riding, or indeed the way he has been treated, yesterday represented an authentic new start for Thomas. Noland, still a novice last season, jumped confidently and took over when The Listener blundered four out. As things turned out, he was probably in front long enough, The Listener rallying on the flat, but Thomas was not going to let this one slip through his grasp and held on by half a length.

"It's really great for Sam to get a Grade One winner under his belt," Nicholls said. "This will get his confidence back. Noland jumped very well and, though he idled in the closing stages, that was to be expected – and the ground was probably not ideal for him.

"The owner [John Hales] was keen to go for the King George, but we have persuaded him to wait a season and stick to middle distances for the time being. His main aim is the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, and the plan is for him to have one run beforehand."

Nicholls thanked the course management for salvaging the race after frost claimed Sunday's card. Whether War Of Attrition was quite so grateful is another matter, as he has now been beaten in this race three times. On that basis, it might be hasty to assume that the 2006 Gold Cup winner's revival, after a 22-month absence, is now over.

Morris had brought him back to win two lesser races this autumn, but War Of Attrition has never been entirely at home on ground as testing as this. Indeed, he was beaten out of sight here, in similar conditions, barely three months before he won the Gold Cup. At least he travelled strongly, this time round, before failing to pick up and finishing more than seven lengths away in third place.

Noland is now the Tote's 9-2 joint-favourite with Tidal Bay for the Ryanair Chase, and it was interesting to hear Nicholls again proposing a very light Festival preparation. He seems increasingly satisfied that the best way to prime horses is up and down that precipice of his, back in Somerset.

The same is true of many other trainers, thanks to modern facilities and methods. As a result, it must be said, the shadow cast over the calendar by the Festival grows ever longer. Yesterday, for instance, Nicky Henderson disclosed that he hopes to keep Binocular, the inexperienced Smurfit Champion Hurdle favourite, fresh for March after the Boylesports Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday.

Henderson added that he has settled on a comeback target for Trabolgan, namely a handicap chase at Ascot on Saturday week. Trabolgan looked a Gold Cup horse in the Hennessy three years ago, but has not been seen since. It is so long ago, in fact, that War Of Attrition had yet to win his Gold Cup. By the standards of jump racing, never mind those of outright tragedy, Thomas should comfort himself that even the slowest fortnight scarcely qualifies as a wilderness.