Of the many qualities desirable in a horse, the whimsical one possessed by Mr Ed would rank highly. Paul Nicholls has spent the last two years trying to get inside the apparently convoluted mind of high-class two-mile chaser Twist Magic and, although he appears to have succeeded, he is not sure exactly how. "They can't talk and tell you how they're feeling," he said after welcoming his charge into the winner's circle here, "so you have to try one thing, or another, and stick with what seems to work."
Twist Magic has always had a deal of talent – yesterday's Victor Chandler Chase was the fourth Grade One victory of his career – but his personality would not always let him express it. The key has been to take the pressure off at home by letting him work and exercise by himself; the reward is a horse who is now challenging his own stablemate Master Minded for supremacy in his division.
"He's mentally right now," said Nicholls. "Quite possibly something had been hurting him then that doesn't hurt him now. He wouldn't go on the gallops, he'd get in a tizz and hold the string up or he'd be perfectly capable of stopping halfway and planting himself. To not want to gallop, or even start, there must have been something troubling him that we couldn't find. On his own he couldn't cause any hassle and he started to relax, and that has turned him inside out physically as well and I've never seen him look as well as he did today. He's grown up in every way."
The quirks are still there below the surface, though. Before the race, Ruby Walsh had his feet out of the stirrups and rode like a cowboy to the start, keeping all tension from his body and hands. As the runners circled behind the tapes, Nicholls' assistant, Dan Skelton, was there as a familiar, guiding presence for the reformed delinquent.
"The atmosphere on the racecourse can get to him," added Nicholls. "He fell out big-time with Sam Thomas at Cheltenham last year, dropping him a couple of times on the horse walk. And even though he's much more settled now, you wouldn't want him to get away with anything even once."
In his bad old days, Twist Magic had run an out-of-sorts second in yesterday's contest two seasons ago after winning the Tingle Creek Chase. This time, at 11-8 favourite, he followed last month's Sandown success with a similarly classy display. Walsh took him to the front after the third obstacle and, unlike his market rival Petit Robin, the only one to go with him as he started to draw away, crossed every fence foot-perfectly and came home 12 lengths clear. "He jumps, doesn't he?," was Walsh's succinct comment.
Next stop for Twist Magic, who carries the colours of Barry Fulton, Tony Hayward and Michael Lynch, will be another tilt at the Champion Chase, in which he has fallen and run sixth in the past two years, both behind Master Minded.
"He's never been lucky at Cheltenham before," said Nicholls, "and I needed him to win this today, just to show me he is a different horse this season, and that it will be worth going to the Festival again."
Bookmakers were divided in their opinions about Twist Magic's Champion Chase prospects; he has universally overtaken Irish-trained Forpadydeplasterer as clear second market choice, but at prices from 4-1 to 9-1.
Master Minded is a warm favourite and Nicholls reported yesterday that the seven-year-old, sidelined by rib injuries since an unexpected defeat in November, is making mighty strides towards his bid for a three-timer in the two-mile crown and is likely to reappear in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury next month.
The next of the Manor Farm stars to step into the spotlight will be last year's Champion Hurdle runner-up Celestial Halo, who takes on some of Ireland's best, including Solwhit, at Leopardstown this afternoon. Yesterday's prep for the big race, in the mud at Haydock, produced a third successive defeat this season for the reigning king Punjabi, this time at the hands of Medermit.
The grey six-year-old, trained by Alan King, was only narrowly beaten by another Irish championship contender, Go Native, in one of the Festival novices' contests last year, and has now entered the title race's wide-open market as a 16-1 shot. "We can dream now," said King. "He needs to be fresh, so he'll go straight there."
By Nicky Henderson's recent standards, yesterday was only an ordinary day at the office, with second spots for Petit Robin, Punjabi and then Tasheba, who chased home Mamlook in the handicap hurdle here. It was a better one for the David Pipe team; the stable's beloved veteran Well Chief came home safely in fourth place in the feature chase, then 20 minutes after Mamlook's victory, Our Vic shrugged off his years to take the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock. The gallant 12-year-old made all the running under his young rider Danny Cook.Reuse content