Only four runners, but quality can be as compelling as quantity. In a game of chess in the winter sunshine, the young pretender Detroit City produced the right moves to see off his most serious opponent yet - Hardy Eustace, no less - on his road to the Champion Hurdle here in March. Despite several sloppy jumps, the four-year-old was always in command and stayed on dourly up the hill to hold the nine-year-old former dual champion by a length.
The muddling pace, always a peril in a small field, and tacky, testing ground for the Grade Two trial suited neither horse ideally. Detroit City set off in front, gradually warming to his task over the obstacles, with the Irish raider in his shadow. At the third-last Richard Johnson took the initiative, fired him into and over the third-last, upping the pace, which his rival smoothly countered. Going to the last the grey quickened again and opened daylight, but Hardy Eustace found another wind under Conor O'Dwyer.
Philip Hobbs, Detroit City's trainer, was characteristically, and realistically, satisfied rather than ecstatic. "I don't think it was his best performance, but it was the right result," he said. "These small fields are tricky, but he does keep going and keeps battling. And this is the first time he's come up against a horse of Hardy Eustace's calibre."
Johnson produced a valid reason for his mount's early lack of fluency. "The sun in his eyes was quite bad and I think the first two hurdles rather unnerved him," he said. "He's still relatively inexperienced. But he's a pleasure to ride, he's so honest. And for a big horse he can really lengthen his stride quickly." As far as Hardy Eustace's trainer Dessie Hughes is concerned, it is game still on. His gallant mount was giving away 4lb and will meet his conqueror at levels in March.
Detroit City, now unbeaten in six over hurdles, is favourite for the Champion Hurdle but though he is the same colour, has the same trainer and jockey and the same owner, Terry Warner, as the 2003 winner Rooster Booster, he is by no means out of the same mould. "He's much bigger, and more versatile," added Hobbs, "and he needs to keep racing to get the best from him. He's lazy, and inclined to get gross."
After the Paddy Power Gold Cup at last month's meeting here, Tony McCoy shrugged aside praise for the ride he had given the winner Exotic Dancer. He cannot have been that displeased with it, though, for he briefed Tony Dobbin, who took over from him yesterday in the six-year-old's saddle for the December equivalent, the Boylesports Gold Cup, to the same excellent purpose.
Exotic Dancer, trained by Jonjo O'Neill, has seemed to have had his own ideas about his job - he may be a horse, but he's not a fool, despite his nickname at home of Rodney - and his tack includes earplugs to concentrate his mind. But O'Neill sprang readily to his charge's defence. "Be fair to him," he said. "He's always had ability, and he's only now grown into that big frame, so it's coming easier to him. He ran very sweet today and battled well when he had to."
Last month, McCoy stalked the field and pounced late and Dobbin produced, more or less, a carbon copy. "He was everything AP told me he'd be," he said. "I was in front a fence too early, really; the lead I'd had off Knowhere disappeared when he went through the second last. But I just sat and did nothing and when I had to get at him up the hill he gave me more."
Exotic Dancer is only the third horse, after Pegwell Bay and Senor El Betrutti, to double up in the two valuable handicap chases.
McCoy, claimed by owner JP McManus for Reveillez, could finish only eighth in the big chase, but was on the O'Neill stable number one Black Jack Ketchum when the seven-year-old took his unbeaten run to eight on his belated seasonal debut in the stayers' contest. It was the gelding's first run since April and the wait was worth it as he toyed with Blazing Bailey over the last hurdle and cruised to a three-length success.
As jumping stars twinkled here, a bright Flat one dimmed on the other side of the world. The retirement of the wonderful globetrotting mare Ouija Board was announced yesterday after she was found to be slightly lame on the eve of what had been scheduled as her final run, the Hong Kong Vase. Five-year-old Ouija Board, bred and owned by Lord Derby, won 10 of her 22 races, with seven top level triumphs including the Oaks and Irish Oaks, two Breeders' Cups and her epic Nassau Stakes on her last run in Britain, earning £3,510,682. A date with top stallion Kingmambo in Kentucky is her next assignment.
BETS OF THE DAY
Bronze Star (Kempton 1.30) was beaten by an in-form, handicap good thing last time and should get off the mark over a trip that suits.
It may be significant that Lady Korrianda (Kempton 3.30) is being persevered with by her third trainer after two years off.