All manner of things might have happened during Saturday's meeting here without anyone being any the wiser, so dense was the fog, but there was no place to hide yesterday. The sunlight was as crisp as the frost that still gnawed the feet in the afternoon, though it must be said that you did not necessarily learn a great deal more than you might have done the previous day.
For the long shadows cast by the low sun may also spread a chill across the pages of the formbook. It was not so much a lack of quality – despite the latest disappearance of Aran Concerto – as the grim conditions, and the consequent reticence in the jockeys.
This proved particularly true of those riders entrusted with the rising stars, the big novice races over both hurdles and fences being run at a wary pace. Instead it fell to the old diehards, veterans of many unsparing assignments over the years, to warm the cockles in the Bar One Hatton's Grace Hurdle.
Seldom, it must be said, can so few have cheered for a heavily backed favourite. Between the last two hurdles, Catch Me had his work cut out to get past two cherished perennials in Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace, and the course commentator exclaimed in astonishment: "How often have we called these over the years!"
Hardy Eustace had already taught a couple of upstarts a lesson when beating Sizing Europe and Jered at Punchestown earlier in the month. This time, however, the holding ground blunted even his enthusiasm, and instead it fell upon the other champion hurdler in the field to threaten an even more outrageous comeback.
Brave Inca had missed the whole of last season but seldom in his long career has he travelled as smoothly as he did for Davy Russell here. In his younger days he was hardly ever on the bridle; this time, he cruised into contention before rallying with all the old determination. Sadly for the romantics, his stride shortened close home and Catch Me saw him off by a length and a half.
The extra half-mile might well have exhausted Brave Inca's stamina, and Colm Murphy indicated that he will be dropping back to two miles next time. "He's back!" Murphy said. "He'll probably go for the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown now."
Edward O'Grady, trainer of Catch Me, was unabashed as villain of the piece. "I've been behind those two horses a number of times," he said wryly. "So I'm quite pleased to have my day. This horse was a very good novice, probably unlucky not to win three Grade Ones, and last year he just wasn't right."
Catch Me had won on his return at Navan, however, O'Grady's vets having discovered and treated an allergy. "Science has prevailed," O'Grady said. "I'm nearly a believer now." His next test of faith may come with a step up to three miles, though for now bookmakers were offering around 16-1 for both the Smurfit Champion Hurdle and the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
O'Grady had saddled the horse in low spirits, having just seen Tranquil Sea run a lifeless race in the Drinmore Novices' Chase. Despite the steady gallop, this proved a gruelling affair and Forpadydeplasterer was a spent force on the flat after jumping boldly in the lead. Trafford Lad did not seem to have much in reserve, either, but bravely staggered five lengths clear.
Dusty Sheehy suggested that this horse would never do anything too flashy. "He's a real laid-back horse. If you worked him with a good one, he'd beat him a neck; and if you worked him with a moderate one, he'd beat him by a neck as well."
At least the young hurdlers were spared undue attrition, the Royal Bond Hurdle being reduced to a sprint from the last. Hurricane Fly came out best for Paul Townend, the young claimer who has been making hay for Willie Mullins in the absence of Ruby Walsh, but his employer was at least as pleased with Cousin Vinny, the top-class bumper horse who shaped nicely in third.
"Paul gave his horse a super ride in what was a difficult race, tactically," Mullins said. "But probably the most I'll take from the race is the way Cousin Vinny jumped and ran. I would expect a lot of improvement from him."
By the time he returns to Cheltenham, of course, Cousin Vinny should be back in his element, in a strongly run race on spring ground. Both horses will now be considered for Leopardstown after Christmas. "I'll look at the English programme as well," Mullins said, before giving a knowing grin. "But I don't really like travelling – until March."Reuse content