Racing: Hardy return adds strength to Irish squad

After a weekend in which Eddie O'Grady's Back In Front picked off the former champion hurdler Rooster Booster at Cheltenham and the reigning champion and reigning pride of Ireland Hardy Eustace proved that he is alive and well and with a leg at each corner with a return to action at Navan, little wonder that one bookmaker is offering odds of 6-1 that Irish-trained horses will fill the first three Champion Hurdle places.

After a weekend in which Eddie O'Grady's Back In Front picked off the former champion hurdler Rooster Booster at Cheltenham and the reigning champion and reigning pride of Ireland Hardy Eustace proved that he is alive and well and with a leg at each corner with a return to action at Navan, little wonder that one bookmaker is offering odds of 6-1 that Irish-trained horses will fill the first three Champion Hurdle places.

As the only two British-trained horses in the first eight in Champion betting are Rooster Booster and Inglis Drever, who were left standing by Back In Front on Saturday, it does not seem a ludicrous bet. The same firm, Cashmans, are quoting 1-2 about an Irish-trained winner.

Yesterday's defeat of Hardy Eustace by Solerina at Navan caused barely a ripple in Cheltenham betting, with Totesport's Damian Walker summing up: "This was an encouraging run from Hardy Eustace as everything was in Solerina's favour. She had her ground, was racing over her best trip, received 5lb and had a fitness advantage. In the circumstances this was a fine effort and Hardy Eustace remains 7-1 for the Champion, Solerina is unchanged at 14-1."

The mare, though, is an unlikely starter at the Festival unless the drainage system at Prestbury Park reverts to 1970s-style ineffectiveness. "She will be entered, but would only run in the unlikely event of the ground being soft," John Bowe, son of Solerina's trainer, James, said.

"That's her 15th consecutive win when 'soft' has been in the going description. The ground is everything with her. We're hoping for a wet Christmas."

If Bowe's wish comes true and those that have taken William Hill's odds against a white Christmas (5-1 favourite Glasgow, 7-1 Cardiff and London) are confounded, Solerina's next run will be in the Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown on 29 December, when she will again meet Hardy Eustace, but over two miles.

Gary Hutchinson, her jockey, said: "Two miles would probably suit Hardy Eustace better than mine and he has race-fitness under his belt now. I wouldn't be surprised to see him finish in front of her, but he's going to have to work hard to do it."

At Sha Tin yesterday Phoenix Reach gave Andrew Balding good reason to cheer after a self-proclaimed indifferent season by picking up the £565,000 first prize in the Hong Kong Vase. Martin Dwyer's mount beat Frankie Dettori on Godolphin's Sights Of Gold. "I think we needed it," Balding said. "We had a nice bunch of two-year-olds but they struggled a bit as did the older horses this year."

Dettori and Godolphin went one better in the Hong Kong Mile with Firebreak, while the Hong Kong Cup, the world's richest 10-furlong turf event with a first prize of £720,000, was won by the Jim Bolger filly Alexander Goldrun.

Champion Hurdle (Cheltenham, 15 March 2005) Coral: 5-1 Harchibald, 6-1 Hardy Eustace, 8-1 Back In Front, Accordion Etoile, 12-1 Rooster Booster, 14-1 Brave Inca, Solerina,16-1 Inglis Drever, Macs Joy, 20-1 others. William Hill: 9-2 Harchibald, 6-1 Hardy Eustace, 8-1 Back In Front, 9-1 Accordian Etoile, 12-1 Rooster Booster, 14-1 Brave Inca, Solerina, 16-1 Inglis Drever, Lingo, Macs Joy, 20-1 others.Ladbrokes: 5-1 Harchibald, 6-1 Accordion Etoile, Back In Front, Hardy Eustace, 10-1 Inglis Drever, Total Enjoyment, 12-1 Brave Inca, Rooster Booster, 16-1 others. Totesport: 9-2 Harchibald, 6-1 Back In Front, 7-1 Hardy Eustace, 9-1 Accordion Etoile, 14-1 Solerina, Rooster Booster, Brave Inca, 16-1 Inglis Drever, Macs Joy, 25-1 others.

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