Racing: Triumph smiles on Hobbs and Johnson

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The Independent Online

Jump racing is so intimate with Kipling's twin impostors that the championship race for juveniles at the Cheltenham Festival might be better named the Disaster Hurdle. Certainly there are many trainers who have historically distrusted the JCB Triumph Hurdle as a mortuary of promise, as too crude a punch-up for young horses. It is instructive that the one winner to have really progressed in recent years turned out to be a doughty staying chaser, Commanche Court. But perhaps things are about to change.

Philip Hobbs saddled both the winner and runner-up in the latest running, and brought them back here yesterday to see out their races with such zeal that they must now be ranked two of the most progressive jumpers in Britain. Fair Along made a brash chasing debut in the Independent Newspaper Novices' Chase - a race that introduced Best Mate and Azertyuiop, among others, to the fences over which they would later achieve stardom - while Detroit City produced an unequivocal display of class in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle.

In the latter it was impossible to escape a flagrant homage to the late Rooster Booster, another grey who represented the same trainer-jockey-owner triumvirate of Hobbs, Richard Johnson and Terry Warner in the same race four years ago. He, too, laughed off topweight and four months later returned to win the Smurfit Champion Hurdle itself. Now Detroit City is as short as 7-2 favourite with William Hill to end the Irish hegemony that has prevailed since.

Dour winner of the Cesar-ewitch Handicap on the Flat last month, Detroit City had persuaded Hobbs that he may need to go beyond two miles to find fulfilment over jumps. This race was designed to test the merit of persevering at that trip, albeit Johnson made it as thorough an examination of stamina as possible, sending him straight into the lead and careering clear from halfway.

He had long fled by the time his most plausible rival, Sweet Wake, weaved through from the rear of the field, and his pursuit proved fleeting anyway, having pulled too hard early. That left Detroit City to romp up the hill on his own, eventually beating Ameeq by 14 lengths.

"I'm still sure he will stay longer distances, with no problem at all," Hobbs said. "But since he is clearly effective over two miles, we may as well carry on towards the Champion. That was the softest ground he has run on, and we half-talked about taking him out, but we had to find out whether he goes in it - and clearly he does."

Hobbs will bring him back here next month for the Boylesports Hurdle, and while he decorously described them as "totally different types", he plainly feels that Detroit City does not suffer from comparison with Rooster Booster. "To be honest I did hope that he might do something like that," he said.

"Everything he has done at home this autumn he has done so much better than last season. See You Then was the last five-year-old to win the Champion, and he was an exceptional horse. But while I don't want to crow, I am sure that Detroit City is the best Triumph Hurdle winner we have seen for some time."

Johnson was no less positive on Fair Along, whose confident jumping in front soon tested the odds-on favourite, Natal. "He's not the biggest, but he's very brave and intelligent," Johnson said. Coral promoted Fair Along to 8-1 favourite from 20-1 for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Festival, though destiny had certainly hesitated before bringing him here. "We nearly had him sold to go to America in the summer," Hobbs said. "And he was crippled on Thursday night after knocking a joint, and we declared him on Friday thinking we wouldn't get him here. But he was better yesterday and sound this morning, so here we are."

Such an unobtrusive, wholesome presence in the training elite, Hobbs completed a treble with Johnson when Massini's Maguire won the Gideon Kasler Novices' Hurdle. But the meeting had a still more dominant force in Ruby Walsh, who rode four winners on Saturday and another two yesterday - including the bumper on the impressive Cork All Star, who will not be seen until returning for the big one at the Festival.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Peruvian Prince (Southwell 4.00)

NB: St Savarin (Southwell 3.30)

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