Whether or not he is the best hurdler in his own stable, another frantically generous performance from Brave Inca here yesterday was enough to persuade the bookmakers there can be none better anywhere else.
Colm Murphy has given up any hope of getting the unbeaten Feathard Lady to Cheltenham, but this remarkable young trainer can always depend on the rugged animal who first advertised his talent. A characteristically ferocious performance in the AIG Europe Hurdle leaves Brave Inca as short as 7-4 favourite with Totesport for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle itself. He was third at Cheltenham last year, but the runner-up, Harchibald, has joined Feathard Lady on the sidelines and the winner, Hardy Eustace, ran a most discouraging race here.
While expected to profit from the run, and the restoration of blinkers at Cheltenham, Hardy Eustace was none the less supposed to offer the same intimations of renewal as the daffodils appearing eagerly around the sunlit parade ring. After all, 12 months previously he had shared an epic battle for this prize with Macs Joy and Brave Inca, but whereas that pair dutifully approached the last hurdle upsides, apparently intent on replicating that drama, this time Hardy Eustace was tailed off.
Conor O'Dwyer told his trainer that he seemed to lose heart after an error at the third hurdle. Dessie Hughes will be hoping that a cogent veterinary explanation can be found, because instinct will otherwise lead him to dispiriting conclusions about a horse who has won at each of the past three Festivals. He is now nine years old, after all, and precious little could be gleaned from his sole previous run this winter, against just two rivals at Punchestown.
At the business end of the race, in contrast, was a hurdler in his pomp. In normal circumstances, it must be said, you could not get carried away with the way Brave Inca went about his business - except this is no normal horse, in that he seems to have a singular grasp of what his business is.
His implacable approach has found an exact match in Tony McCoy, who had already cracked the whip half a dozen times before the final hurdle, whereas Barry Geraghty had yet to use his even once. Indeed, Macs Joy was travelling so strongly that it seemed hard to understand how he had made such desperate work of winning the race last year. But Brave Inca produced a molten jump to secure an advantage that he preserved, at one length, all the way up the run-in.
It was just four lengths back to Golden Cross, and the time did not bear comparison with the maiden hurdle earlier on the card. But Brave Inca has never sought to seduce anyone with veneer, and McCoy was barely disguising his dismay over the likelihood that he will be claimed to ride Lingo - a horse whose candidature rests on style rather than substance - at Cheltenham. "I've known he would win this race since Christmas," McCoy said. "He just gets better every time I ride him."
Murphy has not yet entertained any alternative. "I've no idea what the story will be about Cheltenham, I'm afraid to ask," Murphy said. "I realise he has commitments, but there is no doubt that he knows this horse very well now, knows when to push the buttons.
"Physically, this horse is so much stronger than last year, when he was basically a novice, and he jumped so well today. This better ground made a difference."
The performance of Macs Joy corroborated the improving form of Jessica Harrington's string - Geraghty believes the horse will improve again - and Ladbrokes quote him at 6-1, the same price as Hardy Eustace, for Cheltenham. But the bookmakers may be wrong to neglect a very promising comeback from Sadlers Wings, who travelled sweetly on his first start in 20 months and was not given a hard time in fourth.
His trainer, Willie Mullins, has a formidable record at the Festival and had a good day at the office. A striking debut from Equus Maximus will ensure he is among the favourites for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, while Missed That, who won that race last year, continued to shed his steeplechasing chrysalis in the Baileys Arkle Challenge Cup.
He had jumped deplorably when making his debut over fences at Thurles less than two months ago, but has gained in confidence in three steps up the ladder since. While he looked flat out here, beating a 25-1 shot by just three-quarters of a length, David Casey felt he was simply idling. "David said something jumped across him at the second, and that frightened the life out of him," Mullins said. "He took a bit of time to get his confidence back after that, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise because that way he didn't get into the race too soon."
Justified faded into third after conversely being set alight halfway down the back straight, while poor O'Dwyer, who had already lost the opener by a short head, pulled up the disappointing Nickname. Missed That is now 6-1 for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy.Reuse content