All roads now lead to Cheltenham and there appears to be a three-lane motorway at Leopardstown on Sunday when the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle, a race which usually gets above itself in title alone, has actually attracted a meaningful field.
Spirit Leader, who proved her Festival course credentials in victory in last year's County Hurdle for Jessica Harrington, is among the combatants, as is Flame Creek, also Irish-trained but British-based with Noel Chance. Whichever wins, and there are other talents to consider, will be dutifully pummelled in the ante-post market for hurdling's blue riband.
Spirit Leader has not touched glory this season in two starts, most recently finishing a creditable second to Golden Cross in the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown. Flame Creek, whose jockey, Seamus Durack, seemed unfamiliar with the location of the winning post, was just behind.
It was a less happy result for the mare previously, when she beat only The French Furze home in the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham. The excuse, one of racing's more oblique, was that her opponents were not speedy enough that day. "The slow gallop the time before at Cheltenham didn't really suit her so I was delighted with her run at Christmas," Harrington said. "A strong gallop really brings out the best in her and I hope she has improved since her last run."
Flame Creek jumped six flights at Lambourn yesterday and, as he did not fall at any of them, Chance was persuaded to declare himself delighted with his gelding's preparation.
"I think we got the tactics wrong on him the last time he ran in Ireland as we didn't want to give Solerina too much rope. When she faded we found ourselves in front too soon and kept a good pace going for the staying horses like Golden Cross," the trainer said. "It was the first day he'd jumped a clear round and Seamus did exactly as I told him but it was unfortunate that things didn't work out."
Further Festival clues will be available in the Pillar Property Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday, when Truckers Tavern, runner-up to Best Mate in the Gold Cup last March, continues his build-up under new direction.
Following the news that Davy Russell, Ferdy Murphy's retained jockey, is no longer able to fulfil the day job, Truckers Tavern has a new jockey in Tony Dobbin. Russell will now concentrate on riding in his native Ireland.
Truckers Tavern is likely to face other Gold Cup possibles including Jair Du Cochet and Sir Rembrandt in Saturday's Grade Two contest and the trainer is hopeful of a bold bid from his stayer.
"Tony Dobbin rides and he also has committed himself to ride in the Gold Cup, which is great news for us," Murphy said yesterday. "The Pillar looks to be a good race, but it is no better than last year's Gold Cup and he was second in that, and he won the Peter Marsh last year, so we are not worried.
"He is in great order and we are very, very happy with him. He has done plenty of work and is bang on target. This race should bring him on a bit, but he wouldn't be far off peak fitness now."
Truckers Tavern may have been picking up money, but he has not actually won for 12 months, though he was travelling convincingly when a faller in the Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby last month. "There have been no ill effects from his fall at Wetherby. He has had a bit of a school since and went through it like a man, he didn't even flinch," Murphy added.
"To head to the Gold Cup after this race was always the plan and I think we are fairly all right for that. He is a horse that takes a while to get fit and we worked a campaign out to have him peak in March and it has worked out well."
Racing in brief
Rooster Booster, the Champion Hurdle winner, has been installed as 11-2 favourite with the sponsors for the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury on 14 February following publication of the weights. As expected, the 10-year-old has been allotted top weight of 11st 12lb for the £120,000 contest. Next in the weights on 11st 11lb is the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Rhinestone Cowboy.
The 11-year-old Double Agent defied old injuries and a 623 day absence from the track to win the selling hurdle at Folkestone yesterday at odds of 20-1.
Heavy rain has forced a 7.30 inspection for today's meeting at Newcastle.Reuse content