Racing: Watson Lake buoys Meade's Festival hopes

The last three winners of the Arkle Trophy - Well Chief, Azertyuiop and Moscow Flyer - have not exactly disgraced the name of the peerless chaser commemorated at Cheltenham by the novices' two-mile championship. But the search for their successor is proceeding only by default and, after Cloone River's defection over the weekend because of a setback, yesterday at Navan another fancied young Irish pretender dropped by the wayside. Ulaan Baatar, promoted to favouritism in some lists after the sidelining of injured Kauto Star, was comprehensively outpointed in heavy ground by Watson Lake in the Flyingbolt Chase, a Grade 2 contest called after Arkle's almost-as-good stablemate.

The last three winners of the Arkle Trophy - Well Chief, Azertyuiop and Moscow Flyer - have not exactly disgraced the name of the peerless chaser commemorated at Cheltenham by the novices' two-mile championship. But the search for their successor is proceeding only by default and, after Cloone River's defection over the weekend because of a setback, yesterday at Navan another fancied young Irish pretender dropped by the wayside. Ulaan Baatar, promoted to favouritism in some lists after the sidelining of injured Kauto Star, was comprehensively outpointed in heavy ground by Watson Lake in the Flyingbolt Chase, a Grade 2 contest called after Arkle's almost-as-good stablemate.

Watson Lake, ridden by Paul Carberry, took over in front after Scarthy Lad tumbled at the second obstacle. Ulaan Baatar went in pursuit and the pair drew well clear down the back straight, but the expected head-to-head never materialised. As Watson Lake kept going powerfully after the turn for home, his rival started treading mud and did well to heave himself tiredly over the final two fences to be beaten 20 lengths.

It was only the fourth winner of the year for Noel Meade and an hour later Afistfulofdollars made it five in the maiden hurdle, signalling a welcome and timely return to form for the trainer, whose Castletown yard, only a few miles down the R162 from the Co Meath track, also houses the Champion Hurdle favourite Harchibald. Seven-year-old Watson Lake, who had been sidelined before yesterday since winning a Grade 1 race at Fairyhouse in November, is now pressing his compatriot War Of Attrition, also unbeaten over fences, for Arkle favouritism.

"We can dream again," said Meade. "When we started to trot him again after his last run we discovered he'd pulled a little ligament. It has taken him a while to bring him back up and he'd done only two bits of real work. The first was good but he finished tired after a racecourse gallop at Leopardstown, which had me slightly worried about today. But he jumped so well, which made the difference and if he can relax as well at Cheltenham that will be a big help."

Meade reported Harchibald, who missed last month's Irish Champion Hurdle because of too-soft ground, on track for his title challenge. "We gave him a quiet time after not going to Leopardstown that time," he said, "but he's started his serious build-up now. The plan is to take him to the racecourse to work twice before Cheltenham."

Paul Nicholls brought his seasonal century up yesterday with the victory of Dusty Bandit at Exeter and though he trails arch-rival Martin Pipe by 49 winners, he is less than £170,000 behind in prize money, the criterion by which the championship is judged. And an up-beat bulletin emerged from his Ditcheat headquarters about the well-being of the two yard heavyweights who acquitted themselves so well at Newbury on Saturday.

Gold Cup contender Strong Flow, runner-up in the Aon Chase on his first run over fences for 14 months, and reigning two-mile champion Azertyuiop, winner of the Game Spirit Chase, emerged from their boxes yesterday with ears pricked and eyes bright.

Pipe suffered a reverse with the defeat of Well Chief by Azertyuiop on Saturday, and a surprise one yesterday when Marcel, seeking his 10th success of the season, finished an exhausted third to the Alan King-trained My Way De Solzen at Exeter.

There was another hurdling shock at Navan as one of Ireland's icons, Solerina, suffered the first fall, happily a harmless one, of her illustrious career in the Boyne Hurdle. The mare, going for her 16th victory, crashed on the first circuit, leaving Emotional Moment and Barry Geraghty to coast home by nine lengths in the Grade 3 three-miler and book his ticket for next month's World Hurdle. "He should have a sporting chance," said trainer Tom Taaffe, "as he's never run badly at Cheltenham and will love a bit of good ground. But first, I was delighted to see that Solerina was OK."

It was a decent weekend for the Carberry family - Paul's sister Nina rode impressive bumper winner Karanja, now second favourite for the Festival heat, at Newbury - but less happy for Davy Russell, who learned yesterday that he had been jocked-off Champion Hurdle second favourite Back In Front in favour of Ruby Walsh.

Irish Independent Arkle Trophy (2 miles; Cheltenham, 15 March): Totesport odds: 5-1 War Of Attrition; 7-1 Watson Lake, Contraband; 8-1 Ned Kelly; 10-1 My Will; 12-1 Foreman, River City; 14-1 Ulaan Bataar, Locksmith, Mariah Rollins; 16-1 Le Seychellois, Like a Butterfly; 20-1 Ashley Brook, Lacdoudal, Made in Japan, Saintsaire; 25-1 others

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