Racing: Hughes' Hardy plan works to perfection

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Long odds-on favourites do of course get beaten. One of the most notorious cautionary tales concerns a horse called Glendower, a 1-20 shot in a two-horse Flat race at Chepstow back in 1947. He was the mount of Gordon Richards, one of whose followers' stock instruction to his bookmaker was to back the great man's best ride of the day to win him £1,000. After the tapes went up Glendower whipped round and dropped his rider and cost the hapless punter £20,000.

But at Punchestown yesterday those Hardy Eustace fans who ventured £8,000 to win a grand, or £8 to win a quid for that matter, never had a moment's worry as the dual champion hurdler made his comeback. On paper, the Dessie Hughes-trained eight-year-old had a simple task against two inferior rivals, and so it proved in reality, his hard-held length margin of victory over Native Upmanship no mark of his superiority.

Hughes had not wished to subject his stable star to a gruelling test against the best of the title contenders on his first run since the defence of his crown in March and, serendipitously, Hardy Eustace, who has won only two hurdle races since May 2004, turned out to be eligible for yesterday's low-profile event.

The bay gelding invariably returns to the fray a little ring-rusty; indeed, he had lost on his two previous seasonal hurdling reappearances, the first time at 1-4. Yesterday it was apparent that Hughes still had plenty of bodywork to hone on the road back to Cheltenham, but equally so that the engine was still purring sweetly.

Hardy Eustace, locked into a steady rhythm from the start by Conor O'Dwyer, did his own thing on his own terms. He took each hurdle in his stride, outjumping his rivals as and when, and barely had to break sweat to ease clear of the veteran Native Upmanship, a top-class chaser in his palmy days.

Hughes, delighted, said. "He always carries plenty of weight, but he looked strong and jumped very well. Conor was very pleased indeed with him."

Bookmaker reaction was to leave Hardy Eustace at a general 6-1 for a third title. His next test will be a more informative one, against the likes of his Cheltenham victims Harchibald and Brave Inca and the new kid on the block, Feathard Lady, in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown four weeks today.

In Britain, the focus yesterday was on emerging talent, but the youngsters were upstaged by the classy handicapper Armaturk, who defied top-weight to snatch a gallant neck victory at Lingfield in the day's most valuable contest. Paul Nicholls's charge was two lengths down on Bleu Superbe, carrying 25lb less on heavy ground, with 100 yards to run, but neither Christian Williams nor he gave up, and prevailed in the final stride.

It was a 13th victory, and a third at the Surrey track, for Armaturk, good and brave enough to give Well Chief weight and a head beating at Cheltenham 14 months ago, and earned him a tilt at the Victor Chandler Chase back at Prestbury Park later this month. "Unbelievable," said Nicholls's assistant, Dan Skelton. "Firing around the bends here just seems to spark him up."

The best of the novices on show was the Arkle Trophy candidate Voy Por Ustedes, who made it three from three over fences in the two-miler at Warwick. The bay's jumping was sure-footed all the way under Robert Thornton, and winging leaps over the last two obstacles sealed a five-length success. "He's pretty good," said Alan King, his trainer. "We'll give him one more run before Cheltenham."

On the same card the smart hurdler Basilea Star, from the Martin Pipe yard, made a winning debut over fences, and at Lingfield another staying type, the Nicky Henderson-trained Copsale Lad, overcame indifferent jumping and a dislike of the conditions for a decisive success.

George Ennor, the much-liked and respected racing journalist, died yesterday at the age of 65 after a long battle with illness. He was the chief reporter of The Sporting Life for more than two decades, worked for the Racing Post for 12 years, and was president of the Horserace Writers and Photographers Association for 20 years.

BETS OF THE DAY

Serious bet
The Listener (Cheltenham 1.00) is one of the season's most promising staying novices and can continue his exciting progress.

Fun bet
Whereareyounow (Cheltenham 3.20) is the question his backers have been asking lately, but he did win this race in style two years ago.

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