The fine art of teaching young horses new tricks

To mark the 10th Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase, a race in which Best Mate once emerged, Chris McGrath discovers how future National Hunt stars are made

If not exactly the Berlin Wall, it is a respectable anniversary in its own right. The Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase is run for a 10th time at Cheltenham tomorrow and, while you never know quite what to expect on a racecourse, the odds are that it will once again identify a top-class steeplechaser in the making.

As usual, it is a small field. With the going expected to be very testing, just four horses have been declared. But then only 57 have contested the prize over the previous nine years: it always concerns quality, not quantity. Within three years, indeed, the race had anointed two future champions. In 2002 Azertyuiop made a persuasive audition for his subsequent success in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but an immediate and indelible standard had already been set, in the inaugural running, by no less a creature than Best Mate.

On the eve of that first reconnaissance, over the fences he would later jump to win three Gold Cups, Terry Biddlecombe gave readers of these pages a first inkling that they might see something out of the ordinary. "He is one of those horses who knows he is special," he said. "He has that presence, that self-knowledge, the good ones have."

Biddlecombe – the former jockey married to Best Mate's trainer, Henrietta Knight – already predicted that the horse would go on to "great things". Sure enough, Best Mate cruised home by 18 lengths, albeit not before making one of the few blunders of his entire career four out. "He thinks he's Arkle, even if he isn't yet," Knight said. "If everything holds together, and he has luck on his side, I think he can go right to the top."

And that is precisely what makes a race of this kind so fascinating. It is a first crossroads on the paths of steeplechasing glory. If a trainer brings a novice here, you can bet your life he or she is already thinking in terms of the Festival in March. So whatever excuses might be feasible, failure always permits the first fragments of unforgiving daylight into the dream.

And this – novice chasing over the minimum distance of two miles – is a notably pitiless discipline. These horses are sampling a new vocation, over fences, having previously been establishing themselves over hurdles – lower, timber obstacles that can be jumped at greater speed than these formidable birch barriers. As it happens, hurdling falls can be the most perilous of all, as horses go that much faster; all in all, however, fences represent a far more searching test of physique and temperament.

This transition is one of a trainer's most engrossing challenges. No matter how talented a horse over hurdles, or how brawny his build, the proof of the pudding only comes in your first schooling session over fences.

Tom Mullins, who has brought Fosters Cross over from Ireland for tomorrow's race, is adamant. "You can't know until you put a fence in front of them," he said. "Some will take to it like a duck to water, some won't. Those that do, you can go ahead and rattle away. Those that don't, you have to be more careful – look for easier tracks, easier races. I like to get whoever will ride the horse in a race to come in and school him first. It's essential horse and jockey have confidence in each other.

"The horse has to be able to see a stride. And if they get that first fall, or make that first mistake, they must cop on from it. Some horses will have to do it twice. And you will get the odd one that doesn't get its act together the whole season. They will eventually get there, but it can be very frustrating. My father [Paddy Mullins] was a legend at it, and he would say that it can sometimes take a long time to make a chaser."

Nigel Twiston-Davies saddles Pigeon Island, who himself needs to "cop on" after falling here last month. Based just up the road, above an enchanting Cotswold valley, Twiston-Davies has won two Grand Nationals and has a corresponding grasp of what makes a horse thrive over fences. "Sometimes the best novices will not have been especially good jumpers of a hurdle," he said. "A lot of the really good jumpers think hurdles are a waste of time. Pettifour [runs 1.20 today] was not the best jumper of hurdles, for instance, but he looks out for the big ones. Equally, some just haven't got the physical scope or the bravery to jump a fence, and won't be as good over one as they were over hurdles. You don't really know until you try it."

Indeed, some of the techniques and physical attributes common to the best hurdlers – condensed by the idea of economy – are downright inimical to fences. "But again, it can happen either way," Twiston-Davies says. "There have been some little horses of ours, that you would never think could make the transition, but did so quite brilliantly. It helps if they have a good attitude, but of course some horses physically can't put themselves right over a fence. They will second guess. Some do have massive power, and can put themselves right that way. Others will just fiddle – every one is different. Some are really exuberant, absolutely eat the fences. Those who respect them too much won't be quite so good."

Twiston-Davies has won this race, and its previous equivalent, three times. And it makes perfect sense to him that it should have isolated so many good horses. Over two miles, they go flat out, and every jumping blemish is magnified accordingly. Tony McCoy, the perennial champion jockey, often says that the calendar offers him no greater thrill – Aintree included – than a championship chase over two miles round Cheltenham.

"It's shit or bust, especially round there," Twiston-Davies agrees. "Your heart's in your mouth, coming down to that downhill fence. It's pretty hairy. There's no margin for error at all."

The horse Mullins runs tomorrow, Fosters Cross, had a lot of schooling in his youth, when a point-to-point career was contemplated. "That has clearly stood him in good stead," Mullins said. "He did a great bit of work the other day, but I'd be worried about the ground. The drier it could be, the better his chance would be."

At the same time, heavy going looks the only conceivable caveat against the hot favourite, Tataniano, who jumped like an old hand on his debut over fences at Exeter last month. His one disappointing effort over hurdles was in bad ground here in January, and his trainer's other runner, Five Dream, is at least proven in the conditions.

All things being equal, Tataniano is much the most eligible to have his name carved beneath the distinguished ones already on the roll of honour. But since when have all things been equal on a racecourse – never mind in its most precarious discipline? Even the Berlin Wall was eventually pulled down, but there is only one way past these obstacles. If they do produce a hero, however, it is unlikely to be just for one day.

Contenders or pretenders? Tomorrow's runners

The Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase (Two miles, Cheltenham, 1.10):

Fosters cross

Trainer Thomas Mullins

Jockey Robbie Power

Progressed well during a busy first season over hurdles, rounding off with wins at Clonmel and Tipperary before making a stylish debut over fences at Galway last month. Trainer reckons he prefers better ground, but the ground was testing at Galway.

Five dream

Trainer Paul Nicholls

Jockey Christian Williams

Inconsistent over hurdles but unbeaten in both chases to date, albeit two of his three rivals fell at Aintree last time. Handles soft ground but lacks class of his stablemate.

Tataniano

Trainer Paul Nicholls

Jockey Ruby Walsh

Represents the top jumps stable in the land and has top-class assistance in the saddle, too. Smart sort over hurdles but avoided the biggest meetings with his next career in mind, and duly made a breathtaking start over fences at Exeter last month. Only concern is that heavy ground might blunt his brilliance.

Pigeon Island

Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies

Jockey Paddy Brennan

Not the most obvious chasing type, and did not convince when beaten in his first start over fences, but was running better when falling here last time. Best on better ground but trainer hopes experiment with blinkers will help.

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