IT'S a long way from Catterick to Cheltenham, in a sporting and geographical sense, but as the North Yorkshire course staged its penultimate jumps meeting yesterday, thoughts inevitably drifted to the Cotswolds in a fortnight's time.
The opening race was named the Cheltenham Preview Evening 28th February Novices' Chase, flagging up the traditional pre-Festival tipping night that will take place in Catterick's main function room on Friday.
The bookmakers' adverts were flagging up the various offers relating to the championship races at Cheltenham. And the punters scattered around the betting ring were either replenishing their Festival funds or prematurely emptying the coffers, depending on whether their luck was in.
“That's going straight into William Hills when I get home,” said one racegoer clutching his dog-eared copy of the Racing Post, after taking some money out of Jimmy Latham's satchel as Summerlea landed odds of 13-2 for Middleham trainer Micky Hammond in the amateur riders' race. “It's going on Al Ferof in the Ryanair – it looks unbeatable now that Cue Card's out.”
“Are you heading down to Cheltenham again,” asked one old stager beside the paddock. “Nah, not this year, can't afford it,” said his mate. “Mind you, I went to Tenerife the other day just to get away from the rain.”
It has been a tough winter in the jumps game, with meetings washed out, gallops underwater and trainers forced to run their horses on ground that you wouldn't even grow potatoes in.
But as the sun shone to greet the start of yesterday's opener, with the word “heavy” removed from the going report for the first time since goodness knows when, it was impossible not to feel that as Cheltenham draws near, spring has finally sprung.
With the forecast set reasonably fair for the next fortnight, they might even be watering before the tapes go up for the Supreme.
ALL CLEAR: Indigo Island, Kyles Faith and Rare Coincidence jump the last in the 2.50 at Catterick yesterday
There was an occasional shower to dodge yesterday, but while a Tuesday meeting at Catterick might not seem like the best place to search for Festival clues, they were on offer if you looked carefully enough.
Having recorded a treble at Musselburgh on Monday to pass the 100-winner mark for the fourth season in succession, Donald McCain ran up another hat-trick to underline the well-being of his Cheshire yard as the most crucial month of the season approaches.
The first race might only have been a two-runner affair, but there was still much to admire in the effortless manner in which the outsider of the pair, Bit Of A Jig, held off the odds-on shot, Dursey Sound, under Jason Maguire, who partnered all three of McCain's winners.
The pair combined again when Benzanno cruised to a facile 18-length success to claim his first success over hurdles in the yorkshire-outdoors.co.uk Adventure Activities Maiden Hurdle.
Benzanno looked every inch a 5-4 favourite, and while Kolonel Kirkup, representing a rare National Hunt runner for Denton trainer Michael Dods, ran creditably to claim second place, the winner looks set to go on to bigger and better things.
The same is surely true of Cloudante, who cruised through a mares' novice hurdle towards the end of the card in the style that a 1-7 favourite should adopt.
Cloudante has only run six times during her career, but she has already won races in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and given how well his week has gone, McCain will travel to Cheltenham as one of the northern trainers to follow.
Cinders And Ashes should have a live chance in the Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle on the final day of the Festival, while Clondaw Kaempfer could be competitive at decent odds in either the same race or the Coral Cup two days earlier.
One of McCain's best Cheltenham prospects is Corrin Wood, a 10-1 shot for the RSA Chase, and given that that horse thrashed Dursey Sound by 23 lengths at Catterick in December, the closely-fought finish to yesterday's opener gave a nod to his chances.
“It's amazing the difference that a week can make,” said McCain. “It's not so long ago that people were saying we were out of form, but then you have a decent few days and suddenly everything looks rosy again.
“It's all been down to the weather. The horses have been running on bad ground, but you've got to run them somewhere. There hasn't really been any other options for them, but things have improved a bit and we always hoped this would be a good week with what we had out. It's worked out for them, and now we just have to keep our heads down and keep going.”
Last year, Divine Intavention was finishing second behind Salsify in the CGA Foxhunters Chase at the Festival, so it was something of a surprise to see Martin Keighley's chaser obliging over the minimum two-mile trip in yesterday's Easby Abbey Handicap Chase.
He's entered in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham next month, and while he will have to step up again to make the frame for the second Festival in succession, he's clearly coming to the boil at the right time.
Yesterday's task was made easier when the Venetia Williams-trained favourite, Lucky Sunny, departed at an early stage, but any horse that runs out a 49-length winner has to be respected.