When you have as many medals pinned to your chest as Conor O'Dwyer, you do not mind losing the odd skirmish so long as the war can still be won. A less experienced jockey might be distraught after being beaten on both his most cherished mounts within 24 hours, but O'Dwyer knows that neither War Of Attrition nor Hardy Eustace was diminished by defeat over the weekend.
True, both bumped into legitimate new challengers, In Compliance and Detroit City each graduating boldly from their promising novice seasons. But a proven aptitude for its very different demands mean that War Of Attrition and Hardy Eustace probably retain superior claims for the Cheltenham Festival in March.
War Of Attrition, such a decisive winner of the Gold Cup, was beaten for the second time in barely a month in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown yesterday. But while In Compliance was impressive, jumping and galloping with gusto under Barry Geraghty and taking charge of a strong field with three to jump, War Of Attrition offered little cause for anxiety.
So much livelier on good ground, he will have detested conditions - as indeed he did when routed in the same race a year ago.
He also looked as though he will be more comfortable going left-handed, repeatedly swaying across his fences. But he still managed to snarl at In Compliance, confining the margin to two and a half lengths, the pair clear, without enduring an unnecessarily severe race.
Mouse Morris was satisfied enough. "I'm not disappointed," the trainer said. "He doesn't jump as well as he can in that ground, but we knew that beforehand." What could not have been certain was how far In Compliance might sustain his exciting start over fences. Having missed much of last season and then been kept to shorter distances, he arrived as one of the least exposed chasers on the scene.
"He has finally come of age," his trainer, Michael O'Brien, said. "The ground wouldn't have suited War Of Attrition, but our fellow didn't mind it. We will wait a few days and decide if he goes for the King George, but I would say it's unlikely: my inclination is to go for the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown."
He could well meet War Of Attrition again there. In the meantime the Gold Cup sponsors, Totesport, cut In Compliance from 16-1 to 8-1 third favourite, while leaving War Of Attrition on 7-2 and Kauto Star on 9-4. It is 14-1 bar.
As for Hardy Eustace, he lost only a points decision in his showdown with Detroit City in the Boylesports Hurdle at Cheltenham the previous afternoon. Yet Detroit City is somehow as short as 5-2 favourite for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, whereas Hardy Eustace can be backed at 12-1 - an extraordinary insult both to his previous achievements at the Festival, where he has won three times already, and to his performance in what both camps described as "a messy race" on Saturday.
As it happens, trainer Dessie Hughes did not seem to think much of O'Dwyer's tactics, walking from the tape to ensure that Richard Johnson set the pace on Detroit City. Hardy Eustace permitted his young rival the initiative throughout and Johnson took adv- antage when kicking on three out.
Hardy Eustace followed him easily enough, but the steady early gallop left him with an uphill battle in sticky ground and it was only on the run-in that he finally started to run down the leader. He still had a length to find at the line, but Detroit City - receiving 4lb - was flat out and had pulled himself up long before O'Dwyer managed to ease down.
The general assumption is that Detroit City will be equally well suited by a stronger pace and faster ground in the Champion. Yet as Johnson himself said afterwards: "The great thing about this horse is that he's so straightforward, that there are no secrets about him."
There is no evidence that he could find one extra ounce in different circumstances. In contrast, one of the great hurdling careers of recent years shows an explicit pattern of peaking on spring ground at Cheltenham. It would not be remotely surprising if Hardy Eustace were to beat Detroit City a dozen lengths in March, but the reverse would be astonishing.
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