As a rule, the change of rhythm at this time of year tends to be as gradual and harmonious as the blush of autumn trees. After a final fling at the Breeders' Cup, the Flat typically meanders through its final fortnight, and the jumpers take their cue at Cheltenham's first big meeting a week later. This time, however, everything seems different. There is a jagged, restless cadence to the narrative.
For one thing, Messrs Spencer and Sanders are stoking the embers of the Flat season to the bitter end. Kauto Star, the champion steeplechaser, has already been out, and already been beaten, looking worryingly different from the exuberant creature who danced so gaily through a searching campaign last winter. Then there are peculiar, unpalatable torments: the race-fixing trial at the Old Bailey, and the harrowing death of George Washington in New Jersey last weekend.
It is time to restore our bearings. After all, if Kauto Star no longer seems quite so invulnerable, fresh interest can be discovered in the two opportunities for potential challengers today.
The reappearance of Aces Four in the Bet365 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby makes him the first of last season's outstanding crop of novice chasers to sample open company. Though Denman and My Way De Solzen remain far ahead of him in the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting, Aces Four looked the best hope of the north at Aintree in April.
He had previously matched strides with Denman for a long way at Cheltenham, before tired mistakes relegated him to fourth. It was encouraging to see him absorb that hard race so well at Aintree, but he did then take a ghastly fall when sent on to Punchestown. He may again prove too energetic to get home at Cheltenham in March, but that is presumably his principal target and it would be surprising if Ferdy Murphy had filled up the tank already. His yard has been keeping a low profile of late, with few runners and no winners during the past five weeks.
In contrast State Of Play produced a superb performance on his reappearance last season, in the Hennessy Gold Cup, and Evan Williams has apparently had this race in mind for some time. The suspicion lingers that State Of Play (3.30) did not reach his full potential in two subsequent starts, and his eager style of racing could prove ideal for this track.
It would be no disgrace to be caught out by one or two of the old guard, if they happen to be on their game. Monkerhostin, Kingscliff and Ollie Magern have all achieved higher ratings in their time, but it would be a disappointing augur for a season that promises so much if the younger generation could not lay down some kind of marker here.
Two other British chasers who accompanied State Of Play up the ranks last season resume in the James Nicholson Chase at Down Royal. The Listener showed top-class form in two visits to Leopardstown last winter, but the ground is likely to be much quicker this time. Taranis (2.30) is considered a plausible type for the King George VI Chase by Paul Nicholls, and while this is his first attempt at three miles, conditions are unlikely to place much emphasis on stamina.
Black Rain showers Sanders in gloom
You never know which skirmish will ultimately decide a war. But there was no mistaking what was at stake when the stewards held an inquiry into the first race at Newmarket yesterday.
Having picked up a spare ride, on Black Rain, Jamie Spencer was beaten a short-head by Seb Sanders on Classic Descent. That reduced the gap between them at the top of the jockeys' championship to just two – days after some bookmakers had been presumptuous enough to close their markets, Spencer having opened up a lead of eight.
But the stewards then summoned the protagonists, decided that Sanders had caused interference, and reversed the places. Suddenly, Spencer was four in front again, and he rubbed salt in the wound by winning on Foolin Myself an hour later.
Fooling himself, of course, is exactly what he would be doing if he thought their duel was now over. Sanders romped home on Double Banded later on the card, before dashing off for four rides at Wolverhampton last night. He is suspended tomorrow, but Spencer in turn must sit out Tuesday and Wednesday.
Then came the news that Peter Makin, trainer of Classic Descent, intends to appeal against the stewards' verdict. The Horseracing Regulatory Authority declared last night that, in the gripping circumstances, any appeal would have to be lodged by Monday – as opposed to within seven days, as would normally be the case. That would enable the disciplinary meeting to consider the case on Thursday.
At least the two jockeys will not have to settle the issue under floodlights at Wolverhampton next Saturday night. The Flat campaign formally ends with the year's last race on turf, at Doncaster that afternoon.
Flat credentials point to Circassian
Faced with something closer to a reception committee than a race, Black Jack Ketchum can have no more excuses at Wetherby today. With his stable going so well, he will surely turn over a new leaf in the John Smith's West Yorkshire Hurdle.
He will hardly be much of a price, so a more attractive wager on the same card is CIRCASSIAN (nap 2.55). He would by no means be the first from his stable to recover his best form this autumn and, as a Listed winner on the Flat, top-weight disguises what may yet prove a very lenient mark.
Channel 4 also shows the last four races at Newmarket, but much the most intriguing horse appears earlier on the card. The Bet365 Zetland Stakes over 10 furlongs is a pretty brutish test for a juvenile, and Planetarium has already won gamely over the trip. But Twice Over (1.05) looked an exceptional prospect on his debut here, and success would entitle Henry Cecil to wonder if he could yet crown his stirring comeback in the Derby.
Three races from Ascot are screened on BBC1, including a good prize for the United House Gold Cup. Boychuk (2.10) has promised more to come off this kind of mark, still in contention when getting the third-last wrong at Cheltenham last time, and staying on strongly after being hampered at Market Rasen.
Ebaziyan sends out the right signals
It was the kind of thing that might easily be overlooked. After all, the horse was not even placed. But there was all the difference in the world between Ebaziyan's performance at Down Royal yesterday, and that deplorable effort at Punchestown in April – his one and only appearance after a dazzling success at the Cheltenham Festival.
Meeting some useful types in the Anglo Irish Bank Hurdle, Ebaziyan travelled easily off the pace before closing smoothly to join issue approaching the last. Handled very kindly on his comeback by Ruby Walsh, he kept on for fourth behind the race-fit Aitmatov, beaten barely two lengths.
The winner flew the last and was introduced to the Smurfit Champion Hurdle market at 33-1 by William Hill. This race at the Maze has announced Macs Joy, Iktitaf and Feathard Lady in recent seasons, and Noel Meade indicated he may now look for a race in Britain for Aitmatov.
But Willie Mullins can only have been delighted with Ebaziyan. It would be no surprise to see the grey revive his own Champion Hurdle candidature via valuable handicaps in the new year – races like the Pierse Hurdle, or Tote Gold Trophy. Nobody knows better how to build a horse up towards Cheltenham than Mullins. More haste, less speed.