The Irish challenge for the Cheltenham Festival and Tote Gold Trophy, formidable enough as it is, was strengthened again yesterday with impressive performances from Essex and Newmill at Leopardstown. Pertinently for the hopes of Irish punters, Barry Geraghty also served reminder that he is the most formidable ally for the major occasion.
Geraghty, regular partner of Moscow Flyer, the top two-miler and highest-rated chaser in training, remained unflappable as Essex nearly threw away a winning lead in the day's feature, the Pierse Hurdle. Michael O'Brien's five-year-old bounded clear turning for home, but as Mansony emerged from the chasing pack to draw alongside the leader, Essex began to idle. The 5-1 favourite, responding to Geraghty's urgings, pulled out more on the run-in and was a length clear at the line.
"He won the Irish Cesarewitch over two miles on the Flat, so I knew he would get home today," Geraghty said. "He just idled at the last, but as soon as Philip Carberry [on Mansony] came to me, he picked up and had plenty in the tank by the time he got to the line."
O'Brien added: "The horse wears cheek-pieces because he is inclined to look around. He was in front too long and nearly threw it away at the last.
"It is a very hard race to win, and I have been trying for years to win it. The plan is to go for the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury."
Cashmans quote Essex as 8-1 favourite for the big Newbury handicap hurdle on 12 February, while he has been clipped to 25-1 from 33-1 for the Champion Hurdle, the market for which is already saturated with high-class Irish contenders.
When questioned on whether the lightly raced Essex was good enough for the Champion, Geraghty said: "It is hard to say. He is a handy horse and is only rising five, so whatever he does this year will be a bonus."
William Hill have added Essex to their Champion Hurdle betting at 33-1 and have tightened Newmill, winner of the day's novice chase, to 20-1 from 33-1 for the Arkle Trophy at the Festival, even though the Royal & SunAlliance Chase is a more likely target.
Tom O'Leary's charge, one of the best novice hurdlers in Ireland last season, travelled well throughout the Grade Two contest behind Strong Project. The leader was far from fluent at the third-last and Geraghty kicked for home. The 100-30 shot was quickly clear, but tired after the last and had just enough in reserve to hold off the renewed challenge of Strong Project by two lengths. Keepatem, the 7-4 favourite, was never travelling well but kept on to take third.
"We might come back for the Dr P J Moriarty Novice Chase on Irish Hennessy day," O'Leary said. "If he goes to Cheltenham, it will be for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, but I want to do the right thing by the horse."
Tom Taaffe unleashed a smart type in the bumper, which he took in 2002 with King George VI Chase winner Kicking King, in Finger Onthe Pulse, who strode home in the same purple and white silks as his stable star.
* Ted Durcan took the honours at Nad Al Sheba on Saturday night when riding a treble, highlighted by his victory on UAE 2,000 Guineas candidate Clasp. The Mazin Al Kurdi-trained colt, who ran twice in Britain for Michael Bell, won a maiden in facile fashion to earn a tilt at the Guineas on 10 February.
Arkle Chase (Cheltenham, 15 March) William Hill: 7-2 Kauto Star, 6-1 Fundamentalist, 12-1 Cloone River, Contraband, 14-1 River City, Royal Alphabet, 16-1 Foreman, Made In Japan, Mariah Rollins, Quazar, Watson Lake, 20-1 Ned Kelly, Newmill (from 33-1), Sir Ojay, 25-1 others. Ladbrokes: 4-1 Kauto Star, 12-1 Cloone River, Ned Kelly, Royal Alphabet, 14-1 Foreman, Newmill, 16-1 others.
Champion Hurdle (15 March) William Hill: 3-1 Harchibald, 6-1 Back in Front, 8-1 Hardy Eustace, Macs Joy, 9-1 Accordian Etoile, 10-1 Brave Inca, 12-1 Rooster Booster, 20-1 Inglis Drever, 25-1 Royal Shakespeare, Solerina, 33-1 Essex, Intersky Falcon, Lingo, Westender, 40-1 others.
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