Racing: Harrington's Evidence makes case for Festival

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The Independent Online

The storms that lacerated Co Meath yesterday cannot be attributed solely to the eastward suction created by Kauto Star at Sandown the previous afternoon. But there is no mistaking the way this tempestuous, iconoclastic force in jump racing is threatening to smash apart the Irish hegemony of recent winters.

Even so, the abandonment of two of the three Grade One races scheduled here did not prevent those leathery enough to brave the horizontal rains from discovering another young warrior to lead them into the Cotswolds next March.

Over the past decade the Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle has seamlessly announced a sequence of Cheltenham Festival champions: Istabraq himself, Moscow Flyer, Hardy Eustace, Newmill, Like-A-Butterfly.

Last year the race was won by Iktitaf, who remains a legitimate pretender, and this time it was expected to confirm Clopf as the next young lion. He had won both his races in the autumn on the bridle, and Edward O'Grady has trained too many good horses for this one to prove counterfeit.

Though facing a stronger field here, he started odds-on and Barry Geraghty shepherded him comfortably behind the leaders, albeit they were barely trotting into the lungs of the gale in the back straight. Clopf eased forward on the home turn, but he was shadowed all the way by a nimble little chestnut named Hide The Evidence, with young Andrew Leigh sitting very placidly in the saddle.

Hide The Evidence? Well, even though he had won all three starts over hurdles, his light had clearly been kept under a bushel. Facing much his stiffest task, at 10-1, he was a revelation. Clopf was first of the pair off the bridle, and he was soon floundering. In the end he only just hung on to second, while Hide The Evidence coasted six lengths clear.

Now clearly the conditions here were desperate, and Clopf may prove worth another chance, but Jessica Harrington is adamant that Hide The Evidence will also prefer spring ground. "I don't know what we might do with him now," the trainer said teasingly. "I suppose we might run him somewhere in March."

She always shows such dexterity in the preparation of Cheltenham horses that every step this horse takes now, every oat he eats, will be measured back from the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices' Hurdle - for which he is now 8-1 with Coral, behind only Kicks For Free on 7-1. "It's quite possible we'll give Christmas [at Leopardstown] a miss," Harrington said. "He has had four runs over hurdles now, so we might leave him until February and give him a race to get him ready then. He just keeps improving. Certainly he has come a long way since winning a maiden hurdle at Down Royal, and I think the main thing is that we have done a lot of work getting him to settle."

Harrington already has an unbeaten bumper horse in Cork All Star, who made a striking reconnaissance round Cheltenham last month, and the retirement of the horse who made her name has clearly not left too many echoes in the yard.

Leigh himself exemplifies the way the yard is building on the foundations laid by Moscow Flyer. His father, Eamon, is Harrington's assistant and Moscow Flyer barely broke wind without his supervision. Keeping the ride on Hide The Evidence represented a pointed vote of confidence in Leigh Jnr, who had his allowance reduced from 5lb after winning the opener - but would not have been entitled to claim in any case, given the stature of this prize.

Four of his senior colleagues then marched into the stewards' room to object to the notion that they should ride novices over fences in such wild conditions. Even the starter had been blown off his rostrum. Sure enough, as racegoers huddled in steamy bars and puddles chased each other around the deserted aprons, the rest of the card was postponed until Wednesday.

Moscow Flyer had led the parade at Sandown the previous afternoon before Kauto Star matched his own achievement in winning a second Tingle Creek Chase. He was of course a mighty steeplechaser himself, and it seems a pity now that Harrington never yielded to the temptation of sending him to Kempton one Christmas. Kauto Star in contrast is sailing serenely towards the Stan James King George VI Chase - back up to three miles from two - and it is his readiness to breach conventional disciplines that authenticates comparisons with Desert Orchid.

He does not jump with the same extravagance, indeed he barely skimmed the last two fences on Saturday, but he gallops with much the same gusto. He is one of those rare champions that pierces the seas like a jet ski but apparently stores his energy in an oil tanker. Perhaps he will not be quite so imperious on firmer ground. But at this stage he looks a colossus, and the longer he can healthily bestride his precarious calling, the more he will achieve for the sport.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Chaninbar (Fakenham 12.50)

NB: Altay (Fakenham 1.20)