Empty of crowds but not of action, Cheltenham was back and with it the sight of Bryony Frost and Frodon showing what’s possible when horse and rider take steeplechase fences as if they have wings on their heels.
Others — in this case a gallant but unavailing Cobra De Mai — might tackle Frodon and Frost for the lead, but again and again, another brilliant leap and fleet-footed landing took a length in the air and another on the ground.
Their pursuers fared little better and while West Approach moved stealthily up as Cobra De Mai weakened, you always knew that he and Manofthemountain and Cloth Cap, who followed, would soon have to test themselves against the soaring centaur up ahead. Sure enough, when HarryCobden pulled West Approach out to throw down a challenge he was repelled by a couple of clinching jumps that must have been as dispiriting as a punch in the gut.
Frodon carried top weight of 11st 12lb and gave 17lb and a one-and-a-half length beating to West Approach, with Cloth Cap a full 14 lengths away in third. Trainer Paul Nicholls was entitled to say that this was a career-best performance and since it was over only a furlong short of the full Gold Cup distance, it has now put him into the Gold Cup picture, something with which Frost would certainly not disagree.
“Weight stops trains and that was about the only thing that was going to stop us today,” she said with the unaffected, effusive delight that has made her and Frodon jump racing’s most treasured current possession.
“The rest of the field knew that the way to beat me was to keep pushing me forward and try and maximise my stamina over three miles [and] one [furlong] and for the weight to tell, but his class pushed that worry to the side. The jumps he did out there were unbelievable. He knows every fence and blade of grass out there. He’s perfect and to be back with him and back at Cheltenham is a perfect dream.”
How the crowd would have roared if they had been there; how lucky we are to live in the world where at least there are cameras and microphones to share these moments. How incredible it would be if Covid moves on enough for at least a few decibels of applause to ring out if Frodon and Bryony sing their song again next spring.
Meanwhile, up at Doncaster it was thoughts of summer that were conjured out of the rain-lashed afternoon as the Jim Bolger-trained Mac Swiney outgunned favourite One Ruler in the Vertem Futurity Trophy — the final group one race of the Flat season — to put himself firmly in the picture for the Derby next June.
Bolger will turn 79 this December but this was a reminder that he remains a unique figure in the whole Irish racing story.
Typical of his independent approach, Mac Swiney was home-bred, ran the colours of Bolger’s ever-supportive wife Jackie, and was ridden by their son-in-law Kevin Manning, who had also ridden the sire New Approach to win the Derby at Epsom in 2008 — he was, of course, also trained by Bolger.
It’s not just horses that Jim has trained. AP McCoy and Aidan O’Brien are alumni of his ultra-strict Coolcullen academy and it was ironic that O’Brien had chosen to withdraw the morning favourite Wembley because of the heavy going.
Jim is not one to back off a challenge and, having announced in July that Mac Swiney was his Derby horse, thoughts of him coming to Epsom should warm the winter. But then that is what Frodon and Frost are doing already.