The Saturday afternoon that Paul Nicholls and Sam Thomas do not team up for multiple winners will come under the "man bites dog" heading. But though their dominance is becoming routine, it is nothing but mesmerising. After Kauto Star's consolidation at the top of the staying chasing tree, and Denman's ascent towards him, their young stablemate Twist Magic emerged here yesterday as the two-mile champion-elect.
The five-year-old, one of last term's best novices over the minimum trip, lit up the soggy gloom with a quite electrifying display to take the Tingle Creek Chase. Foot-perfect throughout, he surged to the front three fences from home and although Voy Por Ustedes gave gallant, and momentarily threatening, chase, a spectacular leap at the last from the winner settled the issue.
The chasing track here is one of the trickiest in the country, yet its challenges, magnified by yesterday's sodden, slippery ground, held no terrors for Twist Magic and his 23-year-old jockey. The three obstacles alongside the railway line, for instance, require particular care because of their close spacing. Most horses will take 12, or even 13, gallop strides to cover the distance between the second and third of them; Twist Magic did it in 11.
"He has so much scope," said Thomas. "He's a big horse, but very light on his feet. I was in front probably sooner than I wanted, but his class and power just took me there. I could hear Voy Por Ustedes coming at me between the last two, but then so could my horse, and once he winged the last and landed running it was all over."
With his increasingly confident and polished displays on Nicholls' stars, the Welshman has grabbed the opportunity afforded him by the injury to his stable's first-choice rider Ruby Walsh. "Young men need a chance like this," said Nicholls. "It's unfortunate for Ruby, but these things happen in racing. I never had a moment's doubt about Sam being able to handle the situation. He's an excellent young jockey, listens to what he's told, gives as much back and is a great team player." The one worry in Nicholls' mind had been the wisdom of pitching Twist Magic into Grade One senior company in such atrocious conditions. "He didn't much like it as a young horse," he said. "But he is stronger and more mature now, and we've sorted out a breathing problem he had. And he went beautifully when we worked him on soft at the weekend. But I have to say the way he did it today surprised me."
Twist Magic will have one race, the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February, before the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Festival for which he is 2-1 favourite with yesterday's sponsors, Paddy Power. Voy Por Ustedes, winner of the two-mile Cheltenham crown in March, was three lengths adrift here at even-money, and trainer Alan King offered no excuses. "We were beaten by a better horse on the day," he said. Third place went to Monet's Garden.
Twist Magic's win was the third of three for the imperious Manor Farm team during the afternoon, preceded by those of two novices, hurdler The Tother One and chaser Marodima. The last-named's all-the-way victory in the Henry VIII Chase was notable on two counts. It was the happy resolution of analysis by jockey and trainer over the best way to ride the often-headstrong four-year-old and it represented the first significant winner fielded by Nicholls in the colours of David Johnson, more readily associated with the Pipe stable. The gelding will bid to follow the hoofprints of Johnson's Contraband, who took the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham two years ago after winning here.