Brave Inca regains title as iron horse of Ireland

Presumably he is assembled from the same bone and sinew as other thoroughbreds, but nobody could be at all surprised to find riveted steel panels and reinforced concrete in there, too. For in winning the 10th Grade One prize of his career at Leopardstown yesterday, Brave Inca overcame not only a rival just about half his age, but also the most insidious enemy of all – namely his own approach, the most exhausting imaginable, to a calling that invariably limits the longevity even of less generous horses.

Brave Inca has had so many hard races over the years that he would have been perfectly within his rights, on being returned to the racecourse after 18 months off with injury, to demonstrate a readiness for a quiet life. Instead he showed undiminished gusto when second on his comeback at Fairyhouse in November, and then ran third to another former champion hurdler, Sublimity, at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting.

And here he was, at the venerable age of 11, squaring up for a rematch in the Toshiba Irish Champion Hurdle. The conditions this time were far more testing, which seemed certain to suit Brave Inca more than Sublimity, and he was heavily backed all week. But it was still easy to forget his history of finding extra in extremis when Muirhead cruised into his slipstream on the long run to the final flight.

By this stage Hardy Eustace – who had led Brave Inca past his stablemate, Allez Petit Luis, four out – was dropping away and Sublimity, having travelled well as usual, was just beginning to flounder. But it seemed obvious that Barry Geraghty on Muirhead could simply pick his moment, still apparently cantering at the last. In his pomp, maybe, Brave Inca might have turned round and broken Muirhead's teeth for him – but surely not any more.

Yet that is just what he did, more or less. Geraghty finally reached for the stick, switched inside, and suddenly grasped his predicament. Brave Inca was finding more and more for Ruby Walsh, and Muirhead was gaining inches when he needed yards. There was a length in it at the post as Walsh punched the air and the crowd went wild.

Their awe should not be confined to the horse, as he is now disclosing still more of a no less common talent in his trainer. In his understated way, Colm Murphy naturally concentrated attention on Brave Inca. "He has had a lot of bridges to cross since injuring his leg, and even had a few setbacks coming here," Murphy said. "It is incredible to think what he has done and how he has put us on the map. He's unbelievable, one in a million. He's as tough as nails and was pricking his ears going to the last. He had plenty left in the tank."

Granted soft ground, Brave Inca could yet be a factor in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, three years after he won the race. He has never had the gaudy brilliance of the favourite, Binocular, but remains competent to discover any chinks in his stamina up the hill. If conditions shift the emphasis to speed, he might end up in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle over three miles, but that firm acknowledged his enduring potency over two by cutting him from 33-1 to 14-1 for the Champion.

Spring ground could yet bring Muirhead into the equation in March, and likewise Sublimity, who gave a dirty scope after the race. But for once people should forget about Cheltenham, and simply salute the best horse on the day. "He's such a tough horse, and a real credit to Colm," Walsh said. "Colm got the tactics spot on, and said we needed to ensure an end-to-end gallop. It turned into a slog, more of a stamina test than the stop-start pace we had here over Christmas."

Walsh had also hoped to win the card's other Grade One, the Arkle Trophy, but Jayo jumped deplorably and trailed home last of four. That did not prevent Willie Mullins, his trainer, from sustaining his excellent run with his second string, Golden Silver – ridden by the find of the season, Paul Townend.

Golden Silver just prevailed in a tough duel with Forpadydeplasterer in driving wind and rain. "When I saw that Jayo was 2-1 in the morning, and he was 25-1, I thought that was a big mistake," Mullins said. "This puts Golden Silver into the picture as one of our top novice chasers. It's a shame we didn't get to see the real Jayo, but the race might have come a bit soon after Naas for him, so I'll forgive him."

Mullins will now prepare both horses for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Festival – also an option for the runner-up, though he might step up to three miles in the RSA Chase.

A change in conditions at the Festival would certainly suit one or two of those whose reputations suffered at Cheltenham on Saturday. Punchestowns, for instance, found the concession of 8lb to Big Buck's beyond him in the conditions. His trainer yesterday emphasised that he had left him a generous margin for improvement. "We know we've left something to work on," Nicky Henderson said. "It wasn't the World Hurdle yesterday. I was trying to sneak a race on the way. There's six weeks to go, and we got caught having given them a bit of a break."

Star De Mohaison, likewise, floundered in the ground behind Joe Lively. Horses always deserve a second chance, of course. They will certainly ask for one. Unless, that is, you happen to mean Brave Inca.

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