Matt Brocklebank was our man at Colin Tizzard's yard where Fox Norton was conspicuous by his absence but a novice chaser stood out in the sunshine ahead of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival.
Native carrying the banner
Colin Tizzard trained nine Grade One winners last season and yet drew a blank during the one week in the year that, by a distance, counts the most for top National Hunt handlers.
Tizzard has five Cheltenham Festival winners on his CV from the past eight years, from Cue Card’s Champion Bumper emergence in 2010, through Oiseau De Nuit in 2011, Golden Chieftain and Cue Card again in 2013, to Thistlecrack’s masterclass in the 2016 Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle.
And yet last year there was nothing to show at the big meeting, for all that early-season joy, headed by Native River’s brilliant staying performances in the Ladbrokes Trophy (then Hennessy) and Coral Welsh National.
It is over to Native River again – last year’s Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup third – to fly the flag for the former farmer and he looked in razor-sharp nick during Wednesday’s open day.
He wasn’t alone in looking well, with all eight or so horses paraded – including the stricken Thistlecrack, who will be “kept fit all summer so he’s ready at the start of next season” – gleaming in their coats.
Which must be a relief for a trainer who begrudgingly admitted to having had a low-level virus in the yard during the deep winter months.
“Look, there are a load of you stood around me here today and I’ve not heard anyone coughing – and yet if you’d all come to the stable in January there would have been half of you coughing. It’s cleared up now hasn’t it.
"It's just the British weather and it's the same every year.
“It’s the same with the horses and hopefully we’re in the clear now.”
Evidence on the track suggests that is most definitely the case, with Vision Des Flos’ recent 31-length demolition job in an Exeter Listed race the best indicator that it’s now all systems go for the spring Festivals, where once again you’d suspect there will be a few surprised faces if Team Tizzard draws a Cheltenham blank.
One man who looks set to be a key component of the big push is Robbie Power, who it was confirmed would now be used as number one rider for the horses running under the banner of Ann and Alan Potts Limited – on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Power was named as retained rider following last season's Cheltenham Festival, but earlier this season Bryan Cooper was given the role of the Potts’ main man in Britain, with Power focussing on those trained in Ireland, the bulk of which are now with Jessie Harrington including last year’s Gold Cup winner, Sizing John.
The two jockeys fulfilled their roles during the first half of the current campaign, with Cooper enjoying high-profile success on Fox Norton in the Shloer Chase.
And yet Tizzard indicated on Wednesday that Power would be the man back in the hot-seat, whenever available, and that Cooper would play under-study.
“Robbie Power is number one jockey for the Potts’,” stated the trainer.
“If he’s not available we can use Bryan, or whoever else we like."
Fox in his den
If the jockey situation is still ever so slightly up in the air, then maybe something a little more alarming was the sheer lack of the Potts’ horses on show at the yard.
Tizzard has been responsible for 66 of their 67 horses to have run in Britain since the late owners’ passing, and horses such as Fox Norton, Pingshou, Sizing Tennessee, Sizing Codelco – all major parts of the 2016/17 success story – were conspicuous by their absence.
Finian’s Oscar paraded for the cameras, with the fitting of blinkers expected to sharpen up his jumping on a return to fences in the JLT Novices’ Chase, as did Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle outsider Ainchea, but there was no sign of the others.
Last year’s Aintree Grade One winner Pingshou will sadly not take up his Unibet Champion Hurdle engagement on account of a setback, while Fox Norton was unable to be shown off as he’d “lost a shoe.”
Reading between the lines, the Ryanair Chase is the likely target for the horse who beat Ryanair Chase favourite Un De Sceaux at Punchestown last spring, and the “puss in his foot” that saw him skip a possible Game Spirit clash with Altior and Politologue has now “fully cleared up."
And it moves us all...
With the Potts horses predominantly kept on the down-low for the day, it was two chasers at the opposite ends of their careers who shone under the bright blue Dorset skies.
The evergreen Cue Card left Tizzard unusually emotional following his phoenix-like second to Waiting Patiently at Ascot, and here he was back gazing at him in sheer wonderment at the prospect of a fairy-tale ending to his glittering career.
“Here's Cue Card. I think he'll improve massively for that run the other day."
It's not always easy knowing when Colin Tizzard is having you on as a reporter, but there was no hint of sarcasm in his suggestion that Cue Card could improve for his incredible Ascot Chase effort behind the highly-progressive winner.
"He's been on the go nine seasons and it's amazing how he has maintained his form the way he has."
There was no commitment when it comes to the Ryanair Chase/Gold Cup dilemma, but Cue Card really is an amazing racehorse and, given his age, it is quite remarkable if that's the only real problem they're facing with him right now.
How on earth will they go about replacing a horse like Cue Card?
“Do you know the most significant fact about this horse?”, bellows the trainer as the next animal takes to the floor.
A faint mumble of Samcro something or other comes back from the gathered anoraks, before Tizzard answers his own question.
“This is Elegant Escape and no horse has got as close to Samcro as this one. It was just a length and a quarter (in a point-to-point) and Samcro was off the bit as well!
“We’ve likened him a little bit to the campaign that Native River had as a novice.
"He’d stay four miles but at the moment we’re definitely leaning more towards the RSA Chase with him. He beat Black Corton at Newbury (December 2) and we were closing on him at the finish at Kempton on Boxing Day. Cheltenham will be perfect for him.”
It may well be perfect, and the manner of Elegant Escape’s easy subsequent Exeter win suggests, like Black Corton, he isn't done improving yet either.
There are a lot of bright prospects to fill the massive void that will inevitably be some day soon left by Cue Card, but this could be the most dazzling of them all.
In a nutshell
Festival banker - NATIVE RIVER, Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup
Best long-term prospect - ELEGANT ESCAPE, RSA Chase
Dark horse - PADLEYOUROWNCANOE, Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle