The bookmakers are somewhat divided on the merits of the Champion Hurdle contenders in action this weekend, but their lists show unanimity in one respect - Irish hurdlers rule the roost. Or rather, only Rooster Booster, the 2003 Champion, has managed to squeeze in as a British representative among the top half dozen quoted for the hurdling crown next March.
The victories of Harchibald at Newcastle on Saturday and Solerina at Fairyhouse yesterday could not have been more different or more emphatic. Harchibald lobbed along in rear before delivering a dazzling burst of speed, while James Bowe's mare ground her rivals down with punishing front-running.
It was the brutal approach that impressed the Tote, whose spokesman, Damian Walker, said: "Solerina was racing over her best trip, but there was a lot to like about this performance. If the ground came up soft at Cheltenham she'd have a serious chance in the Champion."
Ladbrokes' Balthazar Fabricius takes the opposite view: "We're not quoting Solerina for the Champion. We don't think the track or trip will suit and understand it is unlikely she'll run, so punters should hold back. None the less, the Irish have got this race sewn-up. Harchibald has been very popular, including a bet of £5,000 at 7-1."
Paul Carberry's availability will determine the running plans for Harchibald. Noel Meade's rising star is as low as 4-1 favourite for Cheltenham with William Hill after Saturday's facile win. "He was good wasn't he?" Meade said yesterday. "He's going to be entered at Kempton [Christmas Hurdle] and Leopardstown [December Festival Hurdle] but I don't want to run him anywhere without Paul."
If Harchibald runs at Leopardstown he could meet the reigning champion, Hardy Eustace, whose trainer, Dessie Hughes, was pleased to see Harchibald win, saying: "He was only four lengths behind us in Punchestown, so he was entitled to be thereabouts. We'd have been worried if he hadn't been."
Plans centred around leading northern-based jockey Graham Lee are more tentative as he broke his right arm in a fall at Doncaster yesterday. The rider was then kicked as he lay on the ground. A double had earlier taken Lee's total for the season to 62 and he had six good rides booked for Newcastle today.
At Newbury, Joe Tizzard was taken to hospital for an x-ray examination of his right shoulder after a fall in the first race. That meant he missed out on riding two winners in whose preparations he had figured strongly.
Most painful of the pair would have been the Paul Nicholls-trained Cornish Rebel, who took the Grade Two novices' chase under Tony McCoy, despite looking rather uncertain and wandering under pressure on the run-in. "Joe's done all the work on him and it would have been nice for him to have been able to ride him," Nicholls said.
Leighton Aspell deputised for Tizzard on Big Rob in the novices' handicap chase.
Andrew Balding's Phoenix Reach fared best of the British in the Japan Cup in Tokyo yesterday when sixth to Zenno Rob Roy, ridden by Olivier Peslier. Clive Brittain's Warrsan was 15th of 16 runners. Aidan O'Brien's Powerscourt was 10th.
CHAMPION HURDLE (Cheltenham, 15 March 2005) William Hill: 4-1 Harchibald, 6-1 Hardy Eustace, 9-1 Accordian Etoile, 10-1 Rooster Booster, 12-1 Back in Front, 14-1 Brave Inca (from 10-1), Solerina (from 20-1). Ladbrokes: 6-1 Accordion Etoile, Hardy Eustace, (from 7-1) Harchibald, 9-1 Rooster Booster, 14-1 (from 10-1) Brave Inca. Tote: 6-1 (from 8-1) Harchibald, 7-1 Hardy Eustace, 9-1 Accordion Etoile, 10-1 Rooster Booster, Back In Front, 12-1 (from 20-1) Solerina, 14-1 (from 12-1) Brave Inca, Inglis Drever, 20-1 others.