Two very good reasons for Mick Fitzgerald to rethink his decision to retire at the end of the season emerged at Haydock yesterday. Both are young hurdlers with bright futures and the Irishman, still at the top of his game, may not much enjoy watching others galloping to victory on Afsoun and Amaretto Rose in years to come.
Of course, he may have the best of them before he goes; impressive wide-margin victories for the Nicky Henderson-trained pair put them both on the Cheltenham Festival trail.
Afsoun announced himself a credible contender for the Champion Hurdle with a saunteringly easy nine-length success, putting the memory of an uncharacteristic fall on his previous run firmly behind him.
On testing ground that was passed fit for racing only after a morning inspection, Fitzgerald restrained the keen French-bred as the doughty veteran The French Furze took the field along. Afsoun emerged from his slipstream on the swing into the straight, jumped the last two obstacles with aplomb and quickly drew clear in stately isolation down the centre of the track.
The run-in yesterday was more than a quarter of a mile (the usual final hurdle being omitted because of the near-waterlogged underfoot conditions) and into a buffeting headwind, which can affect the concentration of a horse running solo. But Afsoun, the 11-8 favourite, coped with a will.
It was by no means the strongest edition of this two-mile Grade Two contest ever staged, but although The French Furze is now a teenager, there are very much worse yardsticks, particularly on his favoured ground.
Afsoun showed himself not averse to mudlarking but, as a Flat-bred son of Kahyasi, it is likely that he will be seen to better effect on a drier surface. His profile is upwardly mobile; he has done nothing but improve since he finished fifth to the Champion Hurdle favourite Detroit City in last season's Triumph Hurdle.
"He's a real nice little horse," said Fitzgerald. "We've all learned from his fall, him and us. Perhaps he'll have to step up again for the Champion Hurdle, but he wasn't that far behind Detroit City last year, so we'll see."
Five-year-olds do not often win Champion Hurdles, but the last to do so, See You Then in 1985, was also trained by Henderson. His latest young star is unlikely to appear again before the big day. "That's earned him his ticket," said owner Trevor Hemmings, "and I should think we'll nurse him between now and then. He's been buzzy in the past but he seems to be calming down as he gains experience. The Irish keep on winning the Champion Hurdle so I hope we'll give them something to think about." Of the betting firms, Ladbrokes were most impressed with Afsoun's performance, cutting him to 16-1, which is on a par with the likes of the crack mare Asian Maze.
The six-year-old Amaretto Rose has a way to go to match that female of the species, but yesterday she was 18 lengths deadlier than the males in the Grade Two novices' contest. The Alflora chestnut, making it two from two over hurdles, looked very much the part as she swept up to and past Astarador, Fitzgerald sitting motionless. She is now third favourite at 10-1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Fitzgerald tempered his delight with reason. "She was impressive," he said, "but those long winning distances tend to happen on extremes of ground. But she is good, she's really switched on to her job and her technique over a hurdle is very slick."
Honours in the day's fencing feature, the Peter Marsh Chase, went to 8-1 shot The Outlier, but the moral high ground was taken by the top-weighted runner-up, Turpin Green, who was giving a stone and a half to his rival. But credit to both horses over a gruelling three miles in the conditions. The Outlier, trained by Venetia Williams and ridden by 3lb claimer Paul O'Neill, was in front for the full length of the straight after trailblazing Irish Raptor's mistake four out left him exposed.
"The wind was very strong," said O'Neill, "and he started to waver a bit. But once I got hold of him and got some slaps into him he put his head down and did it well." Too many slaps for the stewards' liking, though; the rider picked up a three-day ban for excessive use of the whip.
My Way de Solzen, one of the most exciting of this term's chasing recruits, had little more than a paid (nearly £20,000) exercise gallop to land the odds in the novices' Grade Two two-and-a- half-miler.
BETS OF THE DAY
Tradingup (Towcester, 2.40) has shown signs of being progressive and has won over the course and distance in similar conditions.
Madam Blaze (Towcester, 1.40) is entitled to improve for her debut and the stamina in her pedigree will be an asset today.