Before the groaning board, the 10-bird roast with trimmings, of the Christmas period, comes the bonne-bouche. But this afternoon's programme at Ascot is not merely some little cheesy nibbles and Cava, it is a full-blown plate of smoked salmon and lemon-zested creme fraiche crostini, washed down with a glass or two of Pol Roger. And the addition of the Boylesports Hurdle to an already fascinating card with so many intertwining threads has added a topping of beluga to the canapés.
A groundswell of opinion from industry professionals was key to prompting the sport's authorities to save the significant Champion Hurdle trial lost at waterlogged Cheltenham a week ago. No trainer was keener for a rescheduling than Nicky Henderson, who has an extraordinary richness of hurdling talent in his yard this season but can probably live with such embarrassment.
He provides two of the small, but undeniably select, field of five for the Boylesports contest, which features a clash between his emerging young star Binocular, favourite for the Cheltenham title, and the reigning champion, Katchit. And none of today's three other contenders can be underestimated either: Binocular's stablemate Chomba Womba and the two Festival juvenile hurdle winners Celestial Halo and Crack Away Jack.
Though Ascot is a demanding track, it presents less of a test in its closing stages than Cheltenham and the horses-for-courses syndrome has ensured that Binocular will start a much warmer order this afternoon than he would have a week ago. Katchit has won five times up the Prestbury Park hill; Binocular's only defeat in his last five runs has come there.
Binocular established himself as last season's best juvenile with a rout of the Triumph Hurdle victor Celestial Halo at Aintree and did not need to engage more than third gear against inferior rivals on his seasonal debut at a similarly flat track, Haydock, last month. His hurdling was notably slick, the run will have taken the tickle from his feet and he won over today's course and two-mile distance in January.
Chomba Womba, the highest-rated jumping mare in training, has also scored at Ascot, when she had Crack Away Jack, who does not always jump as well as he might, a length behind over half a mile further last month. She is below her stablemate in the pecking order at home but owns a real turn of foot and may give him most to do today.
Only the major players will pay for Christmas by backing Binocular; for most the Ladbroke, a high-class handicap, will be the betting cracker. Henderson fields the JP McManus-owned, Tony McCoy-ridden market leader here too; Aigle D'Or, touched off at Cheltenham last month when trying to concede more than a stone to Numide. The five-year-old has been nibbled at in the Champion Hurdle market, as has the only one above him in the weights, Ashkazar, who beat all bar Crack Away Jack in the Festival's Fred Winter Hurdle.
Ashkazar, in the David Johnson silks, will be trying to re-establish the Pipe family's grip on the bookmaker's valuable prize, worth £84,495 to the winner today, and will be finely tuned for his task. After successes from Tamarinbleu, Desert Air and Acambo, the sequence was interrupted by Henderson-trained Jack The Giant 12 months ago.
Further down the ratings Take The Breeze (2.45) may be the solution to a difficult puzzle. The French-bred grey had only three rather dull runs last season after joining Paul Nicholls, but there were apparently physiological excuses for his ordinary displays. He reacted badly to being gelded and has also needed surgery to improve his breathing and looked much more the part when he reappeared after a seven-month absence to win at Sandown.
With injured three-time World Hurdle winner Inglis Drever unlikely to defend his crown, the marathon division is wide open. In the day's Grade One feature, the Long Walk Hurdle, Henderson – who has notched three-timers at the last two Saturdays on the course – again has a formidable hand. Duc De Regniere sprang to prominence when he won at Newbury three weeks ago, but not nearly as dramatically as did Punchestowns at Cheltenham when he made a mockery of top weight on his first venture in a handicap.
Given luck and health, Punchestowns is a certain star of the future over fences but is still relatively inexperienced. Duc De Regniere had the race run to suit last time and is opposed again by the three who chased him home and with a strong pace guaranteed by last year's winner, Lough Derg, Blazing Bailey (2.10) is taken to turn the tables.
Whatever happens to Binocular, Aigle D'Or and the rest, Henderson's heart, and the good wishes of the racing public, will be with Trabolgan, who will be competing for the first time since he beat L'Ami in the Hennessy Gold Cup three years ago when he turns out in the BCG Silver Cup. The 10-year-old, for whom the highest hopes were once entertained, has been plagued by injury and the result today will be secondary to his safe return to Seven Barrows.
Deep Purple earns 25-1 quote for Arkle
Deep purple made it a pre-Christmas Ascot Grade Two double yesterday as he made all the running to add the Noel Novices' Chase to his Kennel Gate Novices' Hurdle victory 12 months ago. His latest performance, after a win at Taunton three weeks ago, continued his upward mobility over fences, making his lifeless chasing debut at Wetherby the more puzzling.
"I don't know how I got him beat then," his trainer, Evan Williams, said. "It will just have to remain one of life's mysteries. But this was more like it; he had some nice horses behind who struggled to go his gallop."
Paul Moloney, in the saddle, left Deep Purple to sort himself out approaching the last and the seven-year-old cleverly adjusted his stride by running left-handed down the obstacle and taking it on an angle. He was introduced into the betting for the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham at around 25-1 and may next test his credentials in next week's Wayward Lad Chase at Kempton.
The Kennel Gate Hurdle went this time to Medermit, who continued the fine form of the Alan King yard. The four-year-old did well to keep his feet after a clumsy jump three out, but responded gallantly to Choc Thornton's urgings to nose out the 3-1 favourite, Dee Ee Williams, by a short-head.