Yesterday at Down Royal, Iktitaf added his name to the already-impressive list of Irish-trained Champion Hurdle contenders with an insolently easy success. This afternoon at Wincanton, a clutch of the home side will be presenting their cred-entials as threats to the Hibernian hegemony at Cheltenham. It will be a revealing exercise; the seven runners in the Elite Hurdle include three young turks and a decent yardstick with which to gauge them.
With the greatest respect to Royal Shakespeare, joint-winner of last season's points competition, the Order of Merit, it will be disappointing if he was to repeat his success in the Group 2 contest of 12 months ago for, admirable horse though he is, he is no champion. But he will provide a proper test for the pretenders to the crown, Desert Quest, Noble Request and Faasel.
The first two named were the pick of the talent to emerge from handicap ranks last year. They met once, when Desert Quest proved Noble Request's master in the County Hurdle. Just how well-treated the winner was that day was revealed a week ago at Ascot, where he put up a stunning performance to win off top weight without coming off the bridle, earning a 16lb hike in the ratings in the process.
Noble Request made his own rapid progress last term; after his Festival effort he beat Faasel in the Scottish Champion Hurdle and then, on 15lb worse terms, confirmed his superiority over that rival - who tries again today - in a valuable contest at Sandown, showing a remarkable change of gear from off the pace to do so. Desert Quest has fitness on his side but Noble Request (3.55), considered the best hurdler in Philip Hobbs' yard, may just be the better horse.
However Desert Quest fares, the Paul Nicholls stable should be on the mark in its own back yard with hurdling debutant Kicks For Free (1.05), placed in the prestige bumpers at both Cheltenham and Aintree, and Turko (2.10), who won in such taking style at Aintree last month and gets the age allowance. Their stablemate Ladalko will start favourite for the fencing feature, the Badger Ales Trophy, but Henry Daly-trained Alderburn (3.20), a progressive staying novice last season, could be a value alternative with the first-time assistance of Tony McCoy.
Iktitaf, at 1-7, had little more than a piece of paid exercise as he disposed of old rival Davenport Democrat by two lengths that could have been 22 at Down Royal yesterday; Noel Meade's charge now heads for a more severe test, next month's Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse.
The star turn at the Northern Ireland track today will also be an odds-on shot. The Gold Cup king War Of Attrition, who blew the cobwebs away when winning at Punchestown last month, faces six in the James Nicholson Champion Chase. And the first Grade 1 contest of the campaign looks his for the taking, despite the presence of at least three worthy opponents, Beef Or Salmon, Justified and Sir Oj.
With a first jockeys' championship for Ryan Moore and a ninth in the trainers' division for Sir Michael Stoute, the domestic Flat turf season limps to a close this afternoon at Windsor. Those at Godolphin will have the rather more valuable purses in Kentucky this evening primarily on their minds, but the footsoldiers here can celebrate the blues' sixth owners title with CENTAURUS (2.30, nap) and Scriptwriter (3.40), in the 127th edition of the traditional seasonal finale, the November Handicap. The venerable 12-furlong race, which in its heyday used to provide some great end-of-term gambles, has been run at Manchester, Pontefract and Doncaster, but never before on a southern course. But in one way it has returned to its roots in a soggy riverside setting.
Nap: Beau Nash (Windsor 3.40)
NB: Violette (Windsor 3.05)Reuse content