Cheltenham: Imperial and Ruby back as Festival nears
It was a weekend when two of steeplechasing's forgotten Titans finally put their heads over the parapet, just in time to reassure their admirers that they are ready to renew past depredations at the Cheltenham Festival.
On Saturday, Imperial Commander's gallop at Kempton went some way to stifling anxious mutterings about his preparations for the defence of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
And last night Ruby Walsh appeared in the gloaming at Leopardstown, riding over racecourse fences for the first time since breaking a leg at Down Royal in November.
Walsh rode Mikael d'Haguenet in a schooling session alongside three others trained by Willie Mullins.
The man who divides his services between the champion trainers of Britain and Ireland will be spending the next two mornings at Ditcheat, where he will test-drive dozens of Cheltenham horses for Paul Nicholls.
The Festival starts a fortnight tomorrow, giving Walsh precious little opportunity for match practice. Even so, he is toying with the idea of delaying his comeback — proposed for Taunton on Thursday — to ensure that he does not pick up an untimely suspension.
In the event, Walsh's proved just about the only cameo of interest after racing at Leopardstown, most trainers having evidently wearied of media and public fascination in the ritual convergence of so many Festival horses here.
By a rudimentary ruse, the likes of Pandorama and Big Zeb will instead be brought to the track this morning, when there will be very few prying eyes.
At the best of times, of course, such sparring sessions can be notoriously misleading.
In the case of one of the sport's heavyweights, however, they represent all the evidence available about the state of his right hook since November.
That was when Imperial Commander made his one and only appearance of the season to date, sustaining a gash to his leg in the process of winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock.
So anyone inclined to scepticism about what he may or may not have achieved, in a two-mile spin round Kempton, has an obligation of equal indifference about his failure to sparkle in a similar exercise at Warwick 12 days previously.
Certainly Paddy Brennan was convinced of a tangible improvement, declaring that his mount felt “a different horse” this time. Nigel Twiston-Davies, his trainer, will be offering his own assessment when he opens his stable to the media tomorrow.
Intriguingly, the galloping companion who had made Imperial Commander look so mediocre at Warwick was unmasked later in the afternoon as Oscar Time — whose debut success in the bumper saw him promptly promoted to Twiston-Davies' Festival team.
Others to use the racecourse in more earnest over the weekend included Quinz and Captain Chris, who gave Philip Hobbs a significant double on the same card, while yesterday Celestial Halo sealed his return to form with a decisive success in the Totesport National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell.
Beaten only a neck in the Champion Hurdle two years ago, Celestial Halo had a miserable spell in novice chases earlier in the season but is looking much happier with life now that he is back over timber.
Those who had been disposed to take a dim view of Mille Chief's scrap with this horse, at Wincanton the previous weekend, should perhaps be taking a fresh look at that horse's Festival credentials.
Celestial Halo himself, however, is set to wait for Aintree, before becoming his stable's first Flat runner in the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Back at Leopardstown, meanwhile, the competitive stuff had been dominated by Davy Russell, whose treble took him to 63 winners for the season and firmly in contention for the Irish jockeys' title.
He ended the day seven behind Paul Townend, whose opportunities for Mullins will be reduced once Walsh completes his eagerly awaited return.
Russell's winners included Westmeath, who will proceed to the Festival after winning the maiden hurdle in good style.
Always handy, he saw out the race really well and his trainer may well conclude that he could improve again over the extra half-mile in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.
“It isn't the ideal preparation,” Paul Nolan admitted.
“He hurt his back when disappointing at Ballinrobe (in September) and wasn't right for a while afterwards.
“He's clearly right again now, though — he jumped a bus at the first!”