Racing: Loughran redeemed by polished House show

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A season apparently doomed by the fragility of horses could yet find deliverance in a story of human frailty and redemption. On Saturday the abrupt loss of Lingo, who broke a leg during exercise at home, prolonged a sequence of disasters that had already claimed Best Mate and Rooster Booster, and maimed several others. Yesterday, however, it seemed possible that this macabre curse might just be exorcised when the survivors gather at Cheltenham next month.

No man is hungrier for atonement than Roger Loughran, who embraced sporting infamy at Leopardstown after Christmas, throwing away a valuable prize with that delirious celebration half way up the run-in. At Punchestown yesterday he was reunited with Central House, and together they made a very pretty penance indeed.

Both Dessie Hughes and John Kelly, respectively the trainer and owner of Central House, insist that nobody gets more out of the horse than Loughran and there was never any question of him losing the ride. Paul Carberry did take over when he ran at Fairyhouse during Loughran's suspension, but the horse ran so poorly that it was not just his jockey who sought a fresh start in the Tied Cottage Chase.

If anything, Loughran appeared rather too anxious to keep things simple this time. He sent Central House charging away in front, and for much of the race it seemed possible that he might be going too fast. The two novices, Accordion Etoile and Watson Lake, did nothing to diminish that suspicion when closing smoothly on the leader, who was already being pushed along as they turned out of the back straight. But while his racecourse topography may be limited, Loughran certainly knows the location of this horse's heart.

As if responding to the naked need in his jockey, Central House maintained a generous gallop all the way to the post. Accordion Etoile and Watson Lake, in contrast, simply fell to pieces between the last two fences. Their stride pattern became so inebriated on the run-in that Jim, who had been hopelessly tailed off, managed to pass them both to claim second, half a dozen lengths behind the winner.

It was a remarkable performance, and Central House is now down to 9-1 from 16-1 with Coral for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Loughran, who had been touched by the ashen sympathy of the Leopardstown crowd, was given a conspicuously generous reception as he returned to the unsaddling enclosure.

"Everything has worked out OK in the end," Loughran said. "The ban seemed like a very long time to be sat on the sidelines, but the connections have stood by me and I'm very grateful. Dessie Hughes is a very fair man and has stood behind me the whole way - he's been brilliant. He told me the horse can go along at any pace I wanted, and that's what I did today on him. He could have done with some company but he has picked up twice for me in the straight."

For Hughes himself this also offered timely relief after the dismal performance of Hardy Eustace at Leopardstown the previous weekend. Blood tests have since suggested that the champion hurdler was suffering from some kind of infection, and Hughes remains optimistic he can get to Cheltenham. But he will not go there with the same swagger as Central House.

"We'll go straight to Cheltenham now," Hughes said. "He can go two miles at a really good pace and keep it up. There was no doubting his performance today - he's beaten them fair and square. His effort petered out at Cheltenham last year, but he is a much stronger horse this time round. He's holding on to his condition much better this season."

As for Accordion Etoile, this was an ambivalent performance at best. Paul Nolan had been modest in his ambitions beforehand, reasoning that he should be happy with any kind of sincere effort against such an accomplished rival. After all, Accordion Etoile had not run since November, and could be expected to benefit considerably for the run.

It must be said that he jumped with terrific accuracy. He looked as though he could slip through a basketball hoop without touching the sides. But he did finish pretty timidly, and the bookmakers were very confused in their assessment of his chances in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy. William Hill make him 7-2 favourite, whereas he is out to 11-2 with Coral, behind Racing Demon on 5-1.

The latter was denied the chance to renew his credentials when Chepstow was abandoned yesterday. Having missed so many previous opportunities, he may now end up preparing for Cheltenham with a schooling session at a racecourse. It sometimes seems as though Henrietta Knight is terrified of the sky falling on her head, but in view of everything that has happened since she lost Best Mate, it is understandable if she feels a little timorous every time Racing Demon leaves his stable.