Auditions for the Cheltenham Festival have generally been conducted with such diffidence that it made a pleasant change when three consecutive applicants for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at least managed to remember their lines over the weekend.
True, Golden Cross delivered his script at Navan yesterday with discouraging indolence, and required some very explicit prompts from Johnny Murtagh to land the odds in the Boyne Hurdle. In the process, however, he amply vindicated the suspicion of his trainer, Michael Halford, that he might open a new frontier when stepped up in trip.
Golden Cross had confirmed himself a tier below the very best over two miles at Leopardstown last month, when third to Brave Inca and Macs Joy, but was given an authentic test over another seven furlongs here - despite a small field - by Florida Coast.
Murtagh, who had flown back from Dubai to resume his flirtation with hurdles, seemed to stifle an instinct to engage the front-runner leaving the back straight and instead reserved his challenge until they approached the final flight. If it all got pretty serious thereafter, at least Golden Cross was able to demonstrate unequivocally that he will see out the trip at Cheltenham. In the end he won going away by a length and a half.
"He's a lazy horse at home, too," Halford said. "He tends to be very easy on himself, and the intention was always to give him two runs before the Festival. That's why I ran him at Leopardstown, just to sharpen him up, and this run today should put him right. I was always confident that he would get the trip, and Johnny said that he will be better in a more competitive race, with more horses round him."
The sponsors kept Golden Cross on 7-1 for the World Hurdle - that pair of Pimpernels, Baracouda and Rhinestone Cowboy, dispute favouritism at 9-2 and 5-1 respectively - but within the hour cut My Way De Solzen from 16-1 to 12-1 after he executed a similar task at Fontwell with rather less ado. Gliding through the mud in the Totesport National Spirit Hurdle, he skipped round in the lead before bounding nine lengths clear of Dancing Bay.
"He's a good horse, but on this sort of ground he's serious," Alan King, his trainer, said. "He'll go to the World Hurdle if the ground is right, and if it isn't, he won't. He's entered at Haydock on Thursday and might run again if he's well. Otherwise we might end up waiting for Cheltenham, only to have to miss it."
Perhaps the most persuasive rehearsal, however, had come the previous day. Asian Maze won seven times as a novice last season, notably at Aintree and Punchestown, but had missed 10 months with a leg problem before resurfacing against Macs Joy over two miles at Gowran Park. The mare led until brushed aside by the winner - now as short as 4-1 for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle itself - and dropped out last of the four runners on the home turn, only to rally for second on the flat.
Tom Mullins was delighted with that effort, which earned the mare a quote of 7-1 from Ladbrokes, and no less so when he examined her yesterday morning. "She has come out of it great, doesn't look like she has had a race," the trainer said. "She made up a lot of ground in the last furlong, and will improve an awful lot from that. The World Hurdle looks right up her street now."
This sprightly performance by Macs Joy maintained the return to form of Jessica Harrington's stable, which also houses Moscow Flyer. His defence of the Queen Mother Champion Chase will be one of the defining moments of the Festival next month, with a breathless spectacle guaranteed by Kario De Sormain. The runaway French mare warms up over hurdles at Fontainebleu today.
The favourite remains Kauto Star, who was denied precious experience by heavy ground at Lingfield on Saturday, leaving the path clear for Don't Be Shy. Martin Pipe and his chief patron, David Johnson, had also won with Our Vic but they should reproach themselves over a crude error in exposing the classy Joacci to such a brutish assignment up at Haydock.
He had no business carrying top-weight over three and a half miles in conditions so atrocious that a professional slogger like A New Story refused to jump the final fence. It was here that Joacci took an exhausted fall, and lay prostrate for several minutes. Fortunately he proved only to be winded, and there were relieved cheers when he was led past the grandstand. One can only hope that he bears no mental scars, but it now seems hard to imagine him reaching the new peak that beckoned at Cheltenham - now just three weeks away.
Nap: Blue Hedges (Lingfield 3.20)
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