At the time, it seemed tempting to doubt the form. After all, the runners had splashed over a course that might sooner have staged a regatta than a Grade One bumper. As things have turned out, however, the last two horses still afloat in the straight at Punchestown in April have amply confirmed their calibre since switching to hurdles. This weekend, both seek a place towards the top of different novice divisions either side of the Irish Sea. Champagne Fever, the winner, steps up to two and a half miles at Naas on Sunday; while Melodic Rendezvous contests a Grade One over two miles at Sandown on Saturday.
In contrast with Champagne Fever, just one among countless elite prospects trained by Willie Mullins, Melodic Rendezvous represents a stable for now encroaching on this kind of grade only by quiet increments. But it is not as if all Jeremy Scott's eggs are in one basket. The Exmoor trainer thinks very highly of Empiracle, a dazzling winner of a Huntingdon bumper in October, while last week Kilmurvy made a stylish start over timber at Taunton. For now, even so, Melodic Rendezvous bears the standard.
Schooled in patience by a previous career as a dairy farmer, Scott was not unduly alarmed when the horse could not quite win his first hurdle race at Exeter in October. Sure enough, Melodic Rendezvous improved significantly to win in better company at Cheltenham last month. "For whatever reason, going to Exeter he wasn't in quite the same form as last year," Scott said today. "He was doing his work well enough, but wasn't exciting us the same way. By the time he went to Cheltenham, we felt he was getting back to where he had been.
"In fairness, last season he didn't run until spring, though he had been in training all winter. Funnily enough, two years ago you would have called him one of our more moderate horses. But he's a big, tall horse, and I think a lot of youngsters are unbalanced by their size. It can take a long time for them to cope with their bodies."
Just as at Exeter, Scott did not get carried away by Cheltenham. "What did we really learn?" he asked. "They crawled, and sprinted. I would say Mr Henderson must be hopeful of reversing form with the second [Royal Boy], because the penny was really dropping with him. But I suppose our horse was in a bit of a hole, in behind, and we saw he could quicken up fairly well on what was not the best of ground. On his work, I've always thought he wanted a better surface. Obviously, it was very sloppy at Punchestown, but it'll be really sticky on Saturday."
Scott seems clear that Empiracle needs decent going and has duly given him a winter break. "He'll go straight to Cheltenham or Aintree," he said. "We've got more horses now, and more exciting ones too. So, yes, certainly we seem to be gaining, somewhere along the way."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Aragorn Rouge (6.30 Wolverhampton) Thriving for his new stable and clearly remains equal to this kind of mark, unlucky when caught in traffic last time. Cheekpieces could be the last piece in the jigsaw.
Valley View (1.50 Lingfield) Remains unexposed and, having tried a new trip when his stable was out of form on his comeback, had yet to play his hand when unseating in better company at Cheltenham last time.
One to watch
Colbert Station (Ted Walsh) Looks on the brink of the big time after dominating a competitive field at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting.
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