‘Freak’ Lough Derg fights off rivals

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The good news for supporters of Champion Hurdle market leader Binocular is that their hero is in health that is getting ruder by the minute. And, should they wish to check on his wellbeing, it will be open house at Kempton first thing Wednesday morning, when Nicky Henderson plans to take the five-year-old and a clutch of stablemates, including Triumph Hurdle contender Zaynar, for a workout.

The bad news is that the callow youngster may yet have a rival at Cheltenham in 15 days’ time who would make the toughest heart quail. After Lough Derg won Fontwell’s National Spirit Hurdle for the second successive year yesterday, his rider Tom Scudamore proffered an entertaining Festival Plan C for his favourite horse. “He’s in the World Hurdle and the Coral Cup,” he said, “but do you know, if it came up heavy, I think the owner wouldn’t mind having a go at the Champion Hurdle.”

If the betting is a guide, that notion is no more than whimsy; Lough Derg, a marathon man, can be backed at 50-1 for the two-mile crown and would have to be supplemented anyway. But, as he has demonstrated again and again, wherever he turns up he is most extraordinarily difficult to get past, and keep passed. Yesterday he set off in front, as is his wont, and though Hills Of Aran had the temerity to poke his head in front going to the penultimate flight, and Pierrot Lunaire and Straw Bear ranged up alongside after the obstacle, by the last Lough Derg was back on level terms and simply out-toughed the trio on the run to the line.

For the record, David Pipe-trained nine-year-old has now run 115 miles in anger and earned £330,000 for owner Bill Frewen. Scudamore adores the gelding; when he won at Fontwell last year the jockey set new standards in blubbing in public by a sportsman. This time, he was more composed as he and his doughty partner came in to a heartening reception.

“He’s just a freak,” he said. “He loves racing, he loves life. He’s had a battle today, but in 10 minutes you won’t know he’s had a race. He reminds me of a Kenyan distance runner who wins a marathon, has a drink of water and looks ready to go and do it again.”

One definite piece of Champion Hurdle news to emerge yesterday was that Noel Fehily, who won the County Hurdle last year on Silver Jaro, is to replace Jack Doyle on Crack Away Jack. Trainer Emma Lavelle cited the Irishman’s greater Festival experience as the reason for the change.

Royal Auclair, who beat all bar Hedgehunter in the Grand National four years ago, has, at the age of 12, found another niche. His owner, Clive Smith, aiming for top glory with Master Minded and Kauto Star, now has three live chances after the sprightly veteran booked his ticket to Prestbury Park at Fontwell. Ridden by 18-year-old Ian Popham, he won his second hunter chase and heads for the Foxhunters.

But after 10 Graded contests over the weekend, it was hard enough to unearth many pieces of the Prestbury Park jigsaw. Aintree is the next stop for three winners at Kempton on Saturday, Racing Post Chase hero Nacarat, novice chaser Herecomesthetruth, juvenile hurdler Hebridean and also for Black Apalachi, the new Grand National favourite after his 17-length defeat of last year’s big-race third, Snowy Morning, in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse.

There was a sad post-script to the Racing Post Chase when Endless Power, who took bold Nacarat on up front for the first circuit, died later that evening after fracturing his pelvis during the race.

At Naas yesterday the impressive winner of the novices’ chase, the Paul Nolan-trained Joncol, is unlikely to travel over for the Festival, but there was a clue of sorts when Go Native took the Grade Two novices’ hurdle and in the process paid a huge compliment to Hurricane Fly, who swept him aside in December.

Willie Mullins’s star youngster was lame last week and a decision will be made in the next few days as to his participation at Cheltenham, where he would have the burden of being an Irish banker. “If Willie can get him right he’ll take all the beating,” said Go Native’s trainer, Noel Meade, “but we might be tempted now.”