The biggest price against any favourite in the first four races here yesterday was just 11-10, but one after another they all contrived to get themselves beaten. And while Philip Hobbs saddled two of the winners, he is hoping that the formbook proves rather more reliable when Detroit City, the Smurfit Champion Hurdle favourite, warms up at Sandown on Saturday.
The grey could scarcely have enjoyed a better weekend than he did in the sanctuary of his stable, just up the road from here. On Saturday, Blazing Bailey became the latest to buttress the form of his success at the Festival last year by winning the Byrne Bros Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham - having finished third, just behind Fair Along and in front of Afsoun, in the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
And the next day Hardy Eustace, Detroit City's narrow victim at Cheltenham last month, produced a vintage performance to beat his successor as champion hurdler, Brave Inca, at Leopardstown. Plainly, Detroit City towers above the British hurdlers hoping to break Ireland's hegemony in March.
Partly as a result, there is no mistaking the frisson of partisanship now infecting opinions in the build-up. Brave Inca retains his stubborn disciples, too, but much now hinges on the substance or otherwise of Detroit City's defeat of Hardy Eustace in that sprint finish to the Boylesports Hurdle. Both camps seem equally adamant that the different demands of the Champion Hurdle will favour them in the rematch - though each must first undergo one last rehearsal, Hardy Eustace at Gowran on 17 February and Detroit City in the Agfa Hurdle on Saturday.
"Six weeks today, we'll all know," Hobbs said with a shrug. "In fairness, when he won last time, he was receiving weight [4lb] from Hardy Eustace, which was probably quite important, but I'd like to think as a five-year-old he might still be improving, whereas that can't be true of the rest. I don't mind what sort of race it is on Saturday, it wouldn't matter if he had to make the running again - the important thing is to get another run into him before the big day."
Of course, as his trainer notes, Blazing Bailey is far better suited by the extra distance he covered last weekend. "We knew that already last season," Alan King said. "After the Triumph we stepped him up to two and a half miles at Aintree, where he ran into Natal but pulled a long way clear of the rest."
King had just denied Hobbs a double in the first two races by turning over Leading Contender with Itsa Legend. The winner sampled pioneering stem-cell treatment after suffering a leg injury in his youth and spent the next three years off the track.
His trainer hopes that Blazing Bailey's performance in the Triumph will at least be matched by Katchit, whose own success at Cheltenham on Saturday sustained his bewildering improvement since reaching Barbary Castle. "He's amazing, and I swear he's getting smaller all the time!" King exclaimed. "He won off [a rating of] 77 on the Flat the day before we bought him, but when he arrived I worked him with my 80 horses and he couldn't live with them."
Katchit has since won five of his six starts over timber, the last three at Cheltenham, and his relish for the hill makes him a copper-bottomed Triumph candidate. "The only one I really would fear is the Irish filly, Lounaos," King said. "I thought she ran a cracker when fourth to Hardy Eustace on Sunday."
Among those chastened by odds-on defeat was Venetia Williams, whose Chief Yeoman was collared by a 28-1 shot, Always Waining, in a chaotic novices' chase. She could not begrudge the winning trainer, Robert Stronge, his first victory since last April - not least as she had to wait only five minutes to watch Gustavo, at Folkestone, recording the 50th success of the trainer's excellent season.
The race had been notable for a gymnastic recovery on L'Oudon by the peerless Ruby Walsh, who was hanging round the horse's neck with a circuit to go and might be charged with larceny for the £493 he secured for third place.
Instead he was summoned before the stewards to explain his riding on Another Bottle, never nearer than third in one of the novice hurdles. Paul Nicholls, his trainer, was entitled to feel affronted, candour with the betting public having been integral to his journey to the top.
All he needed to tell the stewards was to review the tape of Walsh riding Predateur here earlier in the month, the only difference being that the nervy Another Bottle was neither as adept in his schooling, nor as fit, as that winner. Both men were properly exonerated.
Nap: Barton Sun
NB: Jimmy Bond
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