It would be a trifle unrealistic to ask thoroughbreds for as much in 2010 as they gave us in 2009, but the appearance of Punchestowns at Cheltenham today suggests their intentions to be pretty good. As good a hurdler as has switched to fences in recent seasons, Punchestowns made an impeccable start to his new career at Newbury five weeks ago but faces a tougher test in the Dipper Novices' Chase.
With most of the island frozen or saturated, a televised spectacle of this order would confirm the frost blankets at Cheltenham as a priceless blessing. Priceless, but not cheap, so let us hope they do the job as well as they did last year, when every twig in the Cotswolds was crusted white but racing went ahead with no problems.
That enabled no less a horse than Big Buck's, who had begun to look clumsy over fences, to turn over a new leaf in a handicap hurdle. His success prompted a quote of 20-1 for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, an eye-watering price in hindsight. Big Buck's went on to beat Punchestowns at the Festival, the pair 17 lengths clear, and completed an immaculate 2009 at Newbury last week. If only every new year reformation could be observed in like fashion.
A classic steeplechasing physique always offered Punchestowns an obvious sanctuary, and that debut over fences did little to discourage the impression that he will prove rather more of a natural than Big Buck's. Admittedly, he faced only three rivals, who were readily outclassed, but he was really measuring himself against the fences instead – and never put a foot wrong. Now, however, we should learn how his jumping stands up to the pressure of more earnest competition.
Seven Is My Number beat experienced rivals at Sandown, where a novice chaser really needs to know what he is doing, and did so impressively, too. But it is worth noting he beat a couple of unproven stayers that day, and has so far reserved his best performances for right-handed tracks.
Knockara Beau failed by only a neck to give 8lb to a subsequent winner round here in November, and is demonstrably a cut above the northern standard. Bensalem, likewise, has had the form advertised since meeting only the second defeat of his life at Exeter last time. All in all, this should prove a proper test for Punchestowns, but Nicky Henderson understandably suspects that this sort of intermediate distance suits him best and it is hard to see him winning the RSA Chase back here in March, if he cannot win today.
Henderson also has the other ante-post favourite for that race, Long Run having duly impressed on his British debut at Kempton on Boxing Day. Mikael D'Haguenet has meanwhile still to surface, over in Ireland, though Willie Mullins stressed yesterday that he is "not panicking yet".
Mullins rounded off a remarkable year in satisfying fashion, between blizzards at Punchestown, Glencove Marina making a very encouraging return from a long absence, and Beroni again promising he will win a big one this year. Glencove Marina had been injured after winning both his novice chases two years ago, but showed he retains plenty of ability by closing smoothly from off the pace before flattening into third. Beroni was likewise returning to timber, in his case simply to bank another prize without damaging his chase rating. He confirmed himself improved since joining Mullins, and is next likely to tackle the Thyestes Chase, at Gowran Park later this month. It is by no means impossible to envisage him ending up a serious contender for the John Smith's Grand National itself.
Once again Tony McCoy's new year resolution will be to end his own Aintree drought, having put his signature to a decade he has dominated like no other champion with a treble at Warwick. But he had to settle for second in its final race, a bumper won by Awesome Freddie – a half-brother, in the same colours, to Awesome George, who had won the very first race of 2009, back at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. Truly this was a year when the stars were perfectly aligned.
* Today's card at Catterick has been called off because of snow. Ayr's fixture tomorrow is also off (course frozen).
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Aconitum (1.25 Exeter) Much improved when stepped up in trip for his handicap debut, beaten only by a flourishing rival, and easily excused a subsequent flop here. That race came too soon, but he should be nicely freshened up now.
Radium (12.30 Cheltenham) Can build on a promising British debut at Newbury, caught out by a slow pace before keeping on well through the closing stages. Less exposed than his rivals, this Nicky henderson-trained five-year-old runs off the same mark today and should enjoy this stiffer track.
One to watch
Prince Erik (D K Weld) finished sixth in an Irish Derby in his younger days and his first completed start over three miles, when third in a handicap at Leopardstown, promised overdue fulfilment over hurdles.
Where the money's going
Paddy Power cut Captain Cee Bee (6-1 from 7-1) and Somersby (7-1 from 8-1) for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy.