On the road to the battlefields of Prestbury Park, January tends to be the time that the crack troops remain in barracks, with skirmishing kept to a minimum, like winter on the Russian front. Champion Hurdle hostilities, in particular, will not break out properly again until the end of the month, when the Irish will gather to drill on the flat, grass meadows of suburban Foxrock, Co Dublin.
Among the old guard set to line up for the AIG Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown may be an intriguing young recruit, something of a Jeanne d'Arc. There is a real possibility that trainer Eoin Griffin may pitch the French-bred four-year-old filly Lounaos into the fray against Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace and Macs Joy.
Lounaos is joint-favourite for a more conventional target, the Triumph Hurdle, with Katchit and Saturday's Sandown winner Pauillac. She has made a huge impression with her two hurdle victories - most recently an assured defeat of highly regarded Robin Des Bois at Leopardstown on Boxing Day - but her form on the level is as much in the mix when it comes to Griffin's ambitious planning.
The Flat-bred filly, Listed-placed in the French provinces at two, proved progressive enough to win the Irish November Handicap two months ago, beating the previous two winners of the race in the process and earning lavish praise from Flat champion Pat Smullen. The three-length runner-up was Al Eile, a high-class hurdler and reliable yardstick.
"The AIG is very much on the agenda," said Griffin, on the mark with Kazal in the Grade Two hurdles feature at Naas yesterday. "We are under no illusions about the size of the task, but she likes the track and is a good, tough performer. She is not a typical National Hunt mare as she's proven herself on the Flat as a three-year-old against older horses."
Lounaos had Hardly Eustace in the ruck when she won a decent handicap at the Curragh in October. "I know it is different codes," added Griffin, "but horses are not machines and if they are well, as she is, you need to run them. Saying that, she is straightforward to train and I've never had any problems with her.
"I'm not saying we are going to beat all those good hurdlers but if she was placed on the day we would be delighted. We'll see how the race cuts up nearer the time and see what the ground is - she needs it soft - before we make a decision. We'll be getting 19lb off some top horses and with that pull, we think it might be worthwhile taking a chance. We think an awful lot of her."
The Cheltenham target for the daughter of Limnos remains the Triumph Hurdle. "If she did win the AIG we might have to reconsider," said Griffin, "but as things stand she is going for the Triumph, as long as there is cut in the ground. She won't run on quick."
Macs Joy, last seen when accounting for Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace at Punchestown in April but victim of a pulled muscle in November, is on course to make his long-awaited seasonal debut at Leopardstown, and may be accompanied to post by his young stablemate Hide The Evidence, winner of a Grade One at Fairyhouse last month.
"Macs Joy is working at the moment," said the pair's trainer, Jessica Harrington, of the eight-year-old, who split Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace in last year's Champion Hurdle, "but you have to be careful with his type of injury. It is not like a human being, who will know how much to do. With a horse you have to play it by ear and you always tend to err on the side of caution. But his layoff could be good news for him as he will be fresher than most when he does run."
The most heartfelt cheers at Naas yesterday were reserved for Oliver Brady and 20-1 novice chase winner Baron De Feypo. The trainer is fighting cancer and the nine-year-old was his first winner for six months. "I wasn't that surprised he won, because the rain arrived and the wet, loose ground suited him well," Brady said. "I was touched by the reception I got and it's made it a great start to the new year."
The most welcome fallout from Saturday's racing was the news that My Turn Now, who took a nightmare fall at the last flight in the Tolworth Hurdle when challenging the winner, Silverburn, emerged from his box yesterday morning unscathed. The five-year-old lay for dead in the mud for more than five minutes but proved only winded.
"He was lucky," said his trainer, Charlie Mann. "On good ground he would probably have broken his neck, but it's amazing what they can get away with on very soft. He seems bright as a button, has eaten up and we are very pleased with him." My Turn Now, winner of his four previous races, will next be seen in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival.
Less lucky was Nicky Henderson's former high-class hurdler Geos who broke a shoulder in a fall at the water jump in the novice riders' race at Tweseldown point-to-point yesterday and was put down. The 12-year-old was described by Henderson as "a true friend."
Nap: Yann's (Taunton 3.20)
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