In their natural environment, there were cheers, not jeers, for J P McManus and John Magnier yesterday. Or rather, for horses bearing the colours of the Irish pair who have caused such discontent in the football world. First Rhinestone Cowboy, then Baracouda, earned the approbation of the crowd here, whose numbers were swelled if not by disaffected Manchester United supporters then certainly by extra security guards.
And, of course, by those who like to see a superlative horse. Baracouda, who bears McManus's patriotic green, white and gold silks, is certainly that, the highest-rated hurdler in the world and in a class of his own over marathon distances. His performance here to give his eight rivals 26lb and an insultingly easy beating in the Sandown Hurdle was worth braving any threat of disruption (there was none) to see.
The French crack, trained by François Doumen and ridden by son Thierry, is one of those athletes whose gear-change is virtually undetectable. He can be travelling off the pace in the pack and then, as if by magic, he is there among the leaders. And, apparently, it feels as remarkable as it looks. "With some horses," said Doumen fils, "you are aware of the power under you. With this one, you are almost not aware you are riding. But once you switch him on he will take you there. You have to know him well because it could be too easy to panic and do it all too early."
The last time Baracouda was beaten, at Ascot 14 months ago, Doumen did it too late, but there was no such misjudgement this time on the 8-15 favourite. He put the nine-year-old's head in front for the first time between the last two obstacles and repelled early leader Yogi's rally by two lengths. His appearance was a rare foray into handicap company for a horse of his calibre. "He was telling me at home he was ready for a race," said Doumen Snr. "And although it is always a thing to give weight like this away he is in another world. He is a better horse this season than he has ever been. He is more mature, more relaxed, altogether easier. On the run up the hill he slowed down because he was in front and could hear the crowd noise, which sometimes worries him. The others were slowing down because they just could not go any faster."
The victory was worth £34,800, taking Baracouda's earnings past the £600,000 mark. His next appearance will be at Cheltenham in his bid for a hat-trick in the Stayers' Hurdle. "We are all very lucky to have him to enjoy," said his trainer. "And as he is lightly raced for a horse of his age, I hope he will be around for another few seasons, possibly over fences."
Neither McManus nor Magnier were present, so the burden of being the target for possible demonstrations fell on the latter's son, J P Magnier. The 20-year-old was shadowed by a pair of heavies as he made his way to mount Rhinestone Cowboy for the Agfa Hurdle, but the handy umbrellas they carried did not have to be deployed in any capacity. And young Magnier remained cool and collected under pressure.
On trial for Cheltenham, Rhinestone Cowboy, the 2-5 market leader, made short work of his rivals. He is a much less imposing individual than the giant Baracouda and lacks his sheer electricity, but he put his mysteriously lacklustre display at Leopardstown in December behind him with a smooth enough two-length defeat of the novice Garde Champetre.
Magnier, who hones his skills in the saddle by riding out for Christy Roche at weekends, had to keep the eight-year-old up to his work with a couple of slaps round the final bend, but that, according to trainer Jonjo O'Neill, is the horse's way, even if it is not wholly convincing. "He's such a good one that he sometimes finds it too easy," he said, "and needs a wake-up call. But that was just what the doctor ordered."
Rhinestone Cowboy's position as third pick in the lists for the Champion Hurdle, in which he ran third last year as a novice, remains unchanged, but he also holds entries in the Stayers' Hurdle and Coral Cup. "[J P Magnier] could claim his seven in the handicap," added O'Neill, perhaps significantly.
Mick Fitzgerald was taken to hospital for X-rays to his left arm after a crashing fall from See You Sometime in the Scilly Isles Chase. The Grade One feature went to the Paul Webber-trained Patricks-nineteenth, who now has the Royal & SunAlliance Chase on his agenda.
The McManus colours have another outing today at Leopardstown, most notably in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, when Le Coudray, runner-up to Best Mate at the Co Dublin track last time, faces Rince Ri and Florida Pearl, three times a winner of the Grade One race.