Plenty of pointers to Festival fortune
Menorah took over from Binocular as favourite for the Champion Hurdle with most firms after ending the unbeaten records of Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti in the International Hurdle here. Despite meeting defeat, both conquered horses emerged from the contest with plenty of credit and stuck on bravely to fight it out for second place.
Menorah lost ground in bunching on the home turn, but once Richard Johnson pulled him out and momentum was regained, the 7/4 favourite quickly reeled in Cue Card and went four and a half lengths clear on the run-in.
"It's good to see him do it when it matters," said the winning trainer, Philip Hobbs. "He was a little short of room round the last bend, but he showed a very good turn of foot. He's one of the few you can say is a perfect racehorse."
No decision will be taken yet as to whether Cue Card returns to novice company at the Festival or tackles the same rivals again in the Champion. "He travelled well, just like normal, but Menorah went by him in four or five strides," said his trainer, Colin Tizzard.
There was no getting away from the name of Tony McCoy, even when he was not riding winners. Racecourse officials named the £150,000 handicap chase, won by Poquelin, as the Vote AP Gold Cup, in unashamed reference to the jockey's bid for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year trophy next Sunday.
Also showcasing his skills after a fortnight of inactivity was the champion trainer, Paul Nicholls, trainer of Poquelin, who won three other races on the card, including his sixth consecutive Tingle Creek, restaged here after Sandown's card was lost last weekend.
Master Minded had suffered lacklustre defeats on his two most recent visits to Cheltenham but stormed home by eight lengths in the Tingle Creek under Noel Fehily, who had returned to riding the previous day after dislocating his left wrist last month.
Nicholls had already introduced Woolcombe Folly as a legitimate Champion Chase contender when that horse took the opener under Ryan Mahon, but the pair will not clash before the Festival. Woolcombe Folly may be sent to Newbury for the Game Spirit, while Ascot's Victor Chandler Chase is the most likely next target for Master Minded.
"If Ascot gets called off because of the weather, then we'd go straight to Cheltenham and it wouldn't bother me at all," said Nicholls.
A pre-season breathing operation appears to have made all of the difference to Master Minded. "A lot gets said about wind ops, but what it boils down to is that when you can't breathe, you can't run very fast," said Nicholls.
Poquelin surprised Nicholls and punters alike when producing a fine performance to take apart a competitive looking field for the Vote AP Gold Cup at 16/1 under conditional jockey Ian Popham.
The winning owner, Andy Stewart, said: "Long live Ian's 5lb claim, although, from the way he rode that, I suspect he won't have it for much longer. I'm delighted to win a race named after one of the greatest sportsmen I have ever seen."
McCoy had already done his talking on the track, when he drove 5/1 chance Karabak home in front of the challenging Any Given Day in the Relkeel Hurdle.
Meanwhile, this afternoon's meeting at Cork goes ahead, signalling a return to jumps action in Ireland.
However, the steeplechase course is unfit for racing as it is frozen in places, which has resulted in both scheduled races over fences being moved to tomorrow's meeting. Today's card will commence at 12.50 and will comprise of five hurdle races and a bumper.