The phrase "hard act to follow" could have been coined for the contenders in next month's Triumph Hurdle, given the subsequent exploits of those at the sharp end last year. The winner, Detroit City, is now favourite for the Champion Hurdle, the runner-up, Fair Along, is favourite for the Arkle Trophy, the third, Blazing Bailey, is right in mix for the World Hurdle. But the leading member of the home side's defence, Katchit, could just prove a hard act to pass. And even his trainer, Alan King, has got to the stage of believing it.
Katchit started the campaign somewhere near the base of the Barbury Castle pyramid of prospective juvenile talent. He was not very big, he had not won until his 14th attempt on the Flat, he was rated just 84 and seemed early-season make-hay material. He duly won his first obstacle race back in September at Market Rasen and the fact that he turned over an odds-on shot going for a six-timer in the process might have been a portent.
Since then the little bay gelding has confounded all King's expectations. His hurdles record, always under Robert "Choc" Thornton, now reads five from six, the last three, all at Cheltenham, having included two Grade Twos. His only defeat came when trying to give 8lb to Degas Art, himself unbeaten in three.
"He has just amazed me all season," said the trainer yesterday. "It took a while for us to take him seriously but I have finally conceded that he could be the real deal. And he just seems to be getting better. He's been taking it very easy this week after his latest win at Cheltenham, but he seems to have come out of it very well. I wish they were all as tough as he is."
King has been here before. Three years ago his charge Trouble At Bay started favourite for the four-year-old showpiece after a run of five victories, only to finish a disappointing, never-dangerous 10th. "He used to hit flat spots," said King, "and if you do that in a Triumph you are out the back before you know what's happened.
"Katchit, though, has plenty of pace, jumps well - he's loved it from day one, and that makes such a difference with juveniles - and will be able to hold his position, and I'd like to think Choc can ride him how he wants. And he has the match practice; he's been there, done that at Cheltenham three times, and you'd have to think a horse of his size will be better on better ground.
"To me, he looks the ideal type. I've kept thinking something will come out of the woodwork to beat him, but he's kept surprising me."
King named the joint-favourite Lounaos as the most likely wriggler. The Irish-trained filly, after two wins against her own age-group, finished only eight lengths behind Hardy Eustace in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown 10 days ago. "She's the one that worries me most," said King. "That run last week was a very good performance. She'll be hard to beat, especially getting the 7lb sex allowance."
The Triumph Hurdle is a nursery of surprising diversity - witness the varying talents of Detroit City, Fair Along and Blazing Bailey - and although some winners afterwards disappear without trace, others progress to celebrity, in assorted guises. Three - and only three - have won Champion Hurdles, Clair Soleil (1953), Persian War (1967) and Kribensis (1988). Katarino (1999) has won the last two runnings of the Foxhunters' Chase at Aintree. Commanche Court (1997) finished second in a Gold Cup. Paddy's Return (1996) caused a pile-up at the Canal Turn in the 2001 Grand National. Shiny Copper (1982) ended up teaching apprentices at the British Racing School in Newmarket. Baron Blakeney (1981) was Martin Pipe's first Cheltenham winner. Attivo (1974) reverted to the Flat and uniquely added the Chester Cup and Northumberland Plate. And Cantab (1961) became a very good jump sire.
The last opportunities for Detroit City's rivals to lay down their Champion Hurdle markers come on Saturday week. At Wincanton the Nick Henderson-trained Afsoun - fifth in last year's Triumph - is due to turn out in the Kingwell Hurdle and at Gowran Park Hardy Eustace, the former dual title holder, will face old foes Macs Joy and Harchibald in the Red Mills Hurdle.
Macs Joy finished third in last week's Leopardstown contest on his seasonal debut. "I was thrilled with him," said his trainer, Jessica Harrington, yesterday. "When they went down the back and it looked like he was losing touch I thought 'we really have left him very short or he's not as good as he was last year'. But suddenly he picked up and I couldn't believe my eyes. And he's definitely improved physically for the run."
Harrington confirmed Studmaster's absence from Saturday's Totesport Trophy at Newbury, which will leave the Champion Hurdle aspirant Acambo, from the David Pipe yard, on top-weight.
* Prospects for racing at Carlisle and Ludlow today rest on morning inspections. The abandonment of yesterday's cards at Sedgefield and Market Rasen left the all-weather fixture at Southwell to carry the flag, and a similar scenario is possible, with action on sand scheduled for Lingfield.
NB: Homes By Woodford