A lump of coal is all very well in its way, but the final day of the old year may have offered a rather more efficient token of prosperity in 2008. On an afternoon when the racing headlines from Ireland were instead dominated by that slapstick episode at Tramore, where all 14 riders pulled up their mounts a circuit too soon, few paid much attention to the success of Snowy Morning in a conditions hurdle at Punchestown. Closer examination, however, suggests that he may have laid down a significant marker for the most valuable and famous steeplechase to be staged this year.
Last year Silver Birch became the sixth Irish winner of the John Smith's Grand National in nine years, and Snowy Morning looks such an outstanding candidate to maintain this trend that he merits support now, at 20-1, before interest in his chance snowballs.
The horse that got closest to Denman in the Sun Alliance Chase at Cheltenham last March was considered so favourably treated for his first handicap that he was sent off favourite to beat the same horse in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last month.
It would, admittedly, be fairly optimistic to claim that he might have done so but for falling at the seventh, but the lesson implicit in Denman's own progress has not been lost on Snowy Morning's trainer, Willie Mullins. This, remember, is the man who prepared Hedgehunter to win the 2005 National by giving him five starts over hurdles before the weights were published. Sure enough, he quickly sent Snowy Morning back over timber at Fairyhouse last month, and though he had only ever contested two such races as a novice, he outclassed his rivals. It was a similar story at Punchestown, and Mullins confirmed yesterday that he intends to keep him off the steeplechase handicapper's radar for the time being.
"That would be the idea for the foreseeable future," he said. "He looks very well handicapped over fences at the moment, and if he gets a nice weight in the National hopefully we'll tailor our season from there. I would certainly hope there is a good handicap in him over fences, the National apart."
Mullins does not think that the mistake he made at Newbury betrayed a weakness in Snowy Morning's Aintree credentials. "By and large he's a good jumper," he said. "He was only a novice last season, and jumped well at Cheltenham, where he was very nearly brought down by another horse."
Ruby Walsh rode Snowy Morning at Punchestown and could face a test of diplomacy with his other main patron, Paul Nicholls, if the horse consolidates his chance in the meantime.
Nicholls trains Mr Pointment, the current favourite, though it could yet prove of mutual benefit that Sam Thomas, Walsh's deputy, won on that horse over the National fences in November. Mullins rightly observes that a lot of water will pass under the bridge before that becomes an issue, but the fact remains that Walsh is without peer as a National rider.
For now Mullins can focus on the excellent overall form of his stable, as underlined by a treble at Thurles yesterday. Nor was Snowy Morning his only success on the New Year's Eve card at Punchestown, C'est Ca routing his pursuers in the juvenile hurdle by 17 lengths. "He was a bit in and out on the Flat," Mullins said. "But I think he probably just wasn't mature enough. I thought it was an impressive performance, in fact I don't think I've seen a better one by a three-year-old in Ireland this winter. He should improve again, and will go up in grade now."
Nor was Mullins downhearted when Ebaziyan managed no better than fourth of six behind Al Eile in the big hurdle at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. "I was delighted with him," he said. "He came home best of the novices, and I think he's going to keep improving nicely through to the spring. If he improves as much from here to Cheltenham as he did last year, I'll be very happy."
Certainly Ebaziyan has less need of a fresh start in 2008 than Fergal Lynch, who goes to Wolverhampton tonight for his first rides in public since July 2006.
Lynch was one of six defendants who walked free from the Old Bailey after the collapse of the race-fixing trial last month.
He flies out to the United States this weekend for a stint with his brother, Cathal, who trains 30 horses at Philadelphia Park, and on his return will resume as a freelance on the northern circuit.
* Today's jump meetings at Lingfield and Newcastle are both subject to early morning inspections at 7.30 and 7.00 respectively.
NB: Miss Pross