It is impossible to know quite how much the character of these horses has been borrowed from their riders. Those fastidious enough to find fault in the different talents of Carberry and McCoy tend to do so in terms of style and substance, and the same is true of their mounts. Harchibald is considered just too flamboyant by some, and Brave Inca too plainly pugnacious - perceptions that owe much to an epic race at Cheltenham last March, when they finished second and third to Hardy Eustace in a finish of necks.
However simplistic the distinction, it was certainly underpinned by the Bewleys Hotels Festival Hurdle. On a vile afternoon, the gale chased filthy clouds and freezing rain across the track and the ground was riding softer than previously this week. McCoy had no hesitation in adhering closely to the purposeful pace set by Newmill, outsider of the five runners. In contrast, Carberry showed his customary daring by dropping out right at the rear.
And through the race Harchibald did much to confirm that no jumper around has more natural talent. He hurdled like a python and turning for home Carberry remained motionless, even though McCoy had maintained a lead of half a dozen lengths by pushing Brave Inca urgently past Newmill. Approaching the last hurdle, the margin had been halved, and still Carberry showed no sign of responding to McCoy's overdrive.
Yet that was as close as they would get. Carberry - with the peculiar certainty that some consider exquisite, others insolent - suddenly sensed that Harchibald would offer no more off the bridle and he made only the briefest and most perfunctory invitation for him to do so. Anyone unfamiliar with the horse and his rider would have been outraged. But only the cognoscenti had bothered to come here on a day like this, and they greeted the spectacle with the same collective shrug as Harchibald's trainer.
"I'm not too disconsolate," Noel Meade said. "When he came there he just couldn't quicken in that ground. He winged the last but when Paul pressed the button there was nothing there. The nice thing is that with a horse like this, you don't have to give him a hard race on ground he doesn't like. It would be different if you were killing him in front."
Meade's powerful stable has otherwise enjoyed a marvellous week, yet not even he could match the achievement of Murphy, who trains just 35 horses in Co. Tipperary and has somehow managed to find two legitimate Champion Hurdle candidates among them. On Boxing Day he sent Feathard Lady over to Sandown to extend her unbeaten run to seven, and here Brave Inca ran as though goaded by the little mare's emergence.
Murphy has so far washed his hands over their relative merit, but is likely to let them settle the matter in public on 29 January. "Newmill gave us a lead which took the hard work out of it," he reflected. "The ground wasn't ideal but AP was delighted with his jumping. He will know he has had a race, so we will see how he comes out of it - but he'll probably come back here for the Irish Champion. That's the plan for the mare as well, but travelling over to England took a lot out of her. She seems fine though, and if she is well on the day, she'll probably take her chance as well."
Harchibald may also return, granted better ground. Given the present Irish hegemony, the race could have an enormous bearing on Cheltenham, for which Ladbrokes now have Harchibald and Feathard Lady sharing 5-1 favouritism, with Brave Inca, Arcalis and Hardy Eustace on 6-1. The latter makes his reappearance at Punchestown tomorrow, finally retrieving the limelight from those who chased him home at Cheltenham.
As McCoy said yesterday: "Brave Inca doesn't always look terribly exciting, but he is all heart." The implication was that the reverse might be said of Harchibald. "They are two very good horses," he added. "And they'll make for another very exciting Champion Hurdle."
* Today's turf meetings at Haydock and Taunton are under threat from the weather and face inspections this morning. Both tracks were frozen in places yesterday but a thaw is forecast. Uttoxeter inspect today for tomorrow's card and have a 50-50 chance of racing.
Nap: Orchard Supreme
NB: General Feeling
(Lingfield 1.30)Reuse content