Jump racing began searching in earnest yesterday for the next Gold Cup winner as well as a new sponsor for the Grand National – two not entirely unrelated events given that last season's Gold Cup winner Synchronised was fatally injured while running loose in the National.
There will be plenty who left Haydock in the gloom last night in the belief that the first part of that quest had been answered by Paul Nicholls after his Silviniaco Conti had made all to win the Betfair Chase by two and a half lengths from Long Run. The winner is now 6/1 second favourite for Cheltenham in March with Ladbrokes who make Sir Des Champs, another Ruby Walsh mount, the 5/1 favourite.
Walsh was masterful on Silviniaco Conti in giving Nicholls a fifth Betfair Chase to go with the four won by Kauto Star. With no one else keen to go on he controlled the race from the start. Nicholls has always regarded the rapidly improving six-year-old as a stayer but it was at the back of Walsh's mind that he had won an Ascot Hurdle over two and a half miles and he reckoned if he turned it into a sprint nothing would beat him.
That is pretty much what happened. Long Run did not help himself pulling for a mile and a half but he jumped much better when the tempo quickened and Silviniaco Conti, though never looking like he would get beat, could never quite shake off the tenacious 2011 Gold Cup winner.
It was a good return for Sam Waley-Cohen's mount. He is now 3/1 favourite for the King George and it would be a brave man to write him off winning another Gold Cup. The Giant Bolster, runner-up in last season's Gold Cup, ran a very good race in third until tiring at the last.
Nicholls was understandably delighted with Silviniaco Conti. "Kauto won this aged six and the Gold Cup aged seven," he said. "Although we've avoided Cheltenham so far I'd have no worries about that and because he's very, very good fresh I wouldn't mind if he went straight there without another run." He added: "We tried to make him a Champion Hurdler which he wasn't but like Al Ferof he's improved this year. Ruby knows him well and there's no better judge of the pace from the front but in a race like the Gold Cup he'd better in behind with a stronger pace."
An answer to the question of which multi-national company will put its name to the Grand National may not be quite so forthcoming after John Smith's announced that they will not renew their contract which expires with the 2013 race in March.
They were adamant, after nine years, that they were withdrawing purely for commercial reasons rather than the bad publicity the race has generated in the last two years or that it is almost certain to attract a smaller television audience when it moves to Channel 4. Of course it should be remembered that in 2010, when AP McCoy won it on Don't Push It, it is doubtful the race's stock had ever been higher in its history.
John Baker, Aintree's new boss, is confident a new sponsor will be found. "In the case of John Smith's they signed up in the November before their first National so we have a year but ideally we'd like to introduce someone to the meeting in April," he said.
"Martell sponsored it for 20 years, John Smith's will have done nine, it's an opportunity that doesn't come round very often and it is still the only horserace than transcends racing."