If there was a tip for the Cheltenham Festival yesterday, it was perhaps that punters may have to rethink anything that has gone into the formbook so far. After one of the wettest winters on record racecourses have finally started to dry out, and the afternoon's richest contest promptly went to a horse who had not yet troubled a judge this season on soft, soggy ground.
On his previous outing, at Warwick in January, Quentin Collonges had trailed in tailed off at the back of the field. This time, a sunny afternoon at Doncaster put spring both in the air and in his step, and he showed what he could do with conditions in his favour, making all the running to take the £50,000 Grimthorpe Chase. "The ground is key to him," Henry Daly, his trainer, said. "He tried his heart out at Warwick but it has all been far too soft for him up to now."
The little nine-year-old grey, a 15-2 shot, had to show his racing heart at the sharp end yesterday to repel Mr Moss, who threatened after the last fence, by a determined half-length. "There wasn't much pace early," Andrew Tinkler, the winning rider, said, "so I decided to rock on. He's a good front-runner and such a willing partner, just wants to please you. When the other horse came alongside I gave him a tap and he stuck his neck out, like I knew he would."
Quentin Collonges's next target is the Scottish Grand National at Ayr next month. The Grimthorpe Chase, though, has been used as a prep for the real thing at Aintree, recently most notably by Amberleigh House nine years ago. But there was no joy for the high-profile Grand National candidate in yesterday's field, the 9-2 favourite Join Together, perceived as Paul Nicholls's best chance of finding a successor to Neptune Collonges.
The eight-year-old was badly hampered by the fall of Night In Milan at the third fence and, after a circuit's vain perseverance at the back of the field, was eventually pulled up by Ruby Walsh. "He could have stopped straight away," Nicholls said, "but we wanted to get a bit of a blow into him and Ruby thought he might have been able to latch on to the back. But on that ground there was never really a chance. Bit of a disaster, really."
Such terms are relative, and best viewed in perspective. A four-timer for the Nicholls yard – from Toubab and Aaim To Prosper on Town Moor and Michel Le Bon and Pacha Du Polder at Newbury – will have seemed cold comfort after the death on Friday in a car crash of the 21-year-old son of the Manor Farm team's linchpin, head man Clifford Baker.
Of the successful Nicholls quartet, the one with Cheltenham aspirations is dual Cesarewitch winner turned hurdler Aaim To Prosper, who beat Cockney Trucker by a neck after a classic set-to between Walsh and Tony McCoy after the last. "He appreciated the drying ground and he's progressing; being a Flat horse he'll probably be even better when it dries out more," Walsh said.
Though Join Together was out of luck at Doncaster, at least he remains on course for the National, unlike the fancied outsider Katenko, who underwent life-saving surgery after a bout of colic on Friday and whose season is over. But all is going smoothly on the road to Aintree for one National candidate, the 2011 winner Ballabriggs.
The Donald McCain-trained 12-year-old produced an excellent third place yesterday in his traditional warm-up at Kelso, outsped by Always Right and Garleton only after the last in a contest, just shy of three miles, far too short for his abundant stamina.