Racing: Limestone grit keeps Ireland dreaming

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The Independent Online

It was a disastrous spring last year for the hoteliers, innkeepers and general merchants in the Cheltenham area, but yesterday was a further reminder that they could get back their losses in one hit should results fall kindly at the Festival of 2002.

A total of 40 horses were declared for the Champion Hurdle, 12 of them from Ireland, including the imperious Istabraq, whose quest is a record-breaking fourth title. If he wins on the first day the air will be full, firstly with hats and then the chiming sound of tills.

Yet it could be that the biggest hooley will be reserved for Gold Cup day and not even provoked by the Blue Riband itself. If the hugely popular Limestone Lad wins the Stayers' Hurdle, it will be a long old night indeed. Irish eyes will be watering and reddening.

The 10-year-old's travelling entourage is ready and waiting. The lips are smacking. "There's a big crowd of supporters coming over," Michael Bowe, assistant trainer to his father, James, said yesterday. "They've got their accommodation booked. He will have a great following certainly. It would be just great if he could win."

The magic of Limestone Lad is that he transports more than a jockey, in this case Paul Carberry. He also carries racing's great dream, that the small man can beat the most powerful. He is the Bowes' only horse.

Many of Limestone Lad's supporters may subliminally like to see themselves in the beast. He is not a flashy act. He tears off from the front and wears downs his opponents one by one, solely by unbending determination. He does so on an uncommonly regular basis. The gelding runs almost as often as other horses do serious work. It is a compelling package.

Limestone Lad met with rare defeat in his last outing, when second to Bannow Bay at Leopardstown. That contest came as near as anything to knocking stuffing out of the old horse. He even had to take an extra day off.

"He ran a tremendous race [in the Grade Two Christmas Hurdle]," Bowe added. "For me, it was one of his best runs. It was only when I got the time of the race, I realised he probably ran the race of his life. I have to admit that, generally, he takes two days to recover from a race but, on this occasion, it took him three days. He ran his heart out, you know.

"It must be heart-breaking for a horse to be pipped at the post after going out and doing the donkey work for three miles."

Limestone Lad, who was one of 10 Irish entrants in the 48 declarations for the Stayers' Hurdle yesterday, will be out again at the end of next week, either at Naas or in Leopardstown's AIG Europe Irish Champion Hurdle over two miles.

"He needs heavy conditions to give him a chance over two miles against the type of horses that are in that, whereas the Naas race is over two and a half miles," Bowe said. "If ground conditions are reasonably good, that's probably where he'll go."

The prospect of an assault on the Champion Hurdle itself has been abandoned. "There was talk of it early on in the season when he won over two miles but it's not until you go over and actually see what the Champion Hurdle is that you realise you need a different type of horse for the race nowadays," the assistant trainer said.

"You need a horse coming from the Flat. This fellow's a National Hunt horse, a relentless galloper through and through. He's just turned 10 so that's one of the other things I have to worry about. The thing is, he doesn't know he's getting older. I know. He doesn't. I definitely won't tell him."

* Tim Reed, 40 will retire from race-riding after partnering Kerry Lads at Carlisle today. "I should have retired three or four years ago," Reed said. "My weight has been a problem and I'll struggle to ride at 11st 4lb at Carlisle. I have been hanging on in the hope of going out on a winner but, win or lose, this is it. I think he has a good chance."

CHAMPION HURDLE (Cheltenham, 12 March) Tote: 2-1 Istabraq, 3-1 Valiramix, 4-1 Landing Light, 14-1 Brother Joe, Geos, 16-1 Bilboa, Marble Arch, Ned Kelly, 20-1 others.

STAYERS' HURDLE (14 March) Tote: evens Baracouda, 5-1 Bannow Boy, 6-1 Limestone Lad, 12-1 Liss A Paoraigh, 14-1 others.

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