It's a personal thing but everyone has his own version of the jumps start. For some, it's Listowel. For others, it's the Chepstow fixture that used to feature the old Mercedes Benz Chase and the four-year-old Free Handicap and now has the Totepool Silver Trophy. For others still, it's yesterday's Charlie Hall.
Some might say the jumps only begins when AP McCoy has ridden his 100th winner (last Thursday!). However, even diehards of the level who have steadfastly clung to the Flat through Racing Post Trophies, Breeders' Cups, November Handicaps, and Melbourne Cup have to quietly admit that the sport has come in its winter coat when we get to Cheltenham's Paddy Power in mid-November.
For many, the feature race will always remain the 'Mackeson' -- reflective of an enduring sponsorship that began with the inception of the race in 1960 and lasted in a world of fast food and instant messaging a whopping 35 years. The race sponsorship wobbled for a period, from Murphy's through Thomas Pink, until Paddy Power took over in 2003. Given the commercial progress of the sponsor in recent years, it is unlikely to change names again for the foreseeable future.
By far the most successful franchise in the race's distinguished history has been the Pipe family. Martin practically made the race his own, winning it eight times (seven between 1996 and 2005); and son David took over where he left off by winning last year's renewal with Great Endeavour.
This time another Pipe grey heads the market in Grands Crus and, in spite of 44 entries at this stage, it looks as if the seven-year-old will be devilishly hard to beat. His handicap mark of 157 almost certainly underestimates his talent and has been accrued mainly through a tame final effort in the RSA Chase, a notoriously punishing encounter for a novice in any year.
Long Run was an equally disappointing beaten favourite in the same race before starting favourite for the Paddy Power two years ago. He raced off a one-pound higher mark (158) than Grands Crus but could only manage third. In spite of that defeat, he won the Gold Cup the following March, beating Denman and Kauto Star, and wound up the season with a rating of 182.
While we're on the subject of comparison, the Paddy Power trip of two-and-a-half miles is far more up Grands Crus' street than ever it was for the stamina-laden Long Run, so it is easily conceivable the Pipe grey could win this out of the park off his present mark.
However, his price two weeks out from the race is just 7/2 best, and the fact Grands Crus still holds an entry the following week in Haydock's Betfair Chase just tempers any ante-post enthusiasm at this stage. Furthermore, he is a hold-up character which races very keenly so is going to need luck in running in what could be a maximum field.
For Non Stop raced into the Paddy Power equation last weekend with a breathtaking victory in the Old Roan Chase, but the handicapper hasn't missed him and has slapped him with an 11lbs weight rise. While undoubtedly improving, and with some requisite good course form, although he has never won at Cheltenham from four visits, he is one for the shortlist. However, they went off at a suicide pace at Aintree and the race rather fell apart in front of For Non Stop, so I'm pretty sure his margin of victory was exaggerated on the day.
Champion Court had For Non Stop behind him in the Jewson when chasing home Sir Des Champs in March yet will meet him in receipt of 7lbs this time around. Martin Keighley unlocked the secret to Champion Court by allowing him to freewheel in front and the tactics all but succeeded in the Jewson. He would hold an outstanding chance if he lines up. However, the trainer has another in the race and has intimated he won't run both. He sees Champion Court as essentially a three-miler this season and is only considering the Paddy Power after his horse suffered a minor setback forcing him to miss an engagement in a graduation chase tomorrow.
The one that most catches my eye is Micheal Flips, which finished fourth in the Jewson but now meets the others on considerably better terms. Prior to that he had run For Non Stop to two lengths off levels in the Grade One Scilly Isles at Newbury yet he gets 16lbs from that rival on Saturday week.
His jumping has been his Achilles heel but his trainer is confident he's got it ironed out now. He split Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti on his chasing debut last term before winning two weeks later on his second start. Yesterday's pipe-opener at Ascot should have sharpened his axe and he might just be the one for the Christmas money in a fortnight.