Any lingering hopes that a challenge, never mind a credible one, to the Cheltenham Gold Cup hegemony of the Paul Nicholls stable might emerge yesterday evaporated when one of the members of the Manor Farm chorus, Taranis, stepped from the wings to produce an extraordinary performance at the last dress rehearsal on the Festival stage.
It was the first time the nine-year-old had been seen in public since suffer- ing a catastrophic foreleg injury in the 2007 King George VI Chase. His very appearance was testament to the skills that took Nicholls to the top of his profession; his six-length demolition of his rivals an indication of the strength in depth of equine talent that has kept the trainer there for five seasons.
Nicholls now has four of the first six in the Gold Cup betting, with the heavyweights Kauto Star and Denman short-priced at the top of the lists and What A Friend and Taranis judged around the 25-1 mark. The two interlopers are Imperial Commander, whose next outing will be the big one, and Cooldine, due to present his credentials today week at Leopardstown.
Taranis – named after the Celtic thunder god – looked ready to rumble, despite his 766-day absence. He was, though, at 16-1, only the Nicholls second string for yesterday's Argento-sponsored Grade Two contest according to punters, with the Ruby Walsh-ridden Inchidaly Rock at 11-4. That novice, though, found open company too hot and came down at the ninth, leaving Nick Scholfield to pick up the yard's colours.
And how well he carried them through. In his previous incarnation Taranis had been a classy performer, with a defeat of Our Vic in the Ryanair Chase and a Grade One victory at Down Royal to his credit. As Carruthers and last year's winner, Joe Lively, shook off Madison Du Berlais as they diced down the hill and round the home turn, it was clear that Scholfield had yet to go through the gears.
He allowed Taranis to cruise towards the lead after the penultimate obstacle, and although gallant Carruthers remained level at the last and did his best to keep the Gold Cup fairytale for his owner-breeder John Oaksey alive, the French-bred chestnut pulled smoothly away on the climb to the line. "The last thing Ruby said to me," said Scholfield, "was not to hit the front before I had to if I was in with a chance, as he's always tended to idle. He was travelling so well I was there way too soon, but there was always plenty in the tank."
Taranis is likely to take his chance in the Gold Cup, but Nicholls knows that the most telling moment on that path will be when he inspects that precious off-foreleg this morning. "He had a really bad breakdown," Nicholls said, "so we will all just pray he's OK. He is a top-level winner in his own right, but you never know if they will retain that ability after so long off. I really didn't expect a performance like this one, but if he can improve again for that he's got to be in the Gold Cup mix. We've nursed him this far; now we'll see if we can get him back here in March."
There was another reminder of the class-is-permanent adage when Tidal Bay, reverting from fences to the smaller obstacles for the first time in three years, left Time For Rupert and Katchit trailing five lengths in his wake in the Cleeve Hurdle. The Howard Johnson-trained nine-year-old has a fine record at the Festival – in three visits he has run second in a Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle, won an Arkle Trophy and finished fourth in a Ryanair Chase – and he may return this time in the World Hurdle, the mara-thon won three times by his legendary former stablemate Inglis Drever in the same Graham Wylie colours.
Yesterday did not belong entirely to the biggest guns. Hey Big Spender threw his hat in the Festival ring by taking the novices' handicap chase in sprightly fashion under top-weight. "He's progressive," said his trainer, Colin Tizzard. "He'll probably get top-weight again in the Jewson, but he's a big strong boy and can carry it. It takes me up the gallops, after all."
Restless Harry, whose eponymous nature is calmed by being turned out with 14 others in a park of fallow deer near Robin Dickin's yard in Warwickshire, is likely to go for the three-mile Albert Bartlett Hurdle after running his rivals ragged in yesterday's Grade Two novices' race. And Bob Buckler's The Sawyer, bred in one of Europe's bloodstock backwaters, must now, after winning his second valuable prize in eight days, join Eddy Merckx, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Jean-Marc Bosman on the list of famous sporting Belgians.