Racing: Light path to Champion for Etoile

A pow-wow takes place at the Co Wexford yard of Paul Nolan this morning, after which we will learn the trail that Accordion Etoile, in some places the favourite for the Champion Hurdle, will chart on his way to Cheltenham. The minutes for the meeting seem to suggest that less will be more.

A pow-wow takes place at the Co Wexford yard of Paul Nolan this morning, after which we will learn the trail that Accordion Etoile, in some places the favourite for the Champion Hurdle, will chart on his way to Cheltenham. The minutes for the meeting seem to suggest that less will be more.

Nolan and the owners of the winner of the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham's Open meeting are already agreed on a thing or two. Their five-year-old diamond will not be risked immediately or on devilishly deep ground. Accordion Etoile is free for Christmas, Hogmanay and Burns Night, though by St Valentine's Day he will probably be back on a professional footing.

"He is in great shape and will have another week off before being brought back into training with a view to possibly running in mid-January," Nolan said yesterday. "He'll have a maximum of two runs before the Champion Hurdle, once in January and then perhaps once in February, but he will not be running at Christmas.

"I'm talking to the owners [the Banjo Syndicate] tomorrow, but we just need to go where we know the ground is suitable. He can operate on soft ground. He showed that when he finished behind Solerina and in front of Harchibald [at Tipperary last month], the sort of form that would beat most horses, it's just that he doesn't travel as sweet on it and he comes off the bridle."

There was no disputing the smoothness of Accordion Etoile's journey at Cheltenham. While others arrived at the Prestbury Park terminus as if they had been out back with the luggage and chickens, the Irish gelding stepped regally on to the platform as if alighting from a Pullman. Westender, Perouse and Rooster Booster had been solidly beaten in a race which has become a notable weather vane for the Champion Hurdle.

Accordion Etoile had a considerable weight advantage that day, but such was the impression he created that crisp autumn day that the bookmakers are taking no chances. "The pace might not have suited Rooster Booster, but then it didn't suit us either," Nolan added. "Our horse proved himself in every section of the race. He had no problem jumping out and getting a position, then when they slowed down - when I thought he might be a bit free - he settled beautifully. He met those challenges and then he quickened immediately when John [Cullen] just changed his hands. It's nice to see a horse come away like that, apparently not under any pressure, and he always idles in front. In my opinion, he had loads left in the tank."

Accordion Etoile's enduring relationship with Nolan is evidence that not everything has its price in an Irish field these days. The flutter of English chequebooks is no longer entirely alluring. "I didn't think I'd be able to keep this horse," the trainer said. "He has never been for sale, but there have still been the enquiries for him. It helps that he's owned by a syndicate, like about 80 per cent of my horses, because it can be more tempting for an individual to sell. People [in Ireland] seem to be keeping them more now."

This economic phenomenon means the Champion Hurdle will be a particularly hard race to defend for the British forces in March. Accordion Etoile apart, Ireland can also field the reigning champion, Hardy Eustace, whose route to rainbow's end is now unclear after it was announced yesterday that he would miss Sunday's Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse.

"He doesn't run, because he didn't scope clean," Dessie Hughes, his trainer, said. "There is a race at Navan on the 12th for him or it will be Leopardstown at Christmas."

Champion Hurdle (Cheltenham, 15 March) WIlliam Hill: 6-1 Hardy Eustace, 9-1 Accordian Etoile (from 10-1), 10-1 Brave Inca, Rooster Booster, 12-1 Back in Front, 16-1 Harchibald, Intersky Falcon, Lingo, Macs Joy, 20-1 Sadlers Wings, 25-1 Arcalis, Monkerhostin, Royal Shakespeare, Solerina, 33-1 Rigmarole, Self Defense, 40-1 No Refuge, Total Enjoyment. Ladbrokes: 6-1 Accordion Etoile, 6-1 (from 7-1) Hardy Eustace, 9-1 Rooster Booster, 10-1 Brave Inca, 16-1 Macs Joy, Back In Front, Harchibald, Solerina, 20-1 Inglis Drever, Intersky Falcon, Sadlers Wings, 25-1 Arcalis, Lingo, Royal Shakespeare, 33-1 Foreman, Hasty Prince, Rigmarole, Royal Alphabet, 40-1 Cherub, Perouse, 50-1 Westender.

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