Racing: Maguire considers Celestial direction

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The Independent Online

Though Adrian Maguire could scarcely have made a better start at the Cheltenham Festival as a rider, still a teenager when winning an amateurs' race there in 1991, it is easy to understand any reluctance to allow the first good horse he has trained anywhere near the place. He did go on to win a Gold Cup, on Cool Ground, but otherwise the Festival - and the days leading up to it - tended to prove a physical and emotional minefield. At one stage he missed the meeting three years' running, variously through broken bones and bereavement, and even the fall that finally ended his career, five years ago, took place just a week beforehand.

After witnessing the 10th success of her career, needless to say, Maguire yesterday reiterated that he would love to send Celestial Wave over for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle in March. Every trainer needs a "headline horse" to give his career impetus and the mare's brave win in the Alo Duffin Memorial Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park was another persuasive advertisement for the stable he has established in Co Cork. And there is little depth of opposition among stayers to Black Jack Ketchum, who completes his own preparations tomorrow at Cheltenham's final meeting before the Festival.

But Maguire has been emphatic throughout that Celestial Wave needs soft ground, and the rarity of such conditions during his riding days has persuaded him that she is unlikely to make the trip. Equally, it is many years since the going at Cheltenham was anything like as heavy as it was on New Year's Day, and will be again tomorrow. If Celestial Wave does make the journey, the sponsors will certainly not keep her at 12-1.

True, her performance yesterday was nothing like as slick as she had managed at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. Indeed, she looked exhausted turning in, staggering left and right as she approached the final hurdle. But none of her pursuers could dig any deeper on the crawl to the post and, ridden for the first time by Conor O'Dwyer, she eventually got there five lengths ahead of Studmaster.

In fairness, the horse that would relish this kind of cloying ground has not been foaled. And when horses win with such mechanical consistency, it is as well for them to remind us sometimes that they do not do so glibly. "Conor said she is as tough as you like and that she idled in front after the third-last," Maguire said. "Plus, that ground is like glue and no horse wants it that bad. I'll be watching television keenly on Saturday to see how Black Jack Ketchum gets on. But she has done us proud and is too good to be bringing to Cheltenham if the ground is fast."

On the same card Willie Mullins saddled the first two in the Ellen Construction Thyestes Chase, Homer Wells outstaying Livingstonebramble. This valuable handicap was once won by Arkle but its more recent history is more pertinent, as two of the last three winners - Hedgehunter, also trained by Mullins, and Numbersixvalverde - have since won at Aintree and the other, Dun Doire, is fancied by some to follow suit after he went on to win in such extraordinary fashion at the Cheltenham Festival. For now, however, Mullins is talking in terms of the Irish National for Homer Wells, emphasising that he also requires soft ground.

In contrast the one Irish mare still superior to Celestial Wave will not take her chance in Sunday's AIG Europe Champion Hurdle if the ground is testing. Tom Mullins was disappointed by Asian Maze at Fairyhouse last month and, with Cheltenham in mind, will not risk her in similar conditions at Leopardstown.

"It is drying up a touch, but I'm not going to run her on heavy in the early part of the season again," the trainer said. "If it was April I might chance her, but I'd rather wait until she's super-fit. It seems a great race with Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace, Macs Joy and our horse, but it is not our main Champion Hurdle. We are leading to one race at the moment."