Racing: Eustace is the mouse that roared

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The Independent Online

There was a moment yesterday, just 50 yards from the Cheltenham winning post, when Harchibald had the Champion Hurdle won. He was the cat to Hardy Eustace's rodent, and his paw was firmly on the tail. Then, though, in a most compelling finish to hurdling's crown, the picture changed immediately. The mouse roared.

There was a moment yesterday, just 50 yards from the Cheltenham winning post, when Harchibald had the Champion Hurdle won. He was the cat to Hardy Eustace's rodent, and his paw was firmly on the tail. Then, though, in a most compelling finish to hurdling's crown, the picture changed immediately. The mouse roared.

The plain but glorious statistic of the Champion Hurdle of 2005 was that Hardy Eustace has now won at three consecutive Festivals, the last two of them in hurdling's Blue Riband. Paper greatness awaits him.

Yet the overriding memory of the first running of the race at a four-day Festival will be the manner of its winning. When Hardy Eustace felt Harchibald come to his quarters yesterday it awoke a bestial and combative response within him. The eight-year-old's head went down, low and mean, and he simply refused to be cowed. He was tenacity on four legs.

"It's what you want in a horse, that will to win," Dessie Hughes, the winning trainer, said. "I must confess I thought we were cooked when Harchibald cruised alongside, but my lad does not know when he is beaten and he dug deep for Conor [O'Dwyer, the jockey]."

It was a contest which, in an instant, reshaped the mood of the day. It was an uninspiring afternoon, a light grey veil shrouding Cleeve Hill. The weather seemed to transfer to the sports and the first two winners were greeted by little more than polite applause. This was not the raucousness of a Festival.

At the root of the relative calm was Hibernian failure. Those from across the Irish Sea arrived with a not unreasonable expectancy of winning the first two races. In the event, there was just one place. But then came Hardy Eustace.

Perhaps symbolically, a rare sun-splash bathed the paddock when the reigning champion emerged in his black blinkers. As promised, his bay hide had a mirror shine. Hughes had promised the gelding would arrive in the Cotswolds in the form of his life. He would have to be.

For Harchibald, the paddock was a place to flaunt. He jig-jogged around the oval, his sprightly nature making a nonsense of a recent drab racecourse work-out.

To begin with, it was not a complex contest. O'Dwyer was determined to be the ringmaster and he bounced Hardy Eustace straight to the lead, straight to the throat of the race. Back In Front, the other 7-2 joint favourite, tracked him, with Essex on the outside and Harchibald further back on the rail, saving every inch of ground.

At the top of the hill, the cavalry massed in behind. Brave Inca, who would finish third, became a potent challenger, but, most persuasively, Harchibald was easing through the pack. At the final hurdle, Hardy Eustace was joined by both - and O'Dwyer began dealing meaty smacks of the whip.

Harchibald, on the other hand, was transporting a motionless jockey. Paul Carberry understood he was betting the ranch as he defied until the last 50 yards to make his effort. He dared, but then he lost, impaled on the remorseless courage of the champion. Hardy Eustace held on by a neck.

"Hardy Eustace is so full of guts and, while I feared the worst when Harchibald ranged alongside pulling double, it was always in the back of my mind he might not go up the hill, whereas I knew my fellow would run all the way to the line. So I showed him the stick and he kept on finding for me," O'Dwyer reported. "He showed out there today that he's a true champion."

For Hughes it was a race spookily reminiscent of another Champion Hurdle, that of 1979, when he had a rather different view of the race. He was on the back of Monksfield that day, as the little horse beat off the looming form of Sea Pigeon. "This is a similar horse to Monksfield," the trainer said. "Nothing fancy about him. A workman."

"He gave them a chance today," Hughes added. "They had every chance to come and beat him. This was both an unbelievable pleasure and a relief. I might look calm, but I'm excited. I might look quiet on top, but it's like a swan, I'm paddling like hell underneath."

Now Hardy Eustace goes to Punchestown, but already another day is set in the minds of those around him. That will be back here next spring, when the fighting horse will attempt to achieve the hat-trick most recently achieved by another Irish beast, Istabraq (1998-2000). "Every day," Hughes said, "we will be thinking about it."

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