It was a good Saturday for the Goliaths, but the sequel at Exeter yesterday suggests that a David could yet have his say at Cheltenham next month. Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins had won the Gold Cup trials either side of the Irish Sea – the latter at the expense of Flemenstar, representing the tiny stable run by the Casey family – while My Tent Or Yours had announced himself as a sensational new talent in the Nicky Henderson cavalry. In the mud and rain of Exeter, however, came immediate evidence that the meek could yet inherit the earth.
Melodic Rendezvous, trained just up the road on Exmoor by Jeremy Scott, ended the unbeaten record of Puffin Billy with much the same swagger shown by My Tent Or Yours at Newbury the previous day. With one of the season's most impressive bumper winners already heading to the Festival, in Empiracle, Scott is proving that the hegemony of the big stables is not yet impregnable. The former dairy farmer will have many neutrals in his corner at Cheltenham.
Despite having won his first Grade One prize with Melodic Rendezvous, at Sandown last month, Scott knew the bar might be raised anew by Puffin Billy. Identified by Oliver Sherwood as the best prospect he has trained since Large Action, 20 years ago, Puffin Billy had cruised away with a bumper and three novice hurdles. By the same token, however, he had yet to be subjected to any real pressure – and the arrival of Melodic Rendezvous in the closing stages duly proved a dispiriting novelty. Puffin Billy had lurched wearily to his right over the second last, and Leighton Aspell's urgings in front presented an increasing contrast with the motionless Nick Scholfield. Restrained in his rival's slipstream until the run-in, Melodic Rendezvous did not hesitate when finally invited to go past and quickly opened up by nine lengths.
So it was that not 24 hours after My Tent Or Yours had become a raging hot favourite for the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle, at 7-4 with the sponsors, Melodic Rendezvous was slashed from 16-1 to 7-1. Scott did caution that he reserved the right to switch the horse to the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle, depending on the ground. Conditions were very testing yesterday, and demanded the sort of stamina that might warrant a step up in trip in the event – increasingly unlikely as it may seem – that the ground were to dry out before Cheltenham. Scholfield certainly felt that his mount's relative maturity had been a factor. "The ground is very deep and Puffin Billy looked to get tired," the jockey said. "He's only five, and our horse is seven, and being that bit stronger can make a difference in these conditions."
However dismayed by this first reverse for Puffin Billy, who was later reported lame, Sherwood consolidated an overall revival in his stable's fortunes by saddling two winners on the card – notably Many Clouds, who saw off Nicholls' latest big-money import from Ireland, Just A Par, in the opener. Sherwood intimated that Many Clouds might not be mentally ready for Cheltenham, and believes that his ultimate fulfilment beckons over fences.
Like Sherwood, Kim Bailey is entitled to resent his neglect since they were both fashionable Festival trainers. He is understandably wary, then, of undue risks with Harry Topper, whose success in a graduation chase later on the card reiterated his credentials as potentially the best steeplechaser in Bailey's care since Master Oats. The only race Bailey will even consider at the Festival this year is the four-miler. "He's a baby, a frame of a horse, but he has a huge engine," he said. "He needs looking after."
One way or another, romantics will still go to the Festival with hope in their hearts. After all, Flemenstar's latest failed experiment over three miles at Leopardstown on Saturday had prompted Peter Casey to renew the bewitching possibility of a showdown with Henderson's swashbuckling champion, Sprinter Sacre, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Yesterday, however, connections seemed more reluctant to accept the consensus that Flemenstar had again disclosed the limits of his stamina. Having already surprised many by again denying him the chance to attack, in the fashion that had suited him so well over shorter distances, they now appear to suspect less obvious reasons for his failure to overhaul Sir Des Champs in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
Stephen Curran, Flemenstar's owner, stressed that any Festival decision would be deferred until that possibility had been explored. "I would say he underperformed," he said. "He wasn't himself. Andrew [Lynch] said he had to push him into the jumps, which he has never had to before. He didn't carry Andrew at all and we cannot put a finger on it, there was no life in him. He didn't sparkle. We'll have him tested over the next few days and maybe we will find he had an infection, or there was something amiss."
CHRIS McGRATH'S NAP
Mount Hope (3.40 Catterick)
White Fusion (2.40 Catterick)
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