Despite the injury-enforced absence of four-time World Hurdle winner Big Buck's, the marathon crown at the Cheltenham Festival is shaping up as a fascinating contest. The latest to present his credentials for a crack at the vacant title was Bog Warrior, a wide-margin winner at Punchestown on Monday. And, given the rain-sodden conditions, an entirely appropriately named one.
The nine-year-old, one of last season's best Irish-trained novices over fences, reverted to hurdles after falling on his senior chasing debut at Down Royal in November and is now two from two this term over the smaller obstacles. In yesterday's two-and-a-half-mile contest, which the heavy ground in Co Kildare made a thorough test of resolution, he was in command from before the second-last hurdle and galloped home strongly under Davy Russell to score by six and a half lengths from long-absent Solwhit.
Bog Warrior, who carries the colours of Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud, has been introduced into the World Hurdle betting at 12-1 by the Irish firm Paddy Power, though his Festival target, if any, has yet to be identified by his connections. "He's a very good horse," said his trainer, Tony Martin, "and whether he goes back over hurdles or stays over fences is all in the balance.
"He's had a few problems in the past and we'll see how he is in the coming week. But there was no hiding place for anything out there today, and that was him at his best and it was great to see. And after that performance he will be able to go for something nice."
The injury to Big Buck's and the balancing act with Bog Warrior are testament to the skill required to keep a horse on the track and the team associated with Solwhit are entitled to be equally delighted. Their charge, a six-time Grade One winner and one of the few to beat Hurricane Fly over hurdles before leg problems surfaced, was returning to action after nearly two years on the sidelines, but that his talent remains intact was evident.
He travelled well and answered readily when Andrew Lynch sent him into second place going to the home turn and, although he had no answer to Bog Warrior's pace in the finish, he came in a long way clear of another race-fit rival, Staying Article. "Well pleased with that," said his trainer, Charles Byrnes, "and hopefully he's OK in the morning."
Today's traditional New Year's Day meeting at Cheltenham was lost to waterlogging, leaving the terrestrial TV focus on Musselburgh.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Hawkes Point (2.40 Exeter)
Looked a thorough stayer over hurdles and steps up in trip on his second try over fences.
Next best: Valleyofmilan (1.45 Catterick)
Showed enough in his runs in novice company to be of interest on his handicap debut and should not be inconvenienced by the testing conditions.
One to watch: Fill The Power (Sue Smith) produced a mighty effort when he was narrowly beaten under a welter burden at Doncaster on Saturday and looks sure to make his mark in marathon contests.
Where the money's going: Teaforthree heads the market for Saturday's rearranged Welsh National at 7-2 across the boards.