As Twist Magic stood preening himself and taking the plaudits in the winner's circle at Sandown on Saturday, Paul Nicholls pointed to his stable's latest star and pointed out to anyone who cared to listen that these were what quickened the public pulse. The timing of the champion trainer's comment, if not deliberate, was certainly apposite, given the sordid time the sport was enduring off the track.
Of course these cannot operate without jockeys but Desert Orchid was a celebrity whether ridden by Colin Brown, Simon Sherwood or Richard Dunwoody, and Kauto Star will pull in the crowds with either Ruby Walsh or Sam Thomas in the saddle. And this Saturday at Cheltenham, the seasonal wraps come off a horse with the potential to become an enduring favourite as the reigning hurdles king Sublimity returns to the scene of his finest moment.
The seven-year-old has not raced since taking the Champion Hurdle in March under Philip Carberry, putting the old guard to the sword in the process. He is favourite for the repeat at 7-2, generally half the price of those perceived as the greatest dangers, Harchibald and Katchit.
His victory in March seemed the start of a new era and trainer John Carr is not inclined to disagree. "I know we are there to be shot at," he said yesterday, "but I'm not afraid of anything until we are beaten."
With Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace, the two former champions behind Sublimity at the Festival, now heading down the stayers' route in acknowledgement that there are younger, quicker legs out there on the park Carr has kept a watching brief on the trials to date, and admits the emergence of challengers to the pride of his Co Kildare yard has not come up to his expectations.
"I thought Blythe Knight and Katchit were the two who were going to come out of the pack this year," he said, "but I was disappointed with Blythe Knight in the Fighting Fifth and Katchit was only third there."
Such fighting talk may yet tempt fate, but Carr reports Sublimity, favourite ahead of top four-year-old Katchit and last year's Champion Hurdle third Afsoun for Saturday's contest with its sponsors Boylesports, in competitive fettle.
"He summered well possibly too well as he put on a lot of weight but he's in very good form and is fit as we can get him without having a run," said the Maynooth-based trainer. He won't be fully wound up as we want to leave something for the spring, but he is fit enough to do himself justice."
The forecast good going will suit the son of Selkirk. "Cheltenham seems to have missed a lot of the heavy rain, the ground will be ok for him and he goes well at the track," added Carr. "He is going to run a good race."
The champion was given a vote of confidence yesterday from outside his own camp, too. Last year's Fighting Fifth winner Straw Bear, pulled up in the Champion Hurdle, is another who will be making his seasonal debut and rider Tony McCoy said: "He's rated similar to Afsoun and has been going pretty well at home. But Sublimity is the one we've got to beat."
The Grade 2 hurdle race, formerly known as the Bula, will be one focus of interest on Saturday; another will be the day's most valuable prize, the Boylesports Gold Cup. New Little Bric, bidding to extend Nicholls' hot Saturday streak, is favourite for the 150,000 handicap chase.
The Ditcheat handler was yesterday at pains to reassure Denman's fans that the Hennessy Gold Cup winner was in fine shape ahead of his Lexus Chase challenge in 15 days' time, despite a wobble in the ante-post market for the Leopardstown feature.
And a vote of confidence from that particular quarter is probably more valuable than one from your average football club chairman.
"He is absolutely 100 per cent," said Nicholls. "He coughed a couple of times the Tuesday morning after the Hennessy. But he has exercised every day since, he worked this morning and is fine."
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