The suspicion that Brave Inca has been nearing the bottom of the barrel proved unworthy when he quarried a characteristically grim success at Leopardstown yesterday.
To those unfamiliar with his dour style, the champion hurdler looked doomed as Iktitaf coasted in his slipstream between the last two in the Bewleys Hotels December Hurdle. Indeed, Iktitaf was naïvely traded on Betfair at 1-10. Brave Inca's response on the run-in, however, was as spirited as ever. Suddenly Iktitaf had no more to give, and Brave Inca won his ninth Grade One prize by a length and a quarter. As usual, he seemed flat out, but Ruby Walsh, riding him for the first time, was in no doubt that he had "tons in the locker".
It was a fairly exact replica of last year's race, albeit this time Paul Carberry did not give Brave Inca quite as much of a start on Iktitaf as he had on Harchibald. Iktitaf was quickly in trouble once unable to match Brave Inca's ravenous jump over the last, but Carberry remained optimistic that his mount might cut him down on better ground.
Noel Meade, who is nursing Harchibald back from injury, was of like mind. "I knew we were in trouble early on, when the winner was travelling so well for Ruby," the trainer said. "He's a hell of a horse and I don't want to take anything away from him, but I do look forward to meeting him again at Cheltenham."
Of course, Brave Inca has a formidable record on good ground at the Festival. He was cut to 7-2 from 5-1 by Coral to retain his crown, and will complete his preparations back at Leopardstown next month in the AIG Irish Champion Hurdle.
His incorrigible habit of giving himself hard races seemed to have yielded ominous signs of staleness at Fairyhouse last time, when he looked shattered on the run-in. Here, however, he seemed full of eagerness - and was, according to his trainer, much fitter.
"It's unreal how much improvement he makes for each run," Colm Murphy said. "We do everything we can with him at home but it's never enough. He has come on an awful lot for Fairyhouse. He travelled so well today, he made it look easy."
That is a relative concept. But while Tony McCoy, who had obligations at Newbury, has long been thought uniquely adept at harnessing Brave Inca's energies, Walsh certainly struck a sweet chord with the horse. McCoy's great rival was plainly infatuated. "Now I know why he is so hard to pass," he said. "When he hears them coming at him, he goes again. He's always only dossing. He's tough as nails, the real deal."
Catch the wave with Oceanos at Ascot
There is a distinctly hungover look to today's programme. For the second successive Saturday, the televised racing is not going to keep many off the streets. Still, the bookmakers pay out the same on winners, good or bad.
Bogus Dreams (next best 3.25) returns to Musselburgh after his rejuvenation for a new stable over course and distance. Though the handicapper has raised him 10lb, a competent amateur reduces his burden by 7lb. Once useful on the Flat, he has prospered for a wind operation and, having travelled strongly throughout last time, could be ahead of the game.
His former trainer, Len Lungo, can console himself that he has bigger fish to fry 15 minutes later when Skippers Brig contests the last at Haydock. If he could hardly have made a worse start to his hurdling career than he did at Newcastle last month, falling at the second, then he could not have been much more impressive than in his next attempt at Ayr.
Haydock also hosts an intriguing encounter between two smart animals who have had their times of trouble, Royal Rosa (3.10) being preferred to Crozan only because the latter has had very little time to get over a hard race on his reappearance.
Best bet of the day could be Oceanos Des Obeaux (nap 12.40) at Ascot. This French import caught the eye in a very strong race by Taunton standards.
Fair Along flaunts his Arkle chance
It has been a chastening week in the young training career of Nick Gifford. On Boxing Day he was aghast over the tepid display of Straw Bear at Kempton, and yesterday saw Killaghy Castle routed by Fair Along in a novices' chase at Newbury.
But while he still awaits an explanation for Straw Bear's performance, he had the cold comfort of discovering immediately that Killaghy Castle had suffered an over-reach. Given that he had no other serious rival, nobody could get carried away with the winner, but he again showed a vibrant approach to jumping and remains favourite for his next race, the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham.
Tony McCoy, doubtless goaded by the sight of Ruby Walsh riding Brave Inca at Leopardstown, made sure that his retainer for JP McManus proved worthwhile. Wichita Lineman beat a strong field for the Challow Hurdle in attritional style, though he will have to jump rather better if he is to be a serious contender for the Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Hall will be no patsy at Cheltenham
It is one of the illusory rituals, as credible as joining a gym on New Year's Day. One after the other, winners at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting are promoted among the favourites for races in every discipline at the Cheltenham Festival. Almost invariably, however, conditions in March are so different that these rehearsals become immaterial.
Everyone accepts as much when it comes to the big Festival handicaps, where horses who finish tailed off in midwinter - bringing their ratings down in the process - suddenly show their true colours on spring ground. But when emerging novices cruise through the mud, their trainers always seem to say: "He'd be even better on good ground." Very few horses are genuinely immune to the going, and it is reckless to make assumptions of versatility in their favour.
One horse definitely at home on better ground is Patsy Hall, who still managed a second to the prolific mare Cailin Alainn in the novices' chase on Thursday's card. Patsy Hall is proven over the Cheltenham fences, having won there last month, and looks fair value for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at 20-1.
Every one's a winner with Grayson
Do not get too excited if someone has given you a cast-iron tip that Peter Grayson will win the nursery at Lingfield today. He trains all the runners. This situation, apparently unique, may reflect the inattention of other trainers when the entry deadline was brought forward because of the Christmas break. Grayson, a former international showjumper, accounted for six of the 11 original entries. Even so, he was astonished when none of the others was declared. "It's a nightmare really," he said. "I now need to persuade the owners and public that they are all trying."