Racing: Harchibald slides from Champion pinnacle

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The Independent Online

Right now is the time of the year the National Hunt training fraternity is at its jumpiest. Do not make a loud noise in their company, or burst a crisp packet behind their back, for, at the moment, there are no good days to be in charge of a Cheltenham Festival horse. Just ones survived or others with withering outcomes.

Something of the latter visited Noel Meade at the weekend, who started Saturday with the Champion Hurdle favourite and ended it with frustration banging away in his head. The Irish trainer's Harchibald visited his local course at Navan for a routine track polish in the company of stablemates he was meant to transform into mincemeat.

In the event, it was Harchibald who appeared as though he had been through the shredder. In the single word of his trainer, he worked "terrible". Meade yesterday tried to philosophise the trauma of what he had witnessed the previous day, but no shaking of the kaleidoscope makes it easier to rationalise.

In an almost self-fulfilling prophecy, Harchibald worked horribly at the end of a month-long period during which he has hardly been touched in the ante-post markets. The six-year-old could yesterday be backed at 8.6-1 on Betfair, as fellow Irish horses Hardy Eustace and Back In Front supplanted him at the head of the market.

Meade is awaiting results of tests taken on Harchibald, but there can be no good discovery in the laboratory. The gelding may have trained like a leg was missing, but at least they have all been counted off and there was no glaring explanation for his plod. "He seems fine," Meade said yesterday. "He came back after the work and we scoped him and checked him over and everything seemed OK. We haven't taken any blood yet, but we will do that tomorrow too.

"It's a mystery why he should work as badly as he did. We were very, very happy with him going into the work yesterday but we were stunned by the way he worked. He had his regular work rider up and he said the ground was bad. We know he is better on good ground, but I wouldn't have thought it would make him work as bad as that.

"We will just have to see how he progresses. I don't think I will be doing any long pieces of work with him, but I might give him a little breeze later in the week. I wouldn't rule him out of Cheltenham yet, though."

There were happer bulletins from elsewhere in Ireland. Hardy Eustace, now favourite to retain his crown, has progressed since his win in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle and put in a decent piece of work with stablemate Central House after racing at Leopardstown yesterday.

Accordion Etoile, winner of Cheltenham's Greatwood Hurdle in November, sparkled as his name might suggest during his weekend workout. "We thought he went very well yesterday," Paul Nolan, his trainer, said yesterday. "He worked exceptionally. He really does seem to be improving again. We were very pleased with what we saw.

"He worked over a mile and a half with his usual partner and he definitely seemed to account for him better than he normally does, even better than he did before he went to Cheltenham last time. Everything is on course for Cheltenham, touch wood. I really wish it was in two days' time."

As he prepares to strap on the armour once again, there are cheering reports too about Best Mate, who worked pleasingly in a snowstorm gallop with stablemate Impek on Thursday. Those seeking to interfere with the triple Gold Cup winner will now have to get round security which even seems to have covered the eventuality of dropping a rope down an air-conditioning duct.

"The cameras are already in place and are about to be reactivated so that we can keep an eye on Matey 24 hours round the clock. I've also appointed a night watchman to patrol the yard," Henrietta Knight, the trainer, said yesterday.

"The security measures have worked well over the past three years and Cheltenham are very good in that sense when he gets to the course on Gold Cup day. Last season five security men walked with him from the stables to the saddling boxes, which was filmed by Channel 4, and I understand there will be a similar procedure this time."