Tingle factor heralds vintage season over the fences
If the hairs on the back of your neck were not prickling like a hedgehog around 2.38pm on Saturday then you are not a racing enthusiast. At that time, four equine athletes, with no quarter given, were soaring at electric pace across the closely packed fences down the back straight at Sandown.
Blazing away in the lead of the Tingle Creek Chase was Cenkos, a previous winner of the race, followed by Moscow Flyer, last year's victor and winner of all 20 steeplechases in which he had completed the course. Since he had also fallen or unseated his rider once in every four races and came into this contest after three consecutive victories, Moscow Flyer was due another disaster, though nobody had told the horse. In third place was Azertyuiop, this year's winner of the two-mile, sprint chasing championship, the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, and in fourth was Well Chief, a mere five year old but one of the stars of the Martin Pipe stable that has been carrying all before it this year.
Cenkos finally clouted a couple and was beaten. Coming to the Pond Fence, three from home, Azertyuiop was cruising and looking ready to take the leader when he wanted. Well Chief, having been given time to find his legs in the gentle hands of Timmy Murphy, this season's outstanding jockey, was quietly gaining ground. All three battled on furiously.
But over the last two Moscow Flyer was up and away, roared to the line with Azertyuiop and Well Chief a length and a half behind and separated by no more than a head. Knowing that they will be lucky to see such a thrilling contest again in years, the crowd cheered all three into the winner's enclosure separately. Joyfully, connections of all three signalled their readiness to take each other on again in what could become a classic series.
Although the two-mile Queen Mother Chase at Cheltenham remains the prime target, Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop might now clash in the next jumping classic, the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. As Edredon Bleu showed last year when substituting for his stable companion Best Mate, now the winner of three successive Gold Cups, the easy three miles on the flat Thameside track can come within the compass of the best two-mile chasers.
Sadly they are unlikely to face Best Mate. In what will probably be his only race between now and the Gold Cup, he will come out next on less risky ground in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown this month. Trainer Henrietta Knight collects brickbats for "mollycoddling" her great horse with only three or four races a season when Arkle used to prove his brilliance regularly by humping huge weights in handicaps to beat lesser rivals. But this is a more competitive age. Two Cheltenham idols, Barracouda and Rooster Booster, did spectacular weight-bearing jobs last season and then lost their Cheltenham crowns. And with three Gold Cups in the bag, who is to say that Knight's restraint is wrong?
But however infrequently Best Mate runs, it could prove to be a vintage season over the bigger obstacles. Already Nigel Twiston-Davies's Fundamentalist has emerged as an outstanding novice chaser and Martin Pipe's Celestial Gold, winner of both the Paddy Power Gold Cup and the Hennessy Gold Cup, has a host of admirers. Azertyuiop's trainer Paul Nicholls will soon bring back Strong Flow, last year's exciting Hennessy victor, after injury, who has won all five of his completed chases. And Pipe and leading owner David Johnson, whose blue and green colours have become the punters' delight, have an even better Gold Cup prospect than Celestial Gold in Our Vic.
As for the other big one, the Grand National, in which last year's winner Amberleigh House will be seeking to add one more to the evergreen Ginger McCain's list of National victories with Red Rum, we had a string of clues on Saturday. Chives, rejuvenated by a switch from Henrietta Knight to Sue Smith, won the Tommy Whittle Chaser at Haydock. Paul Hobbs's One Knight returned from a year off to win the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow, and at Sandown Tom George's Historic, once a classy hurdler, led all the way to win the 3m 5f William Hill Marathon Chase.
Not even Christmas yet and the chasing table is groaning with quality fare. With so many good horses around, let us hope the weather does not intervene to restrict their opportunities.