In the fortnight still dividing jump racing professionals from their defining challenge, all they expect is for things to go wrong. For punters, equally, fresh positives for the Cheltenham Festival will be few and largely inconsequential. It would be wrong, however, to treat absolutely every racecourse gallop as stage-managed, every pronouncement of optimism as bland or meaningless. And Noel Meade, for one, surely deserves to be taken at his word, after working Pandorama at Leopardstown yesterday morning.
Here is a horse whose emergence as Ireland's best Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup hope, at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, had been promptly followed by another of the depressing setbacks that have so tormented his trainer at Cheltenham over the years. A month ago, Meade was rating Pandorama only "50-50" to make it to the Gold Cup. But his verdict yesterday was unequivocal.
"Everything went perfect," Meade said. "He worked great. I was delighted with him, absolutely thrilled. He went almost two miles, with six others, Realt Dubh as well – and I was very happy with both of them. I might give Pandorama a school over fences at some stage this week, at home, and then it's all systems go."
Meade, who confirmed the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy will "almost certainly" be the option favoured for Realt Dubh, has long set the caveat that Pandorama will need yielding conditions. In principle, however, he represents another good reason – with Long Run and Diamond Harry – why the three previous winners converging on the race must look to their laurels. More by ill luck than good judgement, Pandorama will arrive as a fresh horse and odds of 20-1 look generous.
As things stand, the most accomplished steeplechaser in Ireland remains Big Zeb and he, too, was among those discreetly taken to Leopardstown yesterday – most trainers having decided that working Cheltenham horses the previous evening, after racing, had in recent years become too public and stressful a ritual. Barry Geraghty schooled the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner, a much more proficient jumper nowadays, over six fences. Colm Murphy, his trainer, pronounced himself well satisfied, and likewise with Raise The Beat, who did a piece of work. Having impressed on faster going at Naas in November, Raise The Beat was put away for the winter and brought back to the boil for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.
Another that may repay fresh consideration at Cheltenham is Champion Court, who impressed over the course in November but finished last on his return there in January. That performance was among several that told Martin Keighley that his stable was under a cloud, and the two runners he sent on a 400-mile round trip to Catterick yesterday were his first in four weeks. It was with corresponding relief, then, that he watched Total Submission see out his race so well for third, and Wolf Moon outclass his rivals for the novice chase.
"We gave them a really good break," Keighley said. "They walked for a week, trotted the second week, and we turned them out every day. We gradually built them back up, and they seem in great form now. That proved it, today, though I was a bit nervous coming here. Wolf Moon wants really good ground and Warren [Marston] said he wasn't that happy. There's definitely a nice prize in him this spring – he could be nicely handicapped."
Keighley, who trains just down the road from Cheltenham, added that Champion Court had worked "delightfully" the other day. He can be backed at 16-1 for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.
* Chris McGrath's Nap
Hierarch (3.45 Lingfield)
Patently unreliable type but definitely has more ability than his rating and may not fold quite so meekly now that he is tried in a tongue-tie.
* Next best
York Glory (4.55 Lingfield)
Well backed for his debut and should be sharper today.
* One to watch
Just The Job (Neil Mulholland) seemed to be committed too soon at Fontwell on Sunday, collared in the final strides.
* Where the money's going
Zaidpour is 10-1 from 12-1 with Totesport for the Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival.