Racing: Justified steers back on the Cheltenham road

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For a horse, the ability to travel well is a distinct asset. And while Justified, one of the best novice two-mile chasers in Ireland, can indubitably do so once the tapes go up, Phineas Fogg he ain't, which makes his impressive winning performance at Newbury yesterday all the more meritorious.

The seven-year-old's only other visit to Britain, when he was the leading Irish hope for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at last year's Cheltenham Festival, ended with a dismal eighth place and his trainer, Dusty Sheehy, is of the opinion that the journey from Co Kilkenny was responsible for the defeat.

And when the latest travel arrangements went belly-up on Monday, with no Passepartout to gallop to the rescue, he feared the worst.

"This is very much a horse of habit," Sheehy said. "Take him out of his routine and he gets hot and bothered. He had a terrible trip this time, we were on the road for 17 hours. But it took so long that I think in the end he just had no option but to go to sleep. And when he got to the racecourse he ate and drank fine."

The expedition to run Justified, who had lost his unbeaten record over fences when unseating Shay Barry at the first obstacle in a Grade One contest at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, was a matter of expediency as the Irish programme book yielded nothing suitable, but proved serendipitous for Sheehy.

"It was always the plan to come to England before Cheltenham, for more travel experience," he said, "and to silence the critics a bit after Leopardstown, and to give him more experience of a left-handed track."

For a run-of-the-mill sort of midweek contest, yesterday's affair provided Justified with a decent test, for his six opponents included one above-average novice, Cornish Sett; one who had looked so when he won his first race over fences, Celtic Son; and the 2002 hurdles champion, Hors La Loi III, who made a successful chasing debut last month.

Justified, with Tony McCoy in the saddle, made short work of them all, winning as an 8-13 shot should. Sent to the front and allowed an uncontested lead, he jumped exuberantly and accurately, answering his rider's demands for bold, decisive leaps every time. And although Cornish Sett closed him down to within two and a half lengths at the line, the catch-up battle was always a losing one.

"Given the circumstances, I was well pleased," added Sheehy. "Tony said he was idling a bit on his own in front and ideally he would have liked something to tow him along. But he was pleased with the way the horse picked up again when challenged, and if he's happy then I'm happy."

Justified remains third favourite for the Arkle Trophy in March in most lists, behind his compatriot Accordion Etoile and Britain's best, Racing Demon, who is scheduled to continue his road to Cheltenham at Ludlow today but will take part only if regular rider Timmy Murphy, who suffered a heavy fall in the opener at Newbury yesterday, passes a medical this morning.

Racing Demon's trainer, Henrietta Knight, will not countenance anyone else but Murphy in the six-year-old's saddle. She bypassed taking on Justified yesterday in a more suitable contest than today's because Murphy was claimed for Celtic Son, whom he did partner before giving up his other mounts. "If Timmy cannot ride at Ludlow, then the horse will not run," she said yesterday.

Knight acknowledges both that the exciting and excitable Racing Demon needs an outing - his last was when winning at Sandown early last month - but that today's opportunity has ticks in few boxes.

"Going up in trip is not ideal at this stage," she said, "and I don't think Ludlow is going to be the ideal track for him. It is quite tight, and a bigger track and bigger fences would have been better, and I hope he doesn't take too many liberties."

There was positive news yesterday from Colm Murphy about the prospects of one of his two Champion Hurdle candidates, Feathard Lady, keeping her date at the Festival. The unbeaten six-year-old mare suffered a sprained ankle earlier this week and although she will definitely miss the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown later this month, x-rays have revealed no bone damage.

"It is quite tender and sore," he said, "but the x-rays are clear. The next couple of days will tell us more, but we are hopeful she won't be out for too long. And we are lucky in that she's a mare who doesn't take much work to get her fit."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Samuel Charles

(Southwell 3.10)

NB: Khanjar

(Southwell 1.40)