At a time when conditions over here might urge many a jockey into early retirement, the news that Gary Stevens is to ride again crossed the ocean like a shaft of Californian sunlight. Approaching his 50th birthday, Stevens will doubtless summon the intelligence and dignity that sustained one of the great American careers in managing his body, and commitments, in such a way that he does not spoil memories of his pomp.
Stevens has already made one comeback, having briefly retired in 1999, but seven years divide his last mount in public from his resumption at Santa Anita tomorrow. The chronic knee problems that caused him to quit have apparently cleared up sufficiently to justify a gamble that still came as a thrilling surprise, even after a conspicuous fitness programme and his reappearance on the morning work roster had triggered weeks of rumour in the United States.
One way or another, it seems that racing can keep horsemen in its thrall against all odds. And if Stevens has proved unable to resist a seven-year itch, then Victor Dartnall required perhaps still greater passion to renew his own career after an interval of barely seven weeks. As a result, even a gruelling slog for the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow today contains the potential to surpass the return of Stevens as the most uplifting story of the Turf's new year.
In November, Dartnall was obliged to shut down his Devon stables after an outbreak of the terrifying neurological contagion equine herpes. Three of his horses died, and he suspects the loss of two others to have been related to the virus. Even in the depths of the crisis, however, he found consolation in the Blitz spirit and dedication of staff.
A disappointing chasing debut at Exeter the other day from Ambion Wood, arguably the best horse in the yard, could therefore be received with a due sense of perspective. Ambion Wood took time to come to hand last season, after all. And it may yet prove that the rescheduling of today's race, because of waterlogging after Christmas, could work in favour of Giles Cross – who has presumably profited from extra work, after missing a scheduled prep race during the quarantine period.
At the best of times, Giles Cross would be guaranteed the support of neutrals after finishing second in both the last two runnings of this race. In one he was beaten by a subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, in Synchronised, and his form last spring was further decorated by a narrow defeat of the subsequent Grand National winner, Neptune Collonges, at Haydock. Himself pulled up after an early mistake at Aintree, Giles Cross remains fairly lightly raced for a horse of his age and course form is always a bonus round Chepstow. For punters, however, the hard-boiled reality is that this may prove too unsparing an assignment for his first start since April.
Teaforthree has an obvious chance of becoming the first home winner since 1965, clearly primed for this since his success at the Festival last March, but hardly offers value. Though ultimately well beaten that day at Cheltenham, Universal Soldier (3.20) shaped well in unsuitably lively conditions and makes only his fourth start for the up-and-coming Charlie Longsdon stable. In fact, he has had nine races all told – including a runaway success round here over hurdles, on the equivalent card two years ago – and the fitting of blinkers has a purposeful look after he shaped well on his reappearance at Haydock.
The new Channel 4 team also takes in the Coral Future Champions Juvenile Hurdle, earlier on the card, but this is no betting medium with Messrs Henderson and Nicholls each introducing a French import against a couple of useful debut winners. Several unexposed improvers likewise convene for the Grade One novice at Sandown, the 32Red Tolworth Hurdle, albeit that is hardly the most obvious description of the eight-year-old Poet, who ran some of his best races on the Flat over this track. Poet made a good start to his new career at Newbury, but preference for now is for one with a rather more conventional background in Melodic Rendezvous (2.25). Beaten only by Champagne Fever in two bumpers last year, he made his ground not only from farther back but also on a slower part of the course when beating Royal Boy at Cheltenham last month. He plainly represents the smaller yard but looks better value for the rematch than might otherwise be the case, being in very good hands.
At 9-1, Champagne Fever already looks a tempting wager for the Neptune Novices' Hurdle at the Festival. Having had his first defeat placed in a more flattering light by Jezki, so impressive since at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, Champagne Fever is expected to relish a step up in trip when he meets another fine prospect, Rule The World, at Naas tomorrow.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Johns Spirit (3.40 Sandown)
Rugosa (3.10 Lingfield)