After five races, cases of trenchfoot were being reported in the parade ring. Nicky Henderson emerged from the tempest and met another trainer, Jim Old, on the weighing room steps.
"You know Richard Dunwoody's going to the South Pole?" he said. "If this is anything to go by, he must be mad." At least Dunwoody has packed up riding. Not even he would have fancied venturing out here yesterday.
As it happens, by the time they called it off, the one remaining race was the only one of the day in which there were no obstacles. The holes left by removal of the hurdles for the bumper had made the track too dangerous, though most riders would have greeted that assessment with a hollow laugh. Jumping into the teeth of the sleet must have made leaving the ground a far more treacherous business than splashing through it.
The conditions seemed, belatedly, to have absorbed the black ambience of the previous day, when the most prosperous stable in the land had been piteously reduced by the indiscriminate hand of tragedy. The death of two of the best young horses in the care of Paul Nicholls still hung so heavily over Cleeve Hill that the grimy clouds tumbling down its crags seemed a veil of mourning. It was an afternoon when instinct sought no greater ambition than survival, to fight another day.
But while that threshold was comfortably met by an established champion, with Voy Por Ustedes offering ample encouragement even in defeat, it was exceeded – and with considerable verve – by a horse that may yet become one himself.
On an afternoon of crude attrition, Sizing Europe had a carefree radiance. His success in the Greatwood Hurdle confirmed him one of the most exciting young jumpers in Ireland, and when you think back to the glib excitement over Detroit City's display in the same race last year, it must be owned that this performance had a good deal more substance.
Though the opposition to Detroit City lacked depth, he was immediately made favourite for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. Of course, he had long made himself familiar, both on the Flat and as a novice hurdler. Sizing Europe, in contrast, is only now introducing himself, hence a quote of 25-1 for the Champion from Victor Chandler. All that could change soon.
This race was dominated by the class horses, Sizing Europe seeing off the topweight, Osana – one of the few runners to give David Pipe much cheer at this meeting – by four lengths, with a former Cambridgeshire winner in Chivalry back in third. Sizing Europe was himself receiving only 6lb from Osana, but the way he travelled through the race, before recovering ground lost when isolated from his challengers just as the screw was turned, suggests that he was cut above this lot.
His young trainer, Henry de Bromhead, has a fine racing pedigree himself and was exultant in the puddles of the winner's enclosure. Asked whether his horse might be back here in March for the Champion, he declared: "I'm a dreamer, so I'll certainly be hoping he could be that good. I've always thought he could be the real deal. We thought he was on a good mark for this, but now we'll look for a conditions race and take on some of the good ones at level weights."
Some of the more established hurdlers in his homeland had earlier converged at Punchestown for the Maplewood Developments Hurdle, though the race may not prove as informative as it looked on paper. With the chaser, Newmill, ignored in the lead, the rest only bunched up for a sprint finish approaching the final flight. That suited Jazz Messenger best, though if anything his success will have heightened Noel Meade's misery over the injury that has ended the career of Iktitaf.
Surely an even better animal than Jazz Messenger, Iktitaf is fighting for his life after surgery. Somehow there was a miserable pall over the whole weekend. The exciting novice Rindoon fell in his race at Punchestown, but the sickening nadir was the death of Granit Jack here on Saturday. Last to scrape into the big race at the declaration stage, he was allowed to run only when Liam Heard dashed from Uttoxeter in time to replace Ruby Walsh. The grey's fall at the second last will doubtless renew concerns about the difficulties presented by that particular fence, but the true irresponsibility may rest in this kind of simplistic reflex.
Walsh had dislocated a shoulder in a horrible fall from Willyanwoody, and an absence of several weeks gives Sam Thomas the biggest opportunity of his career – notably the mount on Kauto Star himself at Haydock this Saturday.
Their opponents will include My Way De Solzen, whose trainer, Alan King, was delighted by Voy Por Ustedes on his own reappearance here yesterday. Though ultimately worried out of the prize by Kalca Mome, Voy Por Ustedes jumped and travelled with all his usual flair before the concession of 26lb, in ghastly conditions, told in the final strides.
"I thought he was going to get mugged even as they ran to the last," King said. "It would have been lovely to win, but I said all along that it wouldn't be the end of the world to be beaten first time out. He was gassy early on, and hopefully this will put him spot on for the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown."
Voy Por Ustedes remains widely available at 4-1 for a second success in the Queen Mother Champion Chase back here in March. By then, perhaps, the physical and emotional numbness of this meeting may just have ebbed away.
Nap: Highest Esteem(Kempton 4.20)
NB: Confidentiality (Kempton 3.20)