Harcon increases Irish anticipation

RACING: Punchestown victors heighten hopes that the visitors will be in with a shout in Cheltenham's major events
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For many, the greatest moment of the National Hunt season is the expectant roar moments before the start of the first race at the Cheltenham Festival. This cacophony invariably has an Irish edge to it, and will be heightened by the success of three of the island's hopes at Punchestown yesterday.

The most significant victory was that of Harcon, who carries with him as much history as ability, as he inhabits a box at Jim Dreaper's yard once occupied by a horse who remains a byword for jumps racing, Arkle.

The Sun Alliance Chase aspirant showed athleticism to earn victory over two miles and two furlongs from Sound Man yesterday and praise from his trainer. "We wanted to see him stand back and take his fences at speed," Dreaper said. "Kevin [O'Brien, the winning jockey] has done what he was asked and Harcon has performed quite creditably over a trip short of his best."

Dreaper said the giant gelding would run at the Festival provided the ground was soft.

Majestic Man also did his Festival prospects no harm when sauntering 15 lengths clear of his field. Peter McCreery's horse is now 20-1 from 33-1 for the Triumph Hurdle with William Hill, who also took the opportunity to cut the favourite, Silver Wedge, to 7-2 from 4-1.

"Now that he has won here so well, he will take his chance in the Triumph Hurdle, provided he gets the soft ground he must have at Cheltenham," McCreery said.

The third winner at Punchestown yesterday was Dorans Pride, who punctured the reputation of Danoli, the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle winner at the Festival last March, by beating him decisively at Leopardstown seven weeks ago.

Michael Hourigan's gelding defeated another Cheltenham victor yesterday when outpointing Time For A Run, the 1994 Coral Cup winner, to earn warm words from his trainer. "Considering our gallops are flooded and he wasn't at peak fitness, Dorans Pride couldn't have done it much better," Hourigan said. "We will make plenty of use of his stamina in the Stayers' Hurdle."

Danoli himself seems increasingly likely to go straight to the Champion Hurdle without another run. The gelding's intended outing on Saturday sank in the mud of Gowran Park and the Co Kilkenny course will inspect today to see if a rearranged meeting can go ahead on Wednesday. Conditions yesterday were described as "diabolical", which, for Ireland, is the equivalent of the weather report Noah received.

Large Action and Danoli were cut from 9-2 to 4-1 for the Champion Hurdle with one firm yesterday. Large Action contracted because he stayed on to win the City Trial Hurdle at Nottingham, while Danoli's odds were reduced while he stayed at home in his box.

Both may have to contend with the classy Flat horse Alderbrook, who is due to make his debut for Kim Bailey this week. The six-year-old, along with fellow Champion considerations Jazilah and Trying Again, is among those entered for the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on Thursday.

"Alderbrook will also be entered for Kempton on Saturday, so by the end of the week we will have more idea of his potential and whether he could run in the Champion Hurdle," Bailey said yesterday.

Trained on the Flat by Julie Cecil, the son of Ardross has run over hurdles before for Sally Hall. His summer form improved appreciably last year, most notably when he beat Volochine in the Group Two Prix Dollar at Longchamp.

In Britain today Richard Dunwoody, the champion jockey, returns after a 30-day sentence, imposed by the Jockey Club, for causing intentional interference. The Ulsterman has not been in a cell during this time, having enjoyed skiing holidays and a trip to Dubai, but his lead in the title race has evaporated.

When he returns at Fontwell this afternoon Dunwoody will find himself back where he started before the season opened - level with his main rival, Adrian Maguire, both men having ridden 112 winners.

William Hill believe that naughty boys can prosper, and keep the champion as favourite to retain his title. He is 4-7, while Maguire is 5-4.