That business about form and class is not a truism for nothing, as Paul Nicholls is perfectly aware. Here yesterday that old recidivist Tidal Bay consented to put his best hoof forward to take the jump season's finale, the bet365 Gold Cup, and crown a seventh consecutive championship season for the Somerset-based trainer.
Tidal Bay, twice a Grade 1 winner in his youth but not, before yesterday, successful at any level for more than two years, was given a ride of tact and silk by Daryl Jacob to take the marathon chase in rain-sodden, testing conditions. But the triumph had been masterminded by Nicholls late last summer, when the 11-year-old gelding joined his team at Ditcheat.
Nicholls was sent the horse after his former trainer Howard Johnson was warned off and owner Graham Wylie reassigned his string. "I asked him in particular if I could have this one," he said. "I knew he had a lot of talent and that there was probably another major prize in him, and I fancied the challenge."
Tidal Bay, top-weight yesterday, warmed up for the test in a hurdle race two weeks ago at Aintree, where Nicholls and Jacob had shown their touch with another veteran, the Grand National hero Neptune Collonges. "That put him just right physically," added Nicholls, "but he's the sort of horse that everything has to go right for in running too. And it did today; he had the ground that slowed it all up and he wasable to get into a rhythm with his jumping.
"I knew he'd stay – he's always finished his races off well, but he doesn't like it when things go a bit quick for him and he gets put under pressure. And a class horse like him can win under a big weight."
Jacob, on a confidence roll after his National win, let Tidal Bay lope round the first circuit before easing smoothly through the field second time round as Roalco de Farges took charge. He jumped to the lead at the last and passed the post 15 lengths clear with his ears pricked, hardly having known he'd been in a race.
"I had plenty left going down the back for the last time," said Jacob, "and it was just a matter of holding on to him. I got a great tow off Dickie[Johnson, on Roalco de Farges] and at the last just gave mine one kick and away he flew."
Behind Tidal Bay the three-mile, five-furlong contest was something of a war of attrition, with nearly half the field pulled up and wide margins between the finishers. And though seeing horses finishing tired is never particularly edifying, that is all they are, tired, just like any athlete who has just completed a gruelling contest. The argument that horses have no choice is as specious as it is trite; of course they don't, but racing is their raison d'etre and, as anyone who has ever been properly fit knows, running, or jumping, or whatever when trained for it is a pleasure.
Most horses, when introduced to and properly prepared for man's games, are perfectly happy to join in; those that are not can and do let it be known. And though anthropomorphism can be unwise, those who suggest that racing is not a positive experience for a thoroughbred should have been present at yesterday's parade of the season's champions.
Seasoned veterans like Kauto Star, Big Buck's and Neptune Collonges, and young thrusters like Sprinter Sacre strutted (and in Kauto's case bounced and bucked with such joie de vivre that owner Clive Smith wondered tongue-in-cheek if there was a late entry stage to the afternoon's feature) with what was easy to read as pride in their steps as they soaked up adulation from an adoring audience.
For the callow three-year-olds who lined up for the Classic Trial on one of the few mixed programmes in the domestic calendar, such hero worship is in the future, but the winner Imperial Monarch and Joseph O'Brien certainly deserved the applause that welcomed them back, the rider for the canny wide course he plotted, sacrificing ground but finding the least heavy going, and the colt, the11-8 favourite, for the determination he showed to claw back an eight-length deficit from the turn in.
The son of Galileo is now judged a 20-1 chance to go one better in the Derby than his half-brother The Great Gatsby, who was narrowly beaten nine years ago. His Aidan O'Brien stablemate Camelot heads the market at both Epsom and for Saturday's 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket.