Where Lingo is concerned, read Jonjo's lips. The five-year-old gelding, who runs in the colours of Ireland's leading jumps owner J P McManus, had been, despite his novice status, touted and hyped as a Champion Hurdle prospect before yesterday's Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown.
Lingo duly justified 5-4 favouritism in the Grade One contest, but afterwards O'Neill ruled out any thoughts of the big one, this year at least. "I don't know who has been saying all these things about the Champion Hurdle, but it wasn't me," he said. "He'll go the novice route."
Despite the trainer's protestations, Lingo is still in the Champion lists, at 25-1, but the Supreme Novices Hurdle seems a more realistic option after a tidy, rather than brilliant, success yesterday.
The Tolworth Hurdle, the first two-mile top-level contest for beginners of the domestic season, has a history as a spotlighter of not only hurdling, but chasing, talent: winners include Desert Orchid, Behrajan, Monsignor, French Holly and, last year, Thisthatandtother. Before his acquisition by McManus, Lingo was a smart handicapper on the Flat, where the last of his five wins was perhaps the most memorable, a Kieren Fallon late swoop to land the City and Suburban and some hefty bets at Epsom last April.
After winning first-time out over hurdles he seemed the victim of overconfidence at Ascot last month, when his planned pounce on Perle de Puce was undone by a sloppy jump at the last.
This time neither Liam Cooper nor the horse made any mistake. Again held up but never far from the pace set by Perle de Puce in a five-horse field, Lingo was always travelling well, and as Marrakech and then Bourbon Manhattan, who had jumped indifferently throughout, dropped off the back as the screw tightened half a mile out, he jumped on to level terms with Perle de Puce and Garde Champetre two out.
The three went to the last as one, but only two came away; Perle de Puce barely rose and took a heavy head-over-heels tumble from which, happily, both she and rider Mick Fitzgerald rose unscathed. On the stiff climb to the finish Lingo's superior Flat speed stood him in good stead and he pulled away to beat Garde Champetre, very much a chaser of the future, by a fairly comfortable length and a half. "He was just a bit novicey last time," said Cooper, "but operated well today. They went a good old gallop and he has a bit of Flat class about him."
Dual Gold Cup winner Best Mate finished second in the Tolworth Hurdle when he ran in it, as did St Pirran, who put a medical dictionary of training problems behind him as he took the two-mile handicap chase under Ruby Walsh. The nine-year-old was a really smart novice fencer the season before last but since then he has become something of a six-million dollar man.
"He has had everything, really," said his trainer Paul Nicholls. "He did a leg and had that fired, and had breathing problems and a soft palate operation. Then we got him back to action after a season off at Bangor last time, and he came back with a cut leg and had to have three weeks of box-rest."
Jim Culloty had news of Best Mate, such a brilliant winner at Leopardstown a week ago, as he came in after continuing the fine Henrietta Knight run on Over The Storm in the three-mile handicap chase. "He was back in his own box by five the next morning," he said, "and there isn't a bother on him."
Best Mate's strongest market rival, the former hunter chaser Kingscliff, is likely to appear at Haydock on Saturday in the Peter Marsh Chase with regular rider Andy Thornton aboard. As a result trainer Robert Alner may have to look for another rider for his other stable star Sir Rembrandt, the recent Welsh National runner-up, who is scheduled to run at Warwick the same day. Thornton, on the mark on Alner-trained Kadara yesterday, said: "The Chepstow race was not as hard as it might have seemed - the going was sloppy, not holding - and Sir Rembrandt is in great form.
"They are both good horses, durable and tough, and there's not a lot between them. Yet one is 5-1 for the Gold Cup and one is 16-1."Reuse content