The received wisdom is that five-year-olds do not win Champion Hurdles, or if they do they must be exceptional. The last of the vintage to do so was See You Then 22 years ago; others to back up the claim before him have included Persian War and Night Nurse. Detroit City is favourite to become the next in the sequence at Cheltenham next month, but heads for his assignment on the back of a performance here yesterday that even his trainer, Philip Hobbs, described as only workmanlike.
The massive grey gelding was anything but sparklingly brilliant as he ground out a length-and-three-quarter defeat of Straw Bear in the Agfa Hurdle. Yet he keeps producing persuasive statistics. This was his eighth successive victory, a sequence started over hurdles in January last year. He became the first horse in more than 25 years to win both the Triumph Hurdle - a vintage running in record time - and its Aintree equivalent.
In his run before yesterday he disposed of the former dual champion, Hardy Eustace, who himself saw off the reigning king, Brave Inca, a week ago. So, nothing wrong with the substance. And even if the style does not please, its effect cannot be crabbed. Detroit City just keeps motoring along.
"He just does as much as he has to, and not an inch more," said his rider, Richard Johnson. "The more you ask, the more he gives, and gives willingly and very professionally. But he won't volunteer anything. Which is probably good, especially on a day like today, when the ground was very gluey and tiring. He'll have a bit left for next time."
The clue to the action on the track was there in the preliminaries. Detroit City slouched round the parade ring, blinkered head low and walk indolent. His only credible rival, Straw Bear, stepped out as briskly as a marching Gurkha, neck arched high and proud, but his quick enthusiasm was just not enough.
Johnson let Detroit City leap to the lead at the third hurdle and Straw Bear, on the comeback trail after a flop in top company at Christmas, kept him honest all the way to the line but could not even capitalise on a blunder by the 1-3 favourite - which frightened his backers and trainer more than his rider - at the last flight.
"He half-caught his knee on it, but I think it looked worse than it felt," said Johnson. "OK, he didn't pull away, but that's a hard thing to do up the Sandown hill under any circumstances. He's idle, but he keeps winning. I wouldn't swap him for anything."
Terry Warner's colour-bearer, 17 hands and built with it, will not be allowed much time off before his big day five weeks on Tuesday. "Big, strong and stuffy," said the Minehead-based Hobbs. "He'd come here pretty straight - we didn't want to get him beaten - but he is hard to motivate at home. He swims every day as well as being ridden, and we take him to the beach once a week, which he enjoys and tightens him up."
Hobbs has no illusions about the task facing his stable star, but feels that his very youth may be a quality on his side. "Those Irish horses are very good but they are getting older," he said. "Ours is the one that's improving, and will do so again. Perhaps he was more workmanlike than impres-sive today but he had to do it the hard way. He's the Champion Hurdle favourite, and so he should be."
Yesterday's race caused barely a ripple in the market: Detroit City remains at its head at a general 5-2; Straw Bear, the perceived next best of the home defence, was trimmed to around 10-1. "Whether we beat the winner again remains to be seen," said the chestnut's trainer, Nick Gifford, "but we've put his last run behind us and he's showed he belongs in this sort of company."
A year ago, Detroit City put down his Triumph Hurdle marker in the day's opening juvenile contest. This time it was the turn of last year's Derby eighth, Mountain - now a gelding and transferred from Ballydoyle to Jonjo O'Neill - who rapidly recovered ground lost in a babyish leap two out to win most competently under Tony McCoy. He is now third favourite for the Cheltenham race.
The day's most gratifying win, though, was by Cheshire housewife Agnes Haddock, who picked Taranis to win the Totescoop6 Hurdle and battered the bookies to the tune of £688,000 for a stake of £2 in the eponymous accumulative bet.
BETS OF THE DAY
The experience of Degas Art (2.30), the only horse to beat Katchit over hurdles, is preferred to record-priced auction buy Purple Moon.
Singhalongtasveer (1.30), not the most consistent, may find his stamina stretched but is dropping in the weights and down in grade.