It is both the most maddening and entrancing trait of this sport that even the least ambiguous winner seems unable to satisfy everyone. So it was when Hardy Eustace gilded one of the epic hurdling careers with a rousing success here yesterday. The moment the 10-year-old passed the post, nobody with a heart in his ribs could resist the emotional impulse summoning him back to Cheltenham in March. And yet others somehow remain insolently unconvinced that the old king can restore his dominion.
After three previous successes at the Festival, it was assumed that his first defeat last year implied an inexorable decay. But Dessie Hughes, his trainer, knew otherwise. Hardy Eustace was ailing all season, but still managed third in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle - behind two horses, Brave Inca and Macs Joy, who could not beat him the previous year.
Yesterday their paths converged anew in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle, and each confirmed what a privilege it has been to see them share their prime. Unmistakably, their many meetings will one day acquire the vintage resonance of Sea Pigeon, Night Nurse and Monksfield. But it is surely sophistry to debate which is best.
Having made the running, jumping nimbly as ever, Hardy Eustace was joined at the last by Brave Inca, who was running his trademark race - the more he struggled, the greater his momentum. Hughes had made plain that this race was not his main target, whereas Brave Inca was hard fit after that searching success at the Christmas meeting here. Palpably, the stage was set for the reigning champion to confirm mastery over his ageing predecessor.
Instead, marvellously, Hardy Eustace gradually opened up a fresh advantage. No matter how frantically Tony McCoy shovelled the coal, Brave Inca could only hiss helplessly as Conor O'Dywer stoked his mount three lengths clear.
There was bedlam, and something similar seemed to infect the bookmakers. To a man, they prefer the claims not only of the British hope, Detroit City, but also of Brave Inca. In fairness, Detroit City did manage to beat Hardy Eustace at Cheltenham last month, but it is credulous to assume he will do so again: in a sprint finish, he was served the initiative on a silver tray and still only scrambled home. And it is downright unfathomable why Brave Inca should be expected to reverse form at Cheltenham.
After all, Hardy Eustace looked much slacker in the parade ring, and Hughes thinks he will need another run, at Gowran Park on 17 February. "I honestly thought he might need it today," he said. "We gave him a good break after Cheltenham, and I have no doubt he'll improve. He still loves it, and there isn't a big mileage on him. The key to him is the ground - today was the best he has had in this race."
While Brave Inca has himself shown great affinity with Cheltenham and spring ground, that scarcely gives him an advantage. Colm Murphy, his trainer, was sporting in his disappointment. "You can blame whatever you want, but he has been beaten fair and square and there are no excuses," he said. "Tony thought he would win turning in, but has been beaten by a very good horse."
He goes straight to Cheltenham, but Mac's Joy may yet follow the winner to Gowran, having delighted Jessica Harrington on his first outing since the spring, stealing into contention before fading into third, beaten another three lengths. "He jumped brilliantly and kept staying on," she said.
Lounaos is now 6-1 favourite with Ladbrokes for the JCB Triumph Hurdle after excelling in fourth, just ahead of Jazz Messenger, but Asian Maze ran a peculiar race, tailing herself off before running past Hide The Evidence into sixth. Iktitaf was an even graver disappointment, all but pulled up in the straight.
Hughes had already won the card's other Grade One race, the Baileys Arkle Chase, with Schindlers Hunt confirming himself the leading Irish novice over two miles. He cannot contest the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham, owing to a clerical oversight, though Hughes may yet consider the Ryanair Chase or the Grand Annual Handicap. But it is hardly as if his stable will be short of stimulus at the meeting.
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