CUT-THROAT competition for the top steeplechases these days has a fairly literal quality.
Paul Nicholls seems to model his approach to wind surgery broadly on the example of Sweeney Todd, and has even organised an operation for the 11-year-old Denman in preparation for the Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 18.
Tom George has, meanwhile, taken a leaf out of the champion trainer's book with Nacarat, prior to his third appearance in the Racing Post Chase at Kempton this afternoon.
Sure enough, Nicholls takes him on with Fistral Beach, whose improved form on his reappearance at Wincanton last month was attributed to a similar procedure. Fistral Beach once ran up a sequence of seven seconds in eight starts, so it would hardly be surprising to discover that something had been holding him back.
He started favourite for this race last year, even so, only to discard his jockey at the second fence. Earlier this week Nicholls intimated lingering concern about his ability to see out three miles in testing conditions, so significant rain would be an issue. Either way, he is on a career-high mark in a much tougher field than at Wincanton.
Nacarat, in contrast, remains fairly handicapped even under top weight, rated 2lbs lower than when failing by just a neck to give 17lbs to Razor Royale here last year, the pair miles clear.
He adores Kempton, having otherwise won this race by nine lengths in 2009, and finished fourth in the last two runnings of the King George VI Chase -- getting some top-class pursuers in trouble last month, before excusably fading behind Long Run, Riverside Theatre and Kauto Star. Nacarat is the class act, but his stable has not had a winner since January 3.
Philip Hobbs does well in this race, and both Mostly Bob and Quinz are entitled to prove better than their present rating, though both would also be vulnerable to any deterioration in conditions. Mostly Bob has made mistakes in his brief chasing career, a concern round here, but is thought likely to prefer going right-handed.
Quinz is preferred by Richard Johnson, however, and understandably so. He really impressed twice back in the autumn, and then went well for a long way against a top-class prospect in Time For Rupert at Cheltenham in December. He has been freshened up since, and looks the pick of the favourites so long as he does not get entangled in an early duel with Nacarat.
That must be a possibility, however, so a chance is taken with Door Boy at standout odds of 33/1 with Ladbrokes. He owes that price to an apparently regressive profile since winning his first two novice chases last season, but has in the meantime been campaigned almost uniformly on stiff, undulating tracks.
Whenever he has impressed -- as when outpacing the useful Little Josh round Aintree -- it has been with his speed, and the suspicion persists that he will prove much more effective on a flat track like this.
He showed a lot more life when last seen, moreover, going well for a long way at Cheltenham, but was still dropped 4lbs to the lowest mark of his career.
The other televised races on the card present Hobbs with a now-or-never opportunity for Captain Chris, whose reputation seems to grow with every defeat, and a couple of novice hurdles dangerously sprinkled with French imports.
More interesting for many, however, will be a rare public sighting of Imperial Commander. He is set to defend the Gold Cup after just one race this season, at Haydock back in November, and showed precious little working round Warwick the other day. That is said to be his style, but punters will still be hoping for more legible clues to his wellbeing from another spin before racing.
Meanwhile, Ruby Walsh, who broke a leg in a fall from Corrick Bridge at Down Royal last November, will take another step nearer a return to action at Leopardstown tomorrow, when several leading Irish trainers will work their Festival hopes after racing.