It used to be that the Champion Hurdle was the race which decided the international virtuoso of jumping quickly over timber, the master of the clans of Britain, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, France. This year we have something quite different. This year, the Champion Hurdle has become a ceilidh.
It would be easy to say the Irish have a stranglehold on this afternoon's first championship race of the Festival, but it is more serious than that. The life has apparently already been throttled out of the opposition.
Out of the 14 horses which will charge around the old course at 3.15pm, over half are from across the Irish Sea, including a rather withering first seven in the betting market. One set of odds has it at 1-12 that the principal visitors will bag the race. It could be a greenwash.
The reigning champion is back, in the diminutive shape of Hardy Eustace. So muffled is the operation of his trainer, Dessie Hughes, at Osborne Lodge, Co Kildare, that it has hardly been chronicled that the eight-year-old is well along the petal-strewn path charted by Istabraq.
Like Aidan O'Brien's wonder horse, Hardy Eustace is a former winner of the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle and victory now will take him within one step of another glorious hat-trick in the Champion Hurdle.
There is much action in Hardy Eustace's tick column. He routinely shows his best in the springtime, operates best with blinkers, which are back on today, and now participates in a contest which regularly accommodates repeat winners.
Hughes, who won this race as a jockey on Monksfield in 1979, enjoys the spotlight as much as an escaping POW, yet a quiet confidence has been emanating from his yard throughout the build-up. His gelding has not been trained for yesterday, tomorrow or even this morning. The pinnacle is about four minutes this afternoon.
"You want to get there 100 per cent, so you don't want to be 100 per cent in December," Hughes says. "And it's easier [to plan] when you're the champion. This horse is a street fighter, the same as Monksfield, and, like him, he's a two-and-a-half-miler quick enough for two miles. He's a man this year, a better horse."
Next in the betting, and also the next most likely winner, is Edward O'Grady's Back In Front, another who has been cheered off before by a full house at the Gloucestershire bowl. Ruby Walsh's mount won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle by some margin two years ago and suggested the sap was rising again when he collected the Bula Hurdle here in December.
Certainly, Back In Front is the choice of another participant in the race, Terry Warner, the owner of the 2003 Champion Hurdler, Rooster Booster, who goes once again. "I think Back In Front will be the one, with last year's winner [Hardy Eustace] in second," Warner said yesterday. "I don't really fancy Harchibald, as I don't think he will go up the hill. I wouldn't be worried about him. I'm looking forward to it. My horse is in very, very good form, but he is an 11-year-old now and that must count against him, I suppose.
"He will definitely be dropped out tomorrow and I would hope he will be still in behind, but challenging, when jumping the last. Being realistic, if he ran into third or fourth place I would be delighted. If he's on a good day and the race is run to suit him, which I think it will, he would have a chance."
Warner's opinion appears marvellously objective. Rooster Booster is the best prospect for a place and at a decent price, largely because no race has been run to suit him this season. He has therefore not fallen as far as some might imagine. Warner is right also about Harchibald, the long-time ante-post favourite until he threw in a horrible gallop at Navan recently. Noel Meade's horse led and was travelling well in the County Hurdle at Prestbury Park 12 months ago and then appeared to fall down a mineshaft on the way up the brutish hill.
And so to the rest of the Irish. Brave Inca and Macs Joy are most closely matched on their efforts in the AIG Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown and it is not difficult to imagine them finishing around fifth and sixth. The former had a hard race that January day, while Macs Joy goes into battle as a Cheltenham virgin.
Essex has been deserted by his regular rider, Barry Geraghty, who rides Macs Joy instead, while Accordion Etoile appears about a stone below the requisite level.
Still there should be an Irish twosome fighting out the denouement of the first feature of the great spring gathering. Back In Front will not be far away, but, at the height of the ceilidh, we will be raising our cups to HARDY EUSTACE (nap 3.15).
3.15 Cheltenham C4
Smurfit Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy: (Grade 1) (CLASS A) £300,000 added 2m 110yds Penalty Value £174,000
1 -11215 Accordion Etoile (51) (CD) (Banjo Syndicate) P Nolan (Irl) 6 11 10 J Cullen
Has a fine strike rate over timber, with five wins from eight starts but has been found wanting at the highest level. Place chances on best form
2 1-0633 Al Eile (31) (CD) (M Ryan) J Queally (Irl) 5 11 10 T J Murphy
Ran his best race yet when third to Essex at Newbury last month, but that form is still well below what is required to become Champion Hurdler
3 -0450P Astonville (17) (F Wilson) M Scudamore 11 11 10 T Scudamore
French import who has winning form over timber and fences across the Channel, but he has run abysmally in two runs in Britain so far
4 215-21 Back In Front (94) (CD) (D Cox) E O'Grady (Irl) 8 11 10 R Walsh
Shot to prominence with a 10-length demolition of Kicking King at the 2003 Festival. Won the Bula Hurdle here when last seen and has an obvious chance
5 -12222 Brave Inca (51) (CD) (Novices Syndicate) C A Murphy (Irl) 7 11 10 B M Cash
Won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and Punchestown Champion Novice Hurdle last term. Beaten three times by Macs Joy this season, so seeks revenge
6 11-311 Essex (31) (D) (B P S Syndicate) M J O'Brien (Irl) 5 11 10 A P McCoy
Won the valuable Pierse Hurdle at Leopardstown in January and followed up in the Totesport Trophy at Newbury. More needed now, but progressive
7 -43111 Harchibald (79) (D) (D Sharkey) N Meade (Irl) 6 11 10 P Carberry
Rapidly improving Irish hurdler who is looking for a hat-trick of victories at Grade 1 level. Clearly progressive and might have more to offer
8 -12331 Hardy Eustace (31) (CD) (L Byrne) D Hughes (Irl) 8 11 10 C O'Dwyer B
The defending Champion who has been running well on heavy ground recently. Suited by genuine good ground and connections believe he has improved
9 2345-4 Intersky Falcon (108) (D) (Interskyracing) J J O'Neill 8 11 10 A Dobbin B T
Well beaten by Harchibald in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November, his only outing this season. Would be a surprise winner, so opposable
10 -11311 Macs Joy (51) (D) (Mac's J Racing) Mrs J Harrington (Irl) 6 11 10 B J Geraghty
Tough and progressive hurdler whose only defeat this season came when third to Harchibald and Back In Front at Punchestown. Obvious chance today
11 F-456P Present Bleu (18) (D) (F Wilson) M Scudamore 10 11 10 Doubtful
Has not jumped hurdles in public for over three years and cannot possibly be fancied to trouble the principals here. A doubtful runner anyway
12 -24422 Rooster Booster (38) (CD) (BF) (T Warner) P Hobbs 11 11 10 R Johnson
One of the best hurdlers of recent years, although his runs this term suggest he is vulnerable to the younger brigade. Needs things to drop right
13 -23443 Royal Shakespeare (24) (D) (J Webb) S Gollings 6 11 10 J Culloty
Won last season's Grade 2 Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree, but has struggled against some of the best around this season and might do so again
14 12-421 Self Defense (38) (CD) (Fraser Miller Racing) P Chamings 8 11 10 R Thornton
Proved his worth on the Flat last summer and he has returned to this sphere seemingly better than ever. Always runs his race, but this looks tough
15 -4120P Turnium (24) (F Wilson) M Scudamore 10 11 10 James Davies
Decent hurdler/chaser on soft ground in his native France, but has shown little since arriving in Britain and is likely to find life very hard
- 15 declared -
Betting: 7-2 Hardy Eustace, 4-1 Back In Front, 6-1 Harchibald, Macs Joy, 7-1 Essex, 8-1 Brave Inca, 9-1 Accordion Etoile, 14-1 Rooster Booster, 20-1 Self Defense, 40-1 Al Eile, 66-1 others.
2004: Hardy Eustace 7 11 10 C O'Dwyer 33-1 (D Hughes, Irl), 14 ran.
Verdict: Macs Joy has finished ahead of BRAVE INCA on three occasions this season, including by a short-head last time at Leopardstown when reigning champion Hardy Eustace was another short-head away in third. Colm Murphy's gelding would arguably have won on the latter occasion, however, had he not had to recover from a horrendous mistake at the third flight and he showed a liking for this track when landing the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at last year's Festival. Harchibald beat Back In Front at Punchestown in November and has gone from strength to strength this season (beating Rooster Booster at Kempton last time) but this stiffer course may not be ideal, whereas Back In Front has already won three times here, including over C&D in December when beating Inglis Drever. Top handicapper Essex needs to improve but has every chance of doing so, a remark that also applies to Accordion Etoile, who hated heavy ground when behind Macs Joy at Leopardstown.Reuse content