It was a weekend when two of steeplechasing's forgotten Titans finally put their heads over the parapet, just in time to reassure their admirers that they are ready to renew past depredations at the Cheltenham Festival.
On Saturday, Imperial Commander's gallop at Kempton went some way to stifling anxious mutterings about his preparations for the defence of the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. And yesterday Ruby Walsh appeared in the gloaming at Leopardstown, riding over racecourse fences for the first time since breaking a leg at Down Royal in November.
Walsh rode Mikael d'Haguenet in a schooling session alongside three others trained by Willie Mullins. The man who divides his services between the champion trainers of Britain and Ireland will be spending the next two mornings at Ditcheat, test-driving dozens of Cheltenham horses for Paul Nicholls. The Festival starts a fortnight tomorrow, giving Walsh little opportunity for match practice. Even so, he is toying with the idea of delaying his comeback – proposed for Taunton on Thursday – to ensure that he does not pick up an untimely suspension.
Walsh's proved just about the only cameo of interest after racing at Leopardstown, most trainers having evidently wearied of media and public fascination in the ritual convergence of so many Festival horses here. The likes of Pandorama and Big Zeb will instead be brought to the track this morning when there will be few prying eyes.
At the best of times such sparring sessions can be notoriously misleading. In the case of one of the sport's heavyweights, however, they represent all the evidence available about the state of his right hook since November. That was when Imperial Commander made his only appearance of the season to date, sustaining a gash to his leg in the process of winning Haydock's Betfair Chase. So anyone inclined to scepticism about what he may or may not have achieved in a two-mile spin round Kempton has an obligation of equal indifference about his failure to sparkle in a similar exercise at Warwick 12 days previously. Certainly Paddy Brennan was convinced of a tangible improvement, declaring that his mount felt "a different horse" this time. Nigel Twiston-Davies, his trainer, will be offering his own assessment when he opens his stable to the media tomorrow.
The galloping companion who had made Imperial Commander look mediocre at Warwick was unmasked later as Oscar Magic whose debut success in the bumper saw him promoted to Twiston-Davies's Festival team.
Others to use the racecourse in more earnest over the weekend included Quinz and Captain Chris, who gave Philip Hobbs a significant double at Kempton, while yesterday Celestial Halo sealed his return to form with a decisive success in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell. Beaten only a neck in the Champion Hurdle two years ago, Celestial Halo had a miserable spell in novice chases earlier in the season but is looking much happier with life now back over timber. Those who took a dim view of Mille Chief's scrap with this horse at Wincanton the previous weekend should perhaps be taking a fresh look at that horse's Festival credentials. Celestial Halo himself, however, is set to wait for Aintree before becoming his stable's first Flat runner in Royal Ascot's Queen Alexandra Stakes.
Back at Leopardstown, meanwhile, the competitive stuff had been dominated by Davy Russell, whose treble took him to 63 winners for the season and firmly in contention for the Irish jockeys' title. He ended the day seven behind Paul Townend, whose opportunities for Mullins will be reduced once Walsh completes his return.
Russell's winners included Westmeath who will goes to the Festival after winning the maiden hurdle in style. Always handy, he saw out the race well and his trainer may conclude that he will improve again over the extra half-mile in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. "It isn't the ideal preparation," Paul Nolan said. "He hurt his back when disappointing at Ballinrobe and wasn't right afterwards. He's clearly right again now, though– he jumped a bus at the first."
Stargazing (4.0 Wolverhampton) Raced in sprints for her previous yard but has won both starts since changing hands cheaply and being raised in trip. Beat a thriving rival last time and only 4lb higher here.
Restezen D'Armor (3.50 Plumpton) Again did not get home after travelling well at Ludlow but worth another chance dropped in trip and with cheek-pieces on.
One to watch
Next To Nowhere (Nicky Richards) made an encouraging start over hurdles last week, well beaten in third but learning all the time as he emerged from the rear.
Where the money's going
Zarkandar, a French import who scored on his Paul Nicholls debut at Kempton on Saturday, is 10-1 from 12-1 with William Hill for Cheltenham's Triumph Hurdle.