Racing: Iktitaf lays down Champion Hurdle challenge

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The Independent Online

Though Paul Carberry may not appreciate the choice of verb, there was no mistaking the way he ignited the jumps season at Punchestown yesterday. Spared a jail sentence earlier in the week for setting fire to a newspaper on a plane, the jockey can rest assured that two of his mounts, Iktitaf and Leading Run, will consume plenty of newsprint themselves during the months ahead.

Iktitaf missed the Cheltenham Festival last season because of injury, but is already threatening to compound the present Irish hegemony in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. True, their relative freshness may have contributed to the way he dealt with Straw Bear at the Punchestown Festival in April, as the runner-up was contesting his third Grade One race in barely a month. But Iktitaf's hurdling career to date has been characterised by the sort of speed that will surely enable him to hold a position in better company than yesterday, when coasting away from three inferiors on the bridle. Coral cut his Champion Hurdle odds to 10-1 from 14-1.

Of course, Carberry's unique kinship with his mounts makes it difficult to know what exactly might lurk beneath that speed. Iktitaf did discover the reserves to win the Irish Cesarewitchthis month, but he was all out to win off a friendly rating there and there is certainly nothing dour about him. Equally he has yet to betray any of the idiosyncrasies that have complicated the fulfilment of the senior hurdler in his stable, Harchibald.

Their trainer, Noel Meade, will keep them apart for now, his priority being to give Iktitaf more experience. "It's good to get an odds-on shot to win, as I've had a few beaten recently," Meade said. "He did it well and will now go for a race for second-season novices at Down Royal on 3 November, and after that he could go for the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse."

Mind you, any feasible Champion Hurdle candidate will now find it difficult to resist the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham on 9 December. The new sponsors of that race, Boylesports, certainly arrested the attention of trainers yesterday by announcing a massive injection of prizemoney, up from £75,000 last year to £200,000. The race is now surpassed in Britain and Ireland only by the Champion Hurdle itself, and a bonus of £200,000 will also be paid to any horse that wins both - as Rooster Booster did four years ago.

Harchibald won the race last year and has never left any doubt that he has ample talent to win a Champion Hurdle, too. But he must look to his laurels for the time being, having managed only fourth of five when returning from a lengthy absence at Tipperary earlier in the month.

Meade remains sanguine. "Harchibald worked yesterday morning and we were thrilled with him," he said. "He is getting nearer his racing weight all the time and we'll just be certain not to run him in very soft ground again." In the long term, Meade would not be remotely surprised to see Leading Run reach the top as well. Unbeaten in four bumpers, he made his first start over hurdles later on the card and only got up close home. "He jumped as well, or better even, than I thought he might," Meade said. "He was heavier than I wanted him to be, and I would expect quite a lot of improvement."

It is a measure of Leading Run's late development that he is just six weeks the junior of War Of Attrition himself. The Cheltenham Gold Cup winner reappears on today's card in the same race that launched his campaign last year. He has six rivals this time and his trainer, Mouse Morris, offers them the intimidating assessment that the horse is now "more of a man".

War Of Attrition will be ridden as usual by Conor O'Dwyer. "He has summered really well and I know Mouse is highly delighted with him," the jockey said. "He did really well in this race last year and should come on leaps and bounds for it."

Chris McGrath

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