It was as close as a thoroughbred might come to somnambulism. He strolled round and round, the bridle loose in the hands of his escort, exuding calm and courtesy. His trainer, David Pipe, watched with a mixture of admiration and envy. A week before the Cheltenham Festival, few trainers could begin to approach such insouciance – never mind a trainer who has rashly consented to a media open morning so close to the big day; or one still picking his way between the privileges and pressures implicit in his surname; or, above all, one with a horse of such unnerving potential as Grands Crus.
Five years after the retirement of his record-breaking father, Martin, Pipe yesterday acknowledged himself to be in the middle of a regeneration project. In his father's heyday, their stables on the western border of Somerset housed a cavalry of expensive jumpers in the ownership of David Johnson. Nowadays, Pipe reckons that Johnson has just "six or seven" left here, reducing the overall roster to around 90. "We're a bit down in numbers," Pipe acknowledged. "But in the current climate hopefully we're holding our own."
And Grands Crus, he believes, could be "the horse Pond House has been looking for since the retirement of Our Vic and Well Chief". The careers of those veterans, both owned by Johnson, straddled the transfer of the licence from father to son; and likewise that of Comply Or Die, who anointed the new man at the helm in the 2008 Grand National. But Grands Crus has the look of Pipe's first proper champion.
He has won all three starts this season without coming off the bridle, indifferent to the improved calibre of the opposition on each occasion. Raised out of handicap grade at Cheltenham in January, in fact, he was so dazzling that he immediately dispersed Big Buck's invincible aura in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. "Obviously we fancied him," Pipe said. "But the manner of his victory was pretty staggering." As a result, a race that had threatened to become a lap of honour has become perhaps the highlight of the whole Festival.
Perversely, given the grey's drowsy demeanour, the most obvious anxiety about his showdown with Big Buck's tomorrow week is his propensity to race too energetically. "He's very laid back at home, as you can see," Pipe said. "But in a race he's completely different. It's like he has tunnel vision. He's very keen and you have to try and look after him. Tom [Scudamore] will have to try and settle him early, and the tactics of the race are going to be intriguing. We'll have Plan A, B, C and D. But Tom knows what he is like and I can't see it being an excuse. It probably wasn't the plan to take it up so early last time, but he didn't stop in front. When he first started out, he was making the running and wasn't finishing his races. But we dropped him out, turned him round, and he grew in confidence. He has still got to improve to beat Big Buck's, but remember he is only six, and has only had eight races in his life."
Pipe admits Grands Crus would ideally want some rain, but anticipates no excuses after the race and essentially just wants the next few days to evaporate. Like his father, he adores having a project with a horse and is impatient for the outcome. "We knew back in March that Grands Crus would win at Cheltenham in November," he admitted. "When it comes off, it is fantastic - because you have to get him there spot on and that doesn't always happen. There are so many things that can go wrong in the meantime."
Once he hoists his jockey into the saddle, however, Pipe will be absolved of his wearying responsibility. All eyes will then be on Scudamore, who fortunately sounds as though he is borrowing the relaxed perspective of Grands Crus. "Even down at the start he can be so settled that you think you've got him this time," Scudamore said. "But when the tapes go up, he lets you know pretty soon that he's there. He knows exactly when to turn on and turn off. But I'm not worried about him pulling. He can do that for three miles if he likes. As my granddad always says, it's only when they stop pulling that you've got to worry. And he hasn't stopped yet."
I Can Run Can You (4.00 Fontwell) Finished well clear of the third when encountering a well treated rival on his last two starts.
Dollar Mick (3.50 Catterick) Bred to make a chaser and glimpses of ability in qualifying for handicaps over hurdles.
One to watch
Lightening Rod (trained by Mick Easterby) was set too much to do by his inexperienced partner at Sedgefield on Sunday.
Where the money's going
Cue Card is 2-1 from 9-4 with Coral for the Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham on Tuesday.Reuse content