In truth, Hardy Eustace should have little more than a well-paid exercise spin today against two inferior rivals, for his trainer Dessie Hughes could hardly have found an easier opportunity for the pride of Osborne Lodge to blow away any cobwebs before the serious defence of his status begins next month.
Four days ago, Hughes's dignified reaction to the cataclysmic error of his jockey, Roger Loughran, in throwing a Grade One contest away on the yard's best chaser, Central House, by mistaking the winning post was a shining example to those Premiership managers who agonise so petulantly over referees' wrong, but equally genuinely human, decisions. It confirmed what most people already knew, that the 62-year-old former top jockey is a proper man, and ratified the observation of his countryman, the poet Yeats, that hearteners are to be found among men who ride upon horses.
The fact of Hardy Eustace's presence at the races today establishes other excellent qualities in a trainer, those of attention to detail and fox-like cunning. Late last month, while parting the pages of the Irish racing calendar with a fine-tooth comb, Hughes spotted that the best hurdler in these islands was eligible for today's rather innocuous two-and-a-half-mile contest, a new addition to the programme book worth £8,408.51 to the winner.
The conditions of entry state that it is open to four-year-olds and upwards who have not won more than two hurdle races since 2 May 2004. Perhaps it is odd for a performer of his talent but Hardy Eustace has won just the two since that date, the Red Mills Trial at Gowran in February and the Champion Hurdle the following month. Hughes spotted the loophole and, with a twinkle in his eye, entered the superstar and kept schtum.
The 16 original entries are now just three and the champ, who invariably comes on for his first outing, can slide smoothly back into the groove rather than having had a frenetic rematch with his Cheltenham victims Harchibald and Brave Inca at Leopardstown two days ago.
"I didn't want to be taking on the real good horses for our first start of the season, as they had the benefit of a couple of runs," said Hughes. "When I saw he was qualified for this race it looked ideal and it was always the plan, though I kept it to myself to start with."
If all goes to plan today Hardy Eustace will face the big guns in the AIG Hurdle at Leopardstown on 29 January. "He's in great form and I'm looking forward to getting him back out," added Hughes. "The small field does not bother me as he can make his own running and the distance will be fine."
Two of the three jump meetings in Britain are subject to morning inspections. Racing would not have been possible yesterday at frozen Uttoxeter, but a forecast rise in temperatures has improved the chances of sport today to 50-50. At Lingfield, free of snow and frost, the fear is of waterlogging in the event of overnight rain. Over the past five years Nicky Henderson has frequented only Kelso, Hexham and Newcastle less frequently than Lingfield, but of his nine runners there, four have won. One of them was Copsale Lad (1.20), who scored at the Surrey track in October and although the eight-year-old may prefer better ground he is down in grade after chasing smart Albuhera home at Newbury.
Paul Nicholls may have the key to the two-mile handicap chase, in which course winner Armaturk may struggle to give more than a stone to his well-regarded younger stablemate Le Seychellois (2.20), assuming that one's confidence-restoring mission works out. The stable looks set for a good afternoon; BLU TEEN (nap 12.50) can make amends for his last-hurdle fall at Chepstow and L'Oudon (1.50) will be sharper for his debut.
Despite the absence of rising star Racing Demon because his rider, Timmy Murphy, has been claimed for Medison, the novices' chase at Warwick is a hot heat. It can go to Arkle Chase contender Voy Por Ustedes (2.30), who defied a penalty with ease last time.
Nap: Mizz Tee (Wolverhampton 3.10)
NB: Non So
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