After the famine, the feast. There were clues to practically every Festival mystery for those in pursuit yesterday. Meanwhile, after the welcome relenting of the elements, it was like the end of Lent for those who relish the sport and how enthusiastically they feasted themselves on the mouth-watering offerings served up by Leopardstown and Cheltenham.
Indeed, such was the standard – which included the highest rated horse in training competing in a rescheduled Victor Chandler Chase – there will be days at the Festival itself that will not feature as many appetisers on the one platter. Mind you, we can't be certain the picture for the main event in seven weeks is any clearer after the events of the day.
Perhaps the headline act was an equine impresario which didn't actually manage to win yesterday despite leading over the final fence. Former Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander was returning from a 680-day break in yesterday's Argento Chase and at the ripe age of 12 he is more a vintage than a Beaujolais nouveau. Interestingly, it was the defection in the morning of another revitalised 12-year-old – Tidal Bay – that enhanced the chances of a triumphant return for the 2010 Gold Cup hero.
Imperial Commander jumped and travelled with all his old verve and, taking up the lead after halfway, had most of his rivals cooked in the atrocious conditions before the turn for home. As he led over the last, the expectant crowd exploded and roared in anticipation of a famous restoration. However, Denis O'Regan was in no mood to follow the nostalgia script, and drove the equally resurgent Cape Tribulation past just before the line.
Nigel Twiston-Davies was full of praise for Imperial Commander. "You'd have to be delighted and if we'd been able to get him fit enough, he probably would have won," he said. "It's been so difficult getting him back with his splint problems but we have kept him swimming and that made all the difference.
"He kept tanking and if he had settled better he would probably have had more of a finishing kick. There are six weeks to the Gold Cup and that is plenty of time."
Grands Crus was once again heavily supported, but the spark of hope from his run in the King George was summarily dismissed by an abysmal display here and David Pipe was the first to admit – dejectedly – that it was back to the drawing board once again with the grey.
The rearranged Victor Chandler might have seemed uncompetitive with the presence of the highest-rated horse in training, the unbeaten-over-fences Sprinter Sacre, but he had been withdrawn once this season already on account of testing ground and, if anything, conditions were much worse yesterday. However, I suspect if they had run the race on water it would have made little difference to the outcome.
The enterprising Mad Moose was almost a fence ahead of his field at the second obstacle but, such is the scope and exuberance of Sprinter Sacre, he had pulled himself into the lead by halfway. From
then on the race was a procession, with the Queen Mother favourite barely coming out of second gear to record another effortless success and extend his unbeaten run to seven.
"He's so natural, he's one of the most natural I've ridden. I was afraid of the ground and didn't think it would suit him as well. He was very relaxed today, he jumped brilliantly and I never had a moment's concern. He was very good," said jockey Barry Geraghty.
"He coped with that [heavy] ground so well. I've not sat on him since the Tingle Creek and when I got up on him in the parade ring I remembered why I love him so much. He's just unbelievable to get on. It's so easy for him, he travelled so easy, he jumped so well. He's all class."
Henderson said: "I'm glad it's over. I had reservations about running, but we had to run. Barry was worried about the ground, I was worried he was a bit fresh." The moniker "Frankel of jump racing" is being bandied around for the Henderson inmate and, sure enough, it is hard to think at this stage of what might even get him off the bridle.
Another major question of the day was whether the prolific Oscar Whisky would stay three miles. After suffering a neck defeat at the hands of gutsy Reve De Sivola in a thrilling climax to the Cleeve Hurdle, Nicky Henderson responded: "Well you couldn't say that he doesn't stay three miles".
However, connections of Oscar Whisky will be hoping the rain gods give us a break between now and mid-March – something that would only enhance his chance. Indeed, Oscar might even skip the Festival altogether in an attempt to make it a hat-trick in the Aintree Hurdle over two-and-a-half miles. Whatever the weather, Reve De Sivola will be revved up for the World Hurdle.
Over at Leopardstown, clues for Cheltenham's Arkle were scant from the Frank Ward Arkle as both the main protagonists – Arvika Ligeonniere and Oscars Well – failed their inspection in the jumping department. Willie Mullins' favourite uncharacteristically crashed out at halfway, while Jessica Harrington's gelding made a total hash of the last.
Mind you, it may well be that Benefficient would have won in any event leaving a bemused Tony Martin to comment: "I'd prefer to go to Aintree with him, but he'll be guaranteed to go to Cheltenham".
With clarity like that, it's little wonder the pre-Cheltenham build-up has become such a compelling roadshow.