CONTRARY to its best traditions, jump racing nowadays can seem dominated to an unhealthy degree by the same stables -- rather more so, it might be argued, than on the Flat.
How edifying, then, that races designed to educate future stars should still be producing elite prospects for smaller stables.
Cue Card, trained by Colin Tizzard, was devastating in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham last year, and yesterday Knight Pass confirmed himself one of the more exciting candidates for that race this time round, in the process amplifying the talents of Warren Greatrex.
Having essentially failed to do so as a jockey, Greatrex is making a name for himself in only his second season as a trainer. Hired by Malcolm Denmark to replace Carl Llewellyn in Lambourn, Greatrex saddled 13 winners last term, but has now produced five during the past fortnight alone.
And the suspicion that he can tell geese from swans was confirmed at Southwell yesterday, when Knight Pass followed up his impressive Sandown debut with another striking display.
True, things will get tougher for Knight Pass from now on. But he seems very precocious, considering his kinship to top staying chasers in Monty's Pass and Harbour Pilot.
"I haven't schooled him this season," Greatrex said. "But I did when he came over from Ireland and I'd say jumping is actually going to be his biggest asset.
"He has only just turned five, and all he's going to do is improve. He'll get any trip, but he's showing that turn of foot. Really, he has everything he needs to go to the top.
"We'll go one step at a time, but for a second-season trainer it's a dream. And it's brilliant for Malcolm, who has piled money into the game year after year.
"At last it looks like he has another good one. I was lucky enough to be around some pretty good horses during my time with David Nicholson, and this one has got that same X-factor."
Having been so candid in his expectations, Greatrex was gratified to see the odds-on favourite cruise through the race before quickening away in the final furlong.
"It's more relief than anything else," he said. "Everyone was expecting him to win, but you know what can happen, and he was carrying a lot of weight.
"Wayne (Hutchinson, his jockey) said he would have done more in a bit of work and that his cruising speed made it feel as though they were going no gallop. But they went a better pace today than at Sandown and he put the race to bed in two strides."
Greatrex has yet to consult Denmark, but may send Knight Pass to Newbury next month. Alternatively, he could head straight to the Festival. Regardless, he knows he has a horse going places.
Meanwhile, the William Hill Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las is next on the agenda for Oscar Whisky following victory at Cheltenham last Saturday.
The six-year-old made a most impressive return to action against the likes of Celestial Halo and Karabak over two and a half miles, but his trainer Nicky Henderson is keen to try him back over the minimum trip.
"The plan always was and will remain Ffos Las for him," Henderson stated. "He is owned by Dai Walters who is the supremo of Ffos Las, the founder and the inspiration behind it.
"Having got the Welsh Champion Hurdle (February 5) put on there, that is where we're going to go. Personally, I've always thought he was a two-mile horse, so the obvious thing is to bring him back to two miles now and establish where he lives in that world."
Meanwhile, Henderson and Tony McCoy had mixed fortunes at Southwell yesterday when two hot favourites, Bellvano and Be There In Five, were both beaten in photo-finishes. There was some consolation for the pair later on, though, when Problema Tic took the novices hurdle, which completed a double for McCoy as he was also successful on the JP McManus-owned Raise You Five.
Martin Keighley has ruled out Grand National hope Any Currency for the rest of the season. The smart stayer was second to Midnight Chase at the Cheltenham Paddy Power meeting and had been originally considered for the Welsh National.
"(The) leg problem which forced me to scrap him from the Welsh National a few weeks ago hasn't totally gone away," said the trainer. "He is still young and is too nice a horse to risk and he can have a decent break now."