And it comes down to this. As always and just as it should, the steeplechase season reaches its crescendo at the Colonial Cup.
Rawnaq aims at his fourth win in a row, taking on nine rivals in the Colonial Cup at Springdale Racecourse in Camden, S. C. In those three wins, Scorpiancer, Shaneshill, Nichols Canyon, Rudyard K and Sharp Rise chased the 9-year-old. They're resting, have gone home or are, sadly, gone.
Most of today's runners have Rawnaq's name in bold print on their past performances. Seven have faced him before, none of them have beaten him, none of them have tested him.
Ridden by Jack Doyle in the Temple Gwathey and the Iroquois and Ruby Walsh in the Grand National, Irv Naylor's Irish-bred will be reunited with Sean McDermott, who guided him to runner-up finish behind stablemate Dawalan last year.
With the championship trophy at the engraver and a trip to Cheltenham for the World Hurdle on the horizon, this looks like a penalty kick to the most dominant horse in the sport. But, this is horse racing and there are always variables, don't think for a minute trainer Cyril Murphy has looked past the Colonial Cup and rival trainers aren't preparing and prepping their horses like it's a penalty kick for the 2016 champion.
Thursday morning, the heel biters were in full force around Springdale.
Last year's claimer of the year, Diplomat, galloped a mile and three quarters on the dirt across Knight's Hill Road from the Cup course. Jockey Bernie Dalton locked his leg and braced against the 7-year-old son of Kitten's Joy as they increased to an open gallop through the last part. Knees pumping, higher than expected, but fluid, Diplomat trained straight and true as he aimed at his second appearance in the Colonial Cup. Last year, Diplomat finished sixth, beaten 9 ¼-lengths behind Dawalan. It's been a rocky road since, as Diplomat missed the spring and has made just one start this year, finishing sixth in the Zeke Ferguson at Great Meadow in October. Today's rivals Top Striker, Charminster and Portrade beat him that day.
Wednesday morning, Dalton pulled up and came back with a smile on his face. It's good to see a horse doing good, er, well.
"He's in good form, he needed the race in Virginia," Dalton said. "Beyond the big horse, it's an open race. I'll ride him to pick up a piece of it."
With a $150,000 purse, the pieces are plentiful.
Just down the sand road from Diplomat, trainer Arch Kingsley stood in his shedrow, ready to put new shoes on his Colonial Cup charge, Top Striker.
"There he is right there. He's announcing himself," Kingsley said, as Top Striker squealed from his stall.
Led from his stall, with a snap shank under his halter, the 7-year-old son of Van Nistelrooy balled into a coil, squealed some more and pranced like he had never heard of Rawnaq. Kingsley shook his head, laughed and audibled, turning out Top Striker in a small paddock near the barn.
"They go out all afternoon, get some sun on their backs," Kingsley said.
Top Striker lunged, plunged and danced a few rounds of his paddock and then settled near a loose pile of hay. Show over.
With a win over Charminster and Portrade in the Ferguson, Top Striker rolls into the Colonial Cup. Making his seventh hurdle start of the year, the four-time winner will be ridden by Ross Geraghty for the first time. Top Striker faced Rawnaq once, finishing 34 lengths behind him in the Temple Gwathmey in April. That was Top Striker's first start since the 2014 Colonial Cup. Things are different now.
"He seems really well with himself, coming off a win always gives you confidence, the home-field advantage always seems to count for something for me around here," Kingsley said. "The horse is doing as well as he's ever done, he's run well here before, he won the Carolina Cup, he broke his maiden here. He ran a good fourth in it two years ago."
Back across Knights Hill Road, Jamarjo and Days Of Heaven occupy stalls in the barn closest to the paddock and fill slots in the Colonial Cup.
Jamarjo has never faced Rawnaq in 11 starts in this country. In those 11 starts, the 9-year-old hasn't finished off the board. Trained by Leslie Young, the Irish-bred stepped into his first Grade 1 of his career in his most recent start, chasing Scorpiancer in the Lonesome Glory. He finished second that day and tries to take another step up the ladder today.
Days Of Heaven ventured to America from Nicky Henderson's British yard, finishing fifth in the Grand National, 25 lengths behind Rawnaq. The 6-year-old French-bred busted loose before the race and faded in the race. He gets treated with Lasix for the first time today. Leading jockey Kieran Norris rides for the first time.
On the other side of the barn from Days Of Heaven and Jamarjo, Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard patches up veterans Parker's Project and Martini Brother. The veterans returned from long layoffs in the Grand National, failing to get close. Three weeks later, they improved finishing second and third behind Cul Baire in the Noel Laing. They're best days are behind them, but there's something to be said for the third race off a layoff, even in jump racing.
Murphy sends out Charminster to complete a heavy hand in the race. The 10-year-old is a model of consistency, earning checks in his last 10 starts over hurdles.
Elizabeth Voss unleashes Tempt Me Alex and Portrade. The former finished sixth in the Grand National while the latter won the New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga and most recently finished third in the Ferguson. He'll be reunited with jockey Gus Dahl, who missed the ride in the Ferguson with an injury.
The Colonial Cup has never disappointed - from Top Bid's border defense in the first to Lucky Boy's nose win to Flatterer's dominance to the 1997 version when every jockey in the race thought they were on the winner to the tour de forces by McDynamo, Good Night Shirt to the Flat Top/Tres Touche rumble. This year's will certainly live up to all the others - whether it's the whip cream on Rawnaq's sundae or a tablecloth trick by one of his nine rivals.