When a man of the calibre of Noel Meade, Ireland's habitual jumps champion, utters the phrase "could be the best I've had" then any with an interest in the sport can be forgiven for pricking their ears and taking notice. Such predictions can, of course, be horrible banana skins, but at Navan yesterday the subject of the Co Meath handler's approbation, Aran Concerto, kept his trainer off the floor.
In taking the Grade One novices' contest at his local track by an effortless seven lengths, the five-year-old galloped to favouritism for the equivalent at Cheltenham. "I probably made a pretty stupid statement in saying that about him," said Meade, "because when you see it in print it rather builds the pressure.
"But when you look at him you can see why I said it. He's a horse that has a lot of what is needed. He's got scope; he stands more than 17 hands. He's got the most beautiful head, he's got wonderful balance and he's a terrific mover. If you're going to be picky, yes, he has slight stringhalt. But he's so big, with so much scope and if you combine that with the gears he's got, it adds up to a horse who could be special."
Stringhalt is a mechanical condition - origin unknown - that produces a high, snapping goose-step with the hind legs, most obvious in the walk. But it has no effect on a horse's gallop, as Aran Concerto most ably demonstrated yesterday. John Corr's Zaffaran gelding was stone last at half-way in the two-and-a-half-mile contest as the proven, progressive Footy Facts, wide-margin winner of his last two races, sailed along 10 lengths clear of his field.
But Paul Carberry needed only to let slip an inch of rein for his big dark bay mount, who flowed over the obstacles like water over a stone, to close the deficit. Three hurdles from home the pair were in the air together; thereafter, without apparent effort, Aran Concerto drew insouciantly clear.
"He took the pressure off today," said Meade. "He's a horse who makes his own headlines, he doesn't need me to say anything. I had a healthy respect for Footy Facts and to beat him like that was very good indeed. His jumping was just fantastic; he got a length at every hurdle and that is a great talent to have."
Aran Concerto is now as short as 4-1 for the Ballymore Properties Hurdle, the Royal & SunAlliance as was. "He'll likely have one more run before then," said Meade, "but not for a month or so. It was testing ground today and he was tired when he came in. He's still relatively weak and will need time to get over it." One of the star senior hurdlers at Ta Vu stables, Harchibald, has been ruled out of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton next week. The mercurial seven-year-old tweaked a muscle last month and he, too, will be given the time he needs.
"He's in great order and in full work and is 100 per cent sound now," said Meade, "but to get him ready for Kempton would be too much too soon. With a muscle injury like that to run him a week too soon would put him two months back. We'll look for something in January. As the way the ground has been he wouldn't have run anyway."
Meade may yet be represented in the Grade One festive feature by Jazz Messenger, an eight-length winner at Thurles yesterday.
Another high-class hurdler who will be missing over Christmas is Hardy Eustace, who will bypass the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown on Friday week in favour of the AIG Champion Hurdle at the Co Dublin track the following month. The former dual champion chased Detroit City home at Cheltenham nine days ago. "He's fine," said trainer Dessie Hughes. "He's just having a short break."
Timmy Murphy, whose Ascot treble on Saturday was highlighted by the beautiful David Pipe-trained grey Acambo in the weekend's richest contest, the Ladbroke, carried on the good work at Navan yesterday on the brave front-running Celestial Wave in the Tara Hurdle.
The mare is trained by his former weighing-room colleague Adrian Maguire, based near Mallow in Co Cork. "I thought the World Hurdle might be the race for her," said Maguire, "but she needs this ground and she's not likely to get it at Cheltenham."
Maguire, forced from the saddle by a serious neck injury, has a healthy perspective on life. "I was sweet on her chances today," he said, "but my main thought as I was driving the lorry up to the track was just how great it was to be here, and with a runner in a Grade Two race."
Nap: Lordsbridge (Taunton 3.15)
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