It takes a weekend like this, when horse and rider seemed suffused with the same primal forces that flayed them with wind and rain, to turn the jumps season from a rough sketch into a potential masterpiece. On Saturday, Kauto Star reiterated that a true champion is sometimes better understood in moments of crisis than in routine mastery over his inferiors. But the horse who pushed him so hard at Haydock, Imperial Commander, was by no means the only one to offer a fresh challenge to the established order. Diamond Harry and Zaynar produced eye-watering performances over hurdles on the same afternoon, while yesterday new stars volunteered themselves over fences either side of the Irish Sea.
The Totesport Becher Chase at Aintree, for instance, identified a fresh favourite for the John Smith's Grand National itself in Vic Venturi, who emulated an eager reconnaissance in the same race last year by his stablemate, Black Apalachi. The latter returned for the big one in April and was still freewheeling in the lead when discarding his rider over Becher's second time.
Admittedly, Vic Venturi had only seven rivals for this valuable prize – a state of affairs that became still more embarrassing after two of them departed at the second. That left Hello Bud to show the way until he was joined over the last by Keenan's Future and Vic Venturi, who surged five lengths clear on the long run-in. Whatever the substance of the form, he certainly seemed stimulated by the big fences and so guarantees Dessie Hughes a major role in the National build-up next spring.
"Black Apalachi will also be back, so we could have two contenders this year," Hughes said. "It is just a shame there are 38 others! There is only one race for him now. He may have a run over hurdles after Christmas, to keep him ticking over, and then he'll go for the Bobbyjo Chase once the National weights have come out."
Paddy Flood confirmed his mount had adored the experience. "He took to the fences like a duck to water," he said. "He's a bit small, but has plenty of class and jumps like a buck." Totesport makes Vic Venturi clear favourite at 16-1, with Tricky Trickster, Don't Push It and Notre Pere 20-1 and Black Apalachi among the 25-1 chances.
But while course form clearly counts for plenty, it may yet prove that the most significant Aintree marker of the afternoon was instead laid down over at Navan. Beroni, making his first start over fences since joining Willie Mullins, won the valuable Troytown Handicap Chase so impressively that he warrants an interest in whatever company he keeps next. While he was demonstrably at home in the vile conditions, his improvement surprised even Mullins, who had put Ruby Walsh on his other runner and left Beroni to Paul Townend.
Mullins indicated that the Coral Welsh National and, closer to home, the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park would now be possible targets. Either would be a perfectly natural place to find an Aintree horse. Ireland's outstanding trainer is making a habit of transforming recruits from other stables and Beroni is well worth backing for Aintree now, at 33-1 or better.
Mullins promptly consoled Walsh with Sports Line, who made a striking start to his chasing career in the next race and adds another dimension to what is already looking a very strong crop of novices over two miles. "He looks a lovely prospect," Mullins said. "He's a little bit hyper, but a great jumper. I've viewed him as an Arkle [Trophy] horse and he has done nothing out there to change my view."
Walsh's relief had been transparent the previous day when the judge finally identified Kauto Star as the winner after an epic duel for the Betfair Chase. The dual Gold Cup winner already looked legless approaching the last, and was running on fumes as Imperial Commander rallied to force a photo. In any normal horse you would be concerned that so hard a race, first time out, would leave its mark later in the season, but trainer Paul Nicholls reckons Kauto Star will instead improve for the run when he seeks that unprecedented fourth success in the William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton.
With the years Nicholls has dismantled conventional assumptions about the longevity of a steeplechaser and it seems prudent to expect another lap of honour on Boxing Day. Both the protagonists apparently emerged from their duel in good shape yesterday, with Nigel Twiston-Davies optimistic of revenge later in the season, albeit he admits that Kempton may not suit Imperial Commander so well. "I loved Paul saying Kauto Star will improve," he remarked. "But ours will improve even more, as a big, burly horse who needed the run. Kempton is much more Kauto Star's track, but bring on Cheltenham and let's have a go."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Montana Gold (3.20 Ludlow)
Has become disappointing after showing early promise, but he would hardly be the first to turn over a new leaf after entering the care of Tim Vaughan.
Rosie All Over (Ffos Las 2.25)
Well beaten on her reappearance but had showed up well for a long way before tiring. With the yard going well, she can resume last season's good progress.
One to watch
Red Moloney (Howard Johnson) has not always looked the most generous of finishers and duly found little off the bridle against some ace hurdlers at Ascot on Saturday, but the way he had travelled implied that he could yet pick up a decent prize off a strong pace.
Where the money's going
Denman is 4-1 favourite with Totesport, from 5-1, to win his second Hennessy Gold Cup when he reappears at Newbury on Saturday.