Racing: Macs Joy leads the way for Ireland's Champion challenge

It is a race with a name full of hubris, but, for once, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle lived up to its billing at Leopardstown yesterday. Three horses - Macs Joy, Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace - flashed across the line, almost in unison, and it would take a courageous figure to venture that one of the trio would not win a Champion Hurdle in just over seven weeks' time. And if not them, another Irish horse in Harchibald must be the selection. The pads of the clover are tightening.

It is a race with a name full of hubris, but, for once, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle lived up to its billing at Leopardstown yesterday. Three horses - Macs Joy, Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace - flashed across the line, almost in unison, and it would take a courageous figure to venture that one of the trio would not win a Champion Hurdle in just over seven weeks' time. And if not them, another Irish horse in Harchibald must be the selection. The pads of the clover are tightening.

Macs Joy followed up his win in the Festival Hurdle at the Dublin track last month with a victory that had the packed stands in thrall as half the field flashed past the post virtually locked together. Barry Cash punched the air aboard Brave Inca, indicating he thought they had got up, but a photo-finish determined that it was again Macs Joy's day, much to the delight of the public, who had sent him off the 11-8 favourite. He landed the €90,250 (£63,000) first prize by just a short-head from Colm Murphy's charge, a 7-2 chance, while last year's Champion Hurdle winner, Hardy Eustace, at 7-1, was just a head away.

Macs Joy jumped to the front under a confident Barry Geraghty two flights out and the rider looked a picture of confidence turning for home. But he had challengers coming at him on all sides in the closing stages, with Hardy Eustace charging home down the centre of the track and Brave Inca staying on all the time down the inside rail,. All that despite having been off the bridle down the back straight and having made a terrible mess of the third flight. The three will renew rivalry in hurdling's Blue Riband at Cheltenham in March.

"He battled back after he was headed but was in front too long today. He is better when he comes late," Jessica Harrington, the winning trainer who was celebrating a Grade One double after the earlier success of Ulaan Baatar in the Arkle Trophy, said. "He handles any ground, though, from this heavy to good to firm. We'll keep him ticking over, give him an easy week and then head to Cheltenham hoping for the best.

"I don't know if he will be good enough to win there, but he'll take his chance and I just hope the same three can come up the hill at Cheltenham."

Brave Inca has now finished runner-up to Macs Joy three times this season, but trainer Colm Murphy was far from downbeat after his seven-year-old, winner of last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival, lived up to his name as he battled all the way to the finish. "Turning in he was going to be a bad fourth, but he is as tough as nails and stayed on well," the County Wexford-based trainer said. "He's had a hard race today, but there are eight weeks until Cheltenham.

Dessie Hughes was thrilled with the performance of his Hardy Eustace. "He ran a hell of a race and, hopefully, he will run a hell of a race in the Champion Hurdle," he said. "I walked the track and instructed Conor [O'Dwyer] to come wide. The worst of the ground was after the last and he just could not quicken on it.

"It was a good run and I now know the horse is right. He may go to Gowran Park [for the Red Mills Hurdle] next month before Cheltenham."

LEOPARDSTOWN RESULTS

1.40 1. ULAAN BAATAR (T J Murphy) 10-1; 2. Foreman 13-8 fav; 3. Ned Kelly 7-1. 8 ran. 9, 2. (Mrs J Harrington). Tote: £11.90; £2.20, £1.60, £1.90. Exacta: £33.80. CSF: £28.86. NR: Dangerousdanmagru.

2.45 1. MACS JOY (B J Geraghty) 11-8 fav; 2. Brave Inca 7-2; 3. Hardy Eustace 7-1. 6 ran. Sht-hd, hd. (Mrs J Harrington). Tote: £2.70; £1.70, £2.30. Exacta: £5.40. CSF: £6.47.

3.20 1. WASHINGTON LAD (A P McCoy) 10-1; 2. Asian Maze 11-4 fav; 3. Arteea 7-1. 7 ran. 1 1/ 2, 2. (P Fahy). Tote: £10.40; £2.70, £2.50. Exacta: £25.10. CSF: £35.42. NRs: Domnul Admiral, Guantama Bay.

CHAMPION HURDLE (Cheltenham, 15 March) Coral: 3-1 Harchibald, 5-1 Back In Front, 6-1 (from 8-1) Hardy Eustace, 8-1 (from 10-1) Brave Inca, Macs Joy, 10-1 Rooster Booster, 12-1 Accordion Etoile, 16-1 Inglis Drever, 20-1 others; William Hill: 3-1 Harchibald, 11-2 Back in Front, 6-1 (from 8-1) Hardy Eustace, 7-1 (from 10-1) Brave Inca, 8-1 Accordian Etoile, Macs Joy, 12-1 Rooster Booster, 16-1 others; Ladbrokes: 3-1 Harchibald, 5-1 Back In Front, 7-1 (from 8-1) Hardy Eustace, 8-1 (from 10-1) Brave Inca, 8-1 (from 7-1) Macs Joy, 10-1 (from 6-1) Accordion Etoile, 12-1 Rooster Booster, 16-1 others; Tote: 3-1 Harchibald, 5-1 Back In Front, 7-1 Macs Joy, 7-1 (from 8-1) Hardy Eustace, 8-1 (from 10-1) Brave Inca, 12-1 others.

RICHARD EDMONDSON

Nap: The Hairy Lemon

(Fontwell 4.00)

NB: Haafel

(Fontwell 3.30)

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