It was a clear day at Leopardstown yesterday but events there left the view to the Champion Hurdle decidedly cloudy. With Golden Cross the shock 66-1 winner of the Grade One feature, the December Festival Hurdle, and the hitherto Cheltenham favourite Rhinestone Cowboy trailing in a never-better sixth of seven, the bookmakers cast their existing big-race lists aside and started again.
More by default than anything else, the reigning king, Rooster Booster, beaten in both his runs this term, now heads the market at around 4-1. His conqueror at Kempton on Boxing Day, Intersky Falcon, is available at 7-1 and Rhinestone Cowboy at 10-1. Despite his fine effort yesterday, Golden Cross is still among the outsiders at 20-1; even his immediate victim Spirit Leader has found more favour with the layers, as short as 10-1 in places.
Golden Cross was third, as favourite, in the Triumph Hurdle in March and was Ireland's leading juvenile so perhaps yesterday's odds were slightly insulting. But even trainer Michael Halford was slightly bemused. "This is a really pleasant surprise," said the Curragh-based handler. "I thought he was more of a Stayers' Hurdle horse but that might come a season too soon for him, so I really just brought him here today to see what he could do."
What he and his young apprentice rider, Adrian Lane, did was to sit behind a strong gallop set by habitual trailblazer Solerina and then pounce on Flame Creek, who led after three out, at the final flight. The four-year-old stayed on well on the run-in to hold the seven-year-old mare Spirit Leader by a length and a half with the Noel Chance-trained Flame Creek, on whom Seamus Durack seemed to ease down slightly prematurely close home, three-quarters of a length behind.
It was by far the most important success for Lane, who was unable to claim his allowance because of the value of the race (£36,500 to the winner). It was also the first time he had ridden Golden Cross in public, although he knows the gelding well from work at home.
"Super," he said. "He jumped brilliantly all the way down the back, really winging them. I had to get after him a bit after the third-last but once he saw daylight he flew. They went a good gallop all the way but my lad stays very well." Golden Cross was wearing sheepskin cheekpieces for the first time over hurdles.
On Rhinestone Cowboy, the 11-10 favourite, another young jockey had a less happy time. But teenage amateur JP Magnier, riding in the colours of his father, the Coolmore boss John Magnier, could surely not be held responsible for yesterday's flop.
The seven-year-old gelding, on whom he won at Haydock earlier this month, travelled well enough in his customary position, off the pace, but just found absolutely nothing when asked. Although his trainer, Jonjo O'Neill, had four winners on Boxing Day (including Intersky Falcon), three on Saturday and two yesterday, the form of his charges has been erratic and chasers Keen Leader and Joss Naylor were taken out of valuable weekend engagements because of illness.
"JP said the horse felt a bit flat," the Gloucestershire-based Irishman said. "He may have caught the flu, like some of ours have. He seemed great beforehand, but we were wrong, but at least he wasn't knocked about and came in safe and sound. But it is frustrating."
At Newbury, a mighty dynasty continued its impressive progress when Best Mate's young brother Cornish Rebel took the Grade One Challow Hurdle. Graham Roach's six-year-old, a later developer than his celebrated sibling (who by the same age had won nine races and finished second in a King George) battled well under Ruby Walsh's urgings. His victory made Paul Nicholls the first trainer to breach the £1m prize-money barrier this season.
* Freezing temperatures are threatening tomorrow's racing, with inspections planned today at Warwick (12.30pm) and Catterick (3pm). Today's cards at Stratford and Southwell are subject to inspections early this morning.Reuse content