This sudden patriotic wildfire in betting on the Cheltenham Festival is very curious. Along with the Grand National and the King George VI Chase, the Irish came within a head of plundering all four championship races at the Festival last season. Yet somehow bookmakers have persuaded themselves that the home team this time includes superior candidates in each discipline.
True, a bona fide champion has since emerged in Kauto Star, albeit he remains liable to smash those feet of clay into the top of a fence. And a singular lack of depth among stayers makes the unbeaten Black Jack Ketchum the obvious favourite for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. Newmill, moreover, is making laboured progress towards the defence of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, tailed off over hurdles on his only appearance this season. But it does seem hasty to promote Detroit City past so many Irish horses with runs already on the board in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. He did give the slip to one of them in a sprint finish at Cheltenham last month, but it seems credulous to assume that he has already surpassed the standard forged mutually in recent seasons by Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace, Macs Joy and Harchibald, never mind the potential for further progress in Iktitaf, Asian Maze and Feathard Lady.
The collective calibre of Irish hurdlers can be measured by the sample gathering at Leopardstown on Sunday. Though ground seems likely to be too heavy for Noel Meade to risk Iktitaf or Harchibald, or Tom Mullins Asian Maze, the AIG Europe Irish Champion Hurdle will still be contested by the first three home at Cheltenham last season. Meade could yet run his third string, Jazz Messenger, who so embarrassed British hurdlers at Kempton on Boxing Day, and the race is also on the agenda for two unbeaten novices, Lounaos and Hide The Evidence. Little wonder if Jessica Harrington, who trains Hide The Evidence and Macs Joy, accepts that both could be beaten and still enhance their Festival prospects. Brave Inca is clearly going to be hard to pass, having stifled mutinous thoughts about his commitment with a typically ravenous display at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. Macs Joy, in contrast, has not run since beating him at Punchestown in April, while Hide The Evidence is taking a giddy leap in class.
"Macs Joy is going to need the run whatever happens, in that ground," Harrington said yesterday. "He pulled a muscle just before he was due to run at Newcastle in November and just wasn't ready for Christmas. I hate those muscle problems, because horses can't turn round and tell you have far they are ready to be pushed. The way things worked out with him last season I wasn't in any hurry with him early on, and in a way that has backfired now. But I'm looking for him to run well on Sunday all the same."
Hide The Evidence ripped up a few trees himself winning a Grade One race in a gale at Fairyhouse last month - previously won by Istabraq, Moscow Flyer, Hardy Eustace and Iktitaf - and has since figured among the favourites for the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices' Hurdle. "For him Sunday will be all about getting experience," Harrington said. "They'll jump quicker than novices and he'll be on a learning curve. But at least it's the right distance for him and he won't have a penalty." Harrington is certainly regrouping formidably after the retirement of Moscow Flyer.
As well as Hide The Evidence, she has the Weatherbys Champion Bumper favourite in Cork All Star, who made such an impressive reconnaissance at Cheltenham in November. "He's an amazing horse," she said. "He's been away for a break since then, but he's back now and seems to be thriving."
Nap: Barton Sun
NB: California Laws