As did Byron's Assyrian on Jerusalem, the Irish have tended to descend on our best races of late like the wolf on the fold. So it might be considered appropriate that one of their leaders is, like Sennacherib's cohorts, clad in purple and gold.
For the past three seasons horses trained in Ireland have dominated the business end of the Champion Hurdle, with three wins and clean sweeps in the latest two runnings and now the Hibernian hegemony is evident at the start of proceedings.
For the first time, more than half the initial entries for the Festival showpiece are Irish-trained. Yesterday, 28 contenders for the 78th running were revealed, with reigning king Brave Inca one of 17 raiders, one more than the total number of Irish-trained winners.
His compatriots include all the usual suspects: dual champion Hardy Eustace, the last two runners-up, Macs Joy and Harchibald, last year's fourth Al Eile and faller Asian Maze. The Irish race rookies include Iktitaf, Jazz Messenger, Hide The Evidence and Feathard Lady.
The first to appear next may be Asian Maze, a possible for a trial at Naas on Saturday. The talented Tom Mullins-trained mare trounced Hardy Eustace at Aintree last April after falling at the fourth at Cheltenham but was a dire disappointment at Fairyhouse in December, a weary fourth of five at odds-on. The heavy ground and a hard race on her seasonal debut 17 days previously were blamed.
The eight-year-old has, however, regained her sparkle at home. "She's in very good form," said Mullins, "so we've put her in on Saturday. She won't run again on heavy, but if the rain stays away we'll likely have a go. The Champion is still firmly on her agenda."
Only three mares, African Sister, Dawn Run and Flakey Dove, have worn the Cheltenham crown. The other in this year's line-up, Feathard Lady, is unbeaten in seven runs but, due to a sprained hind fetlock, has not been seen in public since winning the 2005 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. The seven-year-old, stablemate of Brave Inca, has recovered but will not reappear until next month.
"She's in full work," said trainer Colm Murphy, "but we don't know yet whether we'll get a run into her before Cheltenham. We won't make any plans before the end of the month but luckily she doesn't need too much work."
Ireland's next Group One contest in the division is the AIG Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday week, in which Brave Inca is due to try to repeat last term's win. "He's in good order," added Murphy, "all systems go there with him." Brave Inca was the horse for money yesterday; the nine-year-old is now joint-favourite in some lists with Philip Hobbs-trained Detroit City, the chief home defender.
Al Eile, winner of Haydock's Champion Hurdle trial 12 months ago, will miss Saturday's renewal at the Lancashire track, and also the Leopardstown contest the following weekend in favour of the Totesport Trophy at Newbury two weeks later. "He hasn't quite come to himself as we want yet," said trainer John Queally, "so we'll wait."
By the end of yesterday an Irish challenger had taken over at the head of the betting for the weekend's most valuable race, the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot. The Arthur Moore-trained Mansony, who teed himself up for the two-miler by winning in good style at Punchestown on Boxing Day, has supplanted Paul Nicholls' charge Saintsaire as 3-1 favourite with the sponsors.
Twelve horses were confirmed for the Grade Two handicap yesterday, with the revitalised Oneway, runner-up to Voy Por Ustedes in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton last month, set to carry top-weight.
Sunday's gallant Leopardstown winner Point Barrow was confirmed yesterday as a candidate for the Grand National, rather than for a repeat in the Irish version at Fairyhouse. "Aintree will be just the job as he stays so well," said trainer Pat Hughes. "He'll be entered in both races, but I'd be coming down in favour of a crack at Liverpool, which has always been in my mind."
The first two in the Grand National market, at 12-1 and 14-1, are the last two winners, Hedgehunter and Numbersixvalverde, both - does it need saying - Irish-trained. Point Barrow is around 20-1 for the marathon, the weights for which will be revealed three weeks today.
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