At the best of times, it can be hard enough to find the lane that climbs up to the stables at Barbury Castle. On a morning when the old hangars and airfield fences loom and recede in the fog, it feels as though Nature herself is conspiring in the sequestration of one of the strongest Cheltenham teams in the land. Those who eventually obtain his lair, however, find Alan King providing all the illumination necessary.
With the Festival imminent, King might pardonably confine himself to platitudes about growing tension and diminishing expectation. Instead, even as a pale disc of sun emerged over the hidden Wiltshire downs, King volunteered an unequivocal insight – not so much on the relative merits of his two JCB Triumph Hurdle candidates, Grumeti and Balder Succes, as on the parity of another juvenile in his care. For while that pair contest a championship race off level weights, Vendor has just 10st 4lb in the Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle on Wednesday.
The French import was allotted a rating of 122 after his debut for the stable, at Newbury on New Year's Eve. "He just missed the last, landing very awkwardly, and did well to pick the other horse up," he said. "But for that, I don't think he'd have come off the bridle. I couldn't quite believe the mark the handicapper came up with, so we just thought we'd look after it for Cheltenham. He has gone up to 129 since, just standing in his stable – but I'd be very disappointed if he's not a whole lot better than that."
Ideally, King would have liked to harden Vendor with another run. "But you can't show your hand too much," he said. "He hasn't run on good ground as yet, but his action suggests he might even improve for it. I expect something will come along and ruin everything. But whatever happens at the Festival, I've no doubt he's a high-class horse in the making – every bit as good as Grumeti or Balder Succes."
Clearly, King does not intend that as faint praise for two horses "right up there with the best" of those who have compiled his excellent record with juveniles. He is glad, moreover, that Wayne Hutchinson, such an able deputy during his stable jockey's recent absence through injury, is guaranteed a good mount on whichever Robert "Choc" Thornton rejects. Grumeti was lame after spreading a plate earlier this week, but King was yesterday "much happier" with the horse and is confident he should be able to line up.
King continues to wrestle with a dilemma over Medermit, who stayed on strongly behind Riverside Theatre at Ascot last month. "Every day I wake up I have a different idea of what we should be doing," he said. "If it went soft he'd certainly go for the Ryanair Chase, but that doesn't seem very likely. I'm sure he'll stay three miles, but whether he would get three and a quarter in the Gold Cup is another matter – especially as it looks like the race is going to be fiercely run."
The decision gains extra gravity from a relative lack of ammunition in the biggest races of the week – a situation certain to be redressed in years to come, to judge from the depth among his stable's novices. Quite apart from the juveniles, he has Montbazon and Batonnier over hurdles and Walkon and Invictus over fences. As usual, moreover, he has several strong contenders in the handicaps, not least Hold On Julio in the JLT Speciality Chase.
"We got a few out and went to find fresh blood," King said. "Certainly, this is the best bunch of young horses we've had here in a long time."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Gentle Bob (4.05 Wincanton) Getting his act together over fences and on the same mark as when miles clear of the rest behind an improver at Ffos Las last time.
Qalinas (3.00 Wincanton) Unfinished business with this one, who suggested he has much more ability than this rating before disappointing on his final start last term.
One to watch
Buck Magic (Kieran Burke) Was a respectable fourth at Newbury on Saturday but arguably recoiled somewhat from his comeback effort and can do better again.
Cheltenham countdown: 5 days to go
My top fancy for the Festival Anthony Bromley, the agent who bought Long Run and Kauto Star.
Triolo D'Alene had form on smaller tracks in France but has continued on the upward curve since joining Nicky Henderson, winning really well at Ascot. Nicky's very pleased with his condition going into the Pulteney Novices' Chase.