All eyes will be on Kauto Star today. But the frightening thing is that the Gold Cup favourite may not even be the best horse to be carrying Clive Smith's colours and residing at Paul Nicholls' Manor Farm Stables. Master Minded, a five-year-old of extraordinary talent and precocity, produced an astounding performance to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The two-mile king may have arrived a day late, but this was a crowning worth waiting for.
The bare statement that Master Minded beat the defending champion, Voy Por Ustedes, by 19 lengths does not do justice to his overwhelming superiority. Competitive championship races are not supposed to be won in a canter, but at no point was the imposing bay gelding off the bridle.
His rider, Ruby Walsh, not given to overstatement, had only one word after he pulled up. "Brilliant," he said, then for good measure added, shaking his head in disbelief, "brilliant, brilliant, brilliant."
Master Minded was the first of his tender years to win the two-mile chasing showpiece in 49 runnings. He gained lengths every time he took to the air and, despite a searching pace set in front by Schindler's Hunt and, disappointingly briefly, Tamarinbleu – a gallop so fierce that another habitual trailblazer, Fair Along, was taken off his feet – had cruised to the front before halfway.
"It was fabulous every step of the way," enlarged Walsh. "They went one hell of a gallop and he was running away with me everywhere. At the top of the hill I was thinking, 'Just hang on, fella, just get over these fences'. But he's a machine."
Master Minded was headhunted from France for £230,000 and, though he ran a fine first race in the green, yellow and purple silks when second in a top-class chase at Auteuil, his British debut was inauspicious; he blundered and unseated Sam Thomas at Exeter in December.
But since then, his progress has been as remarkable as his display yesterday. And at Newbury last month he gave notice of what was to come by putting Voy Por Ustedes to the sword, though by a mere five lengths that time.
"I have never had a horse improve as much in so short a space of time as this one," Nicholls said. "I've seen him get better at home in front of my eyes, almost from minute to minute. He has almost been frightening me. We hadn't really planned to take him to this level this season, especially after what he did at Exeter. But I think that happened because he was still jumping French-style, a bit low.
"We put some work into him after that, and he's a very intelligent horse, and soon learnt. And the way he'd been working with Kauto Star, we just had to run him today. He is awesome."
It was a third Champion Chase for Nicholls, after Call Equiname in 1999 and Azertyuiop four years ago.
The sheer physical sensations experienced by Walsh have been backed up by figures. The Timeform organisation, producers of racing's ratings bible, have already allotted Master Minded a mark of 178, which puts him straight in among the great specialist two-milers to win here.
He can be mentioned in the same breath as Dunkirk, who won by 20 lengths in 1965; Badsworth Boy, who scored by a distance in 1983, the first of three consecutive victories; and Moscow Flyer.
Master Minded is already as low as evens for a repeat next year, and will not be seen again until next season. "He's hugely talented and we'll be looking after him," said Nicholls. "We'll stick to two miles with him; there's no reason to want to do anything else."
Voy Por Ustedes' trainer, Alan King, was rather po-faced at Newbury after Master Minded beat his charge, but had no complaints at all after this latest reverse. Last year's winner was the only one to mount any sort of challenge, but had no answer at all to the nape-tingling raw talent of the younger horse.
"We were beaten fair and square and I take my hat off to him," he said generously. "It was a proper test today and the best horse won. And I think we'll probably step up in trip now." As will Fair Along, who eventually finished well to deprive Schindlers Hunt of third place, albeit 16 lengths adrift of the runner-up.
Master Minded's victory was a timely first of the meeting for Nicholls and Walsh. "It's good to get the win on the board," said a jubilant Smith. "My nerves aren't quite so jangled now."
Champion Chase result
1 Master Minded (R Walsh) 3-1
2 Voy Por Ustedes (R Thornton) 5-2 fav
3 Fair Along (R Johnson) 12-1
Won by 19 lengths, 16 lengths
Winner trained: P Nicholls
Owned: C Smith
Three To Follow At The Festival Today
His extrovert trainer, Oliver Brady is one of Irish racing's most in-your-face characters; his post-race speeches after a winner are legendary among racegoers. He has had runners placed four times at Cheltenham and has promised a special show – content unspecified, but he tends to sing when he's winning – in the unsaddling enclosure after the Grand Annual Chase if Maralan gets there. Behind the clown exterior Brady, 68, is a clever businessman, co-director of a recycling company in Co Monaghan. He has been treated for cancer, has had a quadruple heart bypass and five years ago was given six months to live. "I'm not indestructible," he said, "but I'm thankful to God for looking after me."
Won In The Dark
The Harty boys had their moment on Tuesday when Captain Cee Bee took the opener and today is the turn of a Harty girl. Sabrina of that ilk – whose father is Buster Harty, brother of Grand National-winning Eddie, making her cousin to Captain Cee Bee's trainer Edward – sends Won In The Dark to the Triumph. Sabrina, 29, bought the four-year-old for only £1,000 after he failed in three Flat runs. He has since won three over hurdles, including a Grade One. Ms Harty, though, is a reluctant trainer. "It's so hard to make a living out of it," she said, "but people kept sending me horses."
The affection of the racing fraternity for John Oaksey – one-time top journalist and TV pundit, the finest amateur rider of his generation and the driving force behind the Injured Jockeys Fund – knows no bounds, as will be demonstrated if Carruthers can win the Albert Bartlett Hurdle for staying novices. Oaksey bred the six-year-old, the first foal of his mare Plaid Maid, and is one of the syndicate of owners. Carruthers, who has a white mark in the shape of a 'C' on his forehead, was named after a character who figures prominently in the noble lord's after-dinner speeches and will be accompanied to the track by his best friend, the 10-hand Shetland pony Heidi.
What's in a name?
BON ACCORD (Foxhunter Chase): Team who suffered the greatest defeat in the history of competitive football, beaten 36-0 by Arbroath in Scottish Cup of 1885. They had an excuse – they were a cricket club who had been given the fixture by mistake..
GONE TO LUNCH (Albert Bartlett Hurdle): The reason why his owner, a property developer, is often unavailable. Also shares his initials, Gary Thomas Lever.
FIVEFORTHREE (Ballymore Hurdle): Golfing term, used in Stableford points-scoring system for five shots on a hole that resulted in a net birdie.
FRANCHOEK (Triumph Hurdle): Rendering of Francshhoek, upmarket resort in Cape winelands of South Africa.
GWANAKO (Grand Annual): South American native camelid, related to alpacas and vicunas.
SHATABDI (David Nicholson Mares): Hindi word for centenary. The Shatabdi Express service is a series of super-fast intercity trains in India.