Though one perennial anomaly persists, with a "new" season starting at Ludlow and Wetherby tomorrow, little else is routine about the final day of the jumps season.
Certainly none of the trainers who targeted the Bet365 Gold Cup, highlight of a popular mixed card at Sandown, can have expected midwinter ground. At the best of times the race represents a thorough test of jumping and stamina, but conditions today will permit no hiding place for any runner low on fuel at the end of the campaign.
That is not a concern for West End Rocker, who arrived at Aintree a fortnight ago as a fresh horse – and left as one too, having got no further than the second fence. He has a sound chance, but those of a more adventurous disposition might yet give one more chance to Tidal Bay (3.10).
As wilful as he is talented, consenting to run on only when the race is over, he has now slipped down to a very fair mark despite top-weight. Ridden for the first time by Daryl Jacob, whose skills in long-distance chases were so amplified at Aintree, the old rogue gets a distance of ground that might allow him to get involved without especially noticing. Historically his best finishes have been drawn out by the hill at Cheltenham, and the one here could well soften up the leaders sufficiently for him to pick up the pieces. He could simply down tools, of course, but the odds make that a risk worth taking.
Painful as it is, similar doubts must now be entertained about Somersby in the other steeplechase on the card. After a tame submission at Cheltenham, he will have to show rather more spirit in conditions he may find too gruelling. Sanctuaire remains entitled to improve, but Wishful Thinking (2.35) should wrap this up if able to replicate a generous effort at Aintree – albeit that is quite a proviso, given barely a fortnight's recuperation. It might be noted that his stablemate, Menorah, was attempting something similar when failing to get home in desperate conditions behind Lucky William in the Ryanair Gold Cup at Punchestown yesterday.
Willie Mullins has enjoyed another marvellous Festival and today saddles Quel Esprit, among others, on its final card. The champion trainer had the favourites for both the other Grade One prizes yesterday, but Felix Younger ran flat behind Dedigout in the Cathal Ryan Memorial Novice Hurdle and Hurricane Fly made hard work of the Rabobank Champion Hurdle. There were only three other runners, two of them his own stablemates, yet Hurricane Fly had to be driven out firmly to see off Zaidpour by three and a half lengths. "I was worried about him passing the winning post first time round," Mullins admitted. "I thought: 'This guy's not enjoying this.' On reflection, I think he wasn't enjoying the sticky ground – especially after a hard race at Cheltenham last time. I think when the ground's better, he'll be back to himself."
The weather has plainly been inimical to Punchestown's role as a fitting celebration of the season; and while a parade of its British stars might lend a due sense of occasion to proceedings back at Sandown, the most accomplished animal engaged in anger there will actually be on the Flat. Twice Over is well treated at the weights but the same was true on his return at Newmarket last week, when shaping only adequately on his comeback.
World Domination could yet renew the promise of last spring, but one guaranteed to relish conditions is Poet (3.45). Though last on his reappearance in France, he was taken on for the lead on fast going there and made Workforce himself work over course and distance last spring.
Sadly the Bet 365 Classic Trial, potentially the most instructive race on the card, eludes terrestrial coverage – but then the extreme conditions are going to make it hard to quantify the relative merits of two winners at the Craven meeting last week, Stipulate and Rougemont, and two debut winners for top stables. The Group race on yesterday's card, meanwhile, saw Penitent confirm himself better than ever for his flourishing new trainer, David O'Meara.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Dubai Dynamo (2.20 Ripon)
His reliability in this grade makes him a solid play.
Top Smart (2.0 Sandown)