Racing: Iktitaf joins front rank of Cheltenham contenders

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The siege could soon be lifted. The Irish plundered all the great treasures at the last Cheltenham Festival, but the embattled Britons are discovering fresh hope for March.

Certainly Kauto Star's display at Haydock on Saturday served to pour boiling oil on War Of Attrition at the top of the steeplechasing ladder. The previous weekend, moreover, Detroit City had manfully shored up the walls against all those marauding Irish hurdlers.

But it has not taken long for the latter to renew their bombardment, their oldest and youngest warriors blasting successive holes over the weekend. On Saturday Hardy Eustace, who last season seemed to weary in pursuit of his third Champion Hurdle, suddenly looked as potent as ever in thrashing Mighty Man at Ascot. And yesterday Iktitaf confirmed himself best of last winter's Irish novices by beating three top-class rivals at Punchestown - including Brave Inca, the horse who seized Hardy Eustace's crown.

Admittedly Iktitaf went into the Morgiana Hurdle with a head start, having won on the Flat in the autumn and two hurdle races since. None of his rivals had run since the spring.

Even so, it would be churlish not to give him credit for the ease with which he cruised past them all, having been held up last by Paul Carberry. Iktitaf demonstrably belongs with these horses, and jumps as well as any of them, too.

Newmill, who had led the Irish over yet another rampart in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, did drop out very quickly once surrendering the lead - he fared little better in this race last year before switching back to fences. And Brave Inca, indolent as he is, was not given too hard a race on his comeback.

That left only Asian Maze to offer any resistance, and she made a pretty good fist of it, too, much as everyone should now expect. Iktitaf coasted into the lead approaching the last but Carberry was finally obliged to explore what he could do off the bridle when the mare rallied fiercely on the flat. Idling, Iktitaf was driven out to hold her by a length and a quarter, with Brave Inca wading home in third, another seven lengths away.

Clearly this was little more than a sparring session for Brave Inca, and Ladbrokes left him at 5-1 for the Champion, while cutting Iktitaf from 10-1 to 7-1. They favour Detroit City at 4-1.

Noel Meade had been planning to run Iktitaf at Fairyhouse in a fortnight, but his instinct now is to save him for the Christmas meeting at Leopardstown. "He's run three times in the last six weeks," the trainer reasoned. "And he had a hard race there against two fair ones, so I might give him a little break. For a horrible moment I thought Asian Maze was coming back at us but our fellow knuckled down well. You'd have to be thrilled with that, and Paul said he jumped fantastic."

As for Kauto Star, he may well start odds-on for the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. Beef Or Salmon, distant runner-up on Saturday, did not seem to have got over his scrap with War Of Attrition a fortnight previously.

But the time has come to stop quibbling with a horse that unmistakably has the world at his feet. Heretical as it may sound, all those obituaries for Desert Orchid have provided Kauto Star with a set of ambitions that suddenly seem perfectly feasible.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Down's Folly (Ludlow 2.20)

NB: She's Our Native (Ludlow 1.20)