It is not often a horse is thrashed as uncompromisingly as was Tidal Bay at Sandown on Saturday and comes away with his reputation intact. The fact is, however, that his failure even to get Master Minded off the bridle did little to diminish his future prospects. True, one door had been slammed brusquely in his face, but the manner of his defeat only served to prise open another.
The bookmakers recognised as much, the sponsors leaving his odds for the Stan James King George VI Chase unchanged at 6-1. The Seasons Holidays Tingle Creek Chase was always going to be a crossroads for Tidal Bay, whose connections wanted to establish whether his future lay over two miles or three. They seemed to get an unequivocal answer, Tidal Bay staying on under a kind ride behind one of the outstanding modern steeplechasers over two miles. He had lost his position jumping sluggishly early in the back straight, but then made up ground easily enough to confirm that he may be found out at this level for speed, but not for class.
In racing, however, each answer raises a new question. And yesterday his trainer counselled against any assumption that Tidal Bay will now proceed to Kempton on Boxing Day. Howard Johnson recognised that a sharp, flat three miles could be ideal, in principle. On Saturday, however, he had discovered a new complication.
"To me, he's a better horse going left-handed," Johnson said. "That's what I think, anyway. In fact, I'm certain of it. Kempton would be tempting, because he didn't have a hard race. But it is right-handed again, and you can't change that. I might look to train him for the race we won a couple of years back with Grey Abbey, at Cheltenham in January. That would also leave him more time between races, and help keep him fresh."
The race in question is the Cotswold Chase, over a distance only marginally short of the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Johnson admitted that he now has the Gold Cup in mind for the Festival, with the option of the Ryanair Chase should he fail to convince as a thorough stayer in the meantime.
"I know we can't compete with Master Minded, not at two miles anyway," he said. "But we were over the moon with him. He winged the first, and then I think he got a bit of a fright from the loose horse. I'm not sure he was concentrating. He's that kind of horse, always gaping about, and I don't know if he'd had his confidence knocked. But Denis [O'Regan] didn't have to knock him about at all to get second."
Johnson was back in his frozen Northumbrian fastness yesterday, unperturbed by the fact that two more of the stable's best horses had also been beaten on their raid south. On Raglan Road and Abbeybraney, two expensive Irish imports, both finished second on Friday's card. "But On Raglan Road was in a silly race," Johnson said. "That's twice he has been caught out by a dawdle. He wants an end-to-end gallop, and was done for speed by a Flat horse. I was pleased with Abbeybraney, he'll go to Chepstow [for the Coral Welsh National] if I can freshen him up all right."
Apart from anything else, going to Kempton with Tidal Bay would invite a certain déjà vu, with the favourite, Kauto Star, representing the same interests as Master Minded himself. Clive Smith, owner of both horses, yesterday reiterated that their trainer, Paul Nicholls, had lost none of his faith in Kauto Star following that recent failure at Haydock. "Kempton is a certain type of track, which obviously suits him," Smith said. "I've seen a few people are doubting him, but let them."
The success of Master Minded closed an uncomfortable chapter for the stable, Tony McCoy having been drafted in for the mount after a series of dispiriting experiences – not least on Kauto Star himself – for Sam Thomas, deputy to the injured stable jockey, Ruby Walsh. Thomas was instead sent to Chepstow, where he had a 1-4 winner, a 2-7 loser, and was unseated from the favourite in the novice chase.
Nicholls felt content that he had done the right thing, above all by the horse, and can now look forward to Walsh's return, probably at Cheltenham this weekend. Master Minded himself, meanwhile, is likely to have two races before defending the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He was magnificent on Saturday, the one and only tremor comprising the nimble evasion of a faller at the first.
With Denman now due to resume in January, the spring is right back in Nicholls's step. He had hoped to win another big prize at Punchestown yesterday, when Noland was due to contest the John Durkan Chase, but the meeting was postponed until tomorrow because of frost.Reuse content