This was one of those rare occasions when the trainer of the runner-up sounded happier than the man welcoming back the winner. Certainly a midweek, rural defeat here yesterday came at no cost to the dignity of one of the most impressive winners of the Cheltenham Festival last year.
After running away with the Foxhunters' Chase, Cappa Bleu was transferred to a stable rather better versed in dealing with championship steeplechasers. But the horse made a pretty disastrous start for Evan Williams last autumn, well beaten in a novice chase at Aintree and then falling heavily in the Hennessy. Freshened up since, here he showed unmistakable signs of renewal in a novice hurdle, run at a fierce gallop in testing ground.
Having jumped the smaller obstacles with naive gusto, he kept up an enthusiastic pursuit once headed by Voramar Two, and pulled well clear of the rest. Williams was thrilled. "That's more like the horse we need to see," he said. "I'm pleased he has enjoyed himself, but Paul Moloney said he's still very green. He had a serious fall in the Hennessy, and we needed to get him back on the rails. I might give him another run over hurdles, although he is in the Blue Square Gold Cup at Haydock, over three and a half miles. Paul said he didn't have the speed today, so that race might suit him."
Philip Hobbs, meanwhile, was professing some exasperation a few yards away. "The Cheltenham novice hurdles closed this morning, and I should have put Voramar Two in," he said. "It really bugs me, these races closing so early – you couldn't possibly think of putting him in, on what he'd done before. He'll improve again for this, too. He has had his palate cauterized since his last run, and he could be quite good. They went some gallop. But his real future is over fences."
Alan King had made no such oversight with Whistlejacquet, who had at least disclosed his talent in bumpers last season, and made an impeccable start over timber in an earlier novice hurdle. "Whether he has enough time to get in the necessary practice is another matter," he admitted. "It would be a bit of a rush, because he'd need another run. He might be one to skip it and go to Aintree instead, but we'll see. He's certainly good enough."
King's stable jockey, Robert Thornton, was seeing a specialist yesterday after his fall at Leicester last week, but will be back in ample time for Cheltenham. In the meantime King is glad to be giving more opportunities to Thornton's understudy, Wayne Hutchinson. "He steps into the shoes very well," he observed. "He's a very good jockey, who rides with a lot more confidence nowadays."
King's JCB Triumph Hurdle favourite, Mille Chief, has emerged from his success at Huntingdon in such fettle that he may return to the same track tomorrow week – rather than wait for a race at Kempton at the end of the month. "It would give me a bit longer before Cheltenham," King said. "And if we waited until Kempton, and that happened to be off, I'm not going to get another run into him."
Emma Lavelle saddled King's Forest to win the novice chase in the colours of her father, Richard – celebrating his 50th success as an owner.
Lavelle has another smart novice in Kangaroo Court, who disappeared after two sure-footed displays in the autumn. "We gave him a holiday because he wants quick ground," Lavelle said. "But he's back cantering now, in great form, and would be ready to run at Cheltenham if the ground happened to come right. Otherwise he'll wait for Aintree."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Stanley Rigby (8.0 Kempton) Had his problems, spending two seasons acquiring a rating in three maidens – but was heavily backed for his handicap debut over course and distance, finishing strongly to share a three-way photo.
Ragamuffin Man (2.30 Exeter) Capable of winning off this mark, now his stamina is being properly tested, and only needs to tidy his jumping, judged on the way he finished last time.
One to watch
Aather (A Fleming) Did not quite get home up the hill at Cheltenham on Saturday, but the way he travelled before pulling clear of the third suggests he can improve again, granted a sharper test.
Where the money's going
An extraordinary JCB Triumph Hurdle gamble on According, due to make his debut for Nicky Henderson at Sandown on Saturday, continued yesterday – he is now 9-1 from 12-1 with William Hill.