HARD though it was to believe, as frost sugared every twig in the surrounding hills, plenty of intriguing sport seems guaranteed at Cheltenham over the next two afternoons.
The cross-country track still requires an inspection this morning, but the remainder of the card should be staged in as much comfort as rain, wind and one of the shortest, darkest days of the year permit.
A year after unceremoniously taking the wrong course as the race began in earnest, Uncle Junior and A New Story have another stab at the Cross Country Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.
The incident, which saw seven go the wrong side of a rail before turning in and which left two horses on the floor and A New Story's rider Adrian Heskin with a 12-day ban, is typical of the sort of carnage that can envelop the specialist discipline.
Chief beneficiary of the unfortunate episode was the JT McNamara-ridden Garde Champetre, which took full advantage to record a third successive win in the race.
Few were quite as dependable around the novelty circuit as Enda Bolger's now retired veteran, but Uncle Junior won the November equivalent for a second time for Willie and Patrick Mullins last month, while A New Story, successful in the March edition two years ago, defied his 14 years to finish second in the same race last spring.
Today, eight of the 12 runners are Irish-trained and it is Arabella Boy that is fancied to deliver Bolger his sixth win since 2004. A convincing conqueror of Jessica Harrington's Bostons Angel, which re-opposes now, over Punchestown's banks in November, he is favourably weighted to confirm his superiority under Nina Carberry.
While Midnight Chase is probably happiest on better ground, he so adores this track that he will command many loyal wagers even under top-weight in the day's most valuable race.
After a respectable comeback behind Silviniaco Conti at Wetherby, he is only 5lb higher than when winning the equivalent contest two years ago. In three visits since, he has finished fifth and seventh in the Gold Cup itself and made all in an Argento Chase.
"Though he has to give weight all round, at least he is meeting them on the right terms," said trainer Neil Mulholland yesterday. "Whereas he has been wrong at the weights in some of the conditions races he has been running in."
Midnight Chase will have to be near his peak, however, to concede 13lb to the thriving Quartz De Thaix – or 15lb to the bold Becauseicouldntsee.
Twice runner-up at the Festival here, Noel Glynn's Becauseicouldntsee didn't live up to expectations in the Aintree Grand National but shaped as though coming to hand when third over hurdles a fortnight ago.
Mullins' decision to tackle the Citipost Handicap Hurdle with Inish Island is worth noting.
The champion trainer is selective about what he brings to these early meetings, so the presence of the winner of a modest Downpatrick maiden hurdle under Ruby Walsh is not to be ignored.
Robbie Hennessy, meanwhile, will scope Rubi Light during work this morning. Having been easily beaten when last of three in Sunday's John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown, Hennessy wants to get his stable star's wind examined.
"He seems okay, but he was making a bit of a noise when he was blowing after the race," the Ratoath handler explained.
"He could have just got very tired on his first run since April, but the vet is coming in and we're going to scope him while he is galloping and see if anything comes to light."