It was a day when every prospect was vile, and only man pleased. The weather at Fairyhouse yesterday was wild, and the conditions gross, but Paul Carberry introduced a masterpiece of deftness to the eye of the storm. The most artistic in a golden generation of jump jockeys, Carberry won both the Grade One hurdle races for his employer, Noel Meade though neither Aitmatov nor Muirhead, exciting young talents as they are, can hope to supplant Harchibald just yet.
That misunderstood creature had sealed his place in the affections of his jockey and trainer at Newcastle the previous afternoon, and could yet have the last laugh in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle itself. Aitmatov will have that race on his agenda now, as well, though he must make still greater strides if he is to prise Carberry away from his bespoke fit, Harchibald.
Conditions yesterday barely represented an improvement on last year, when Fairyhouse managed to stage only a couple of races before surrendering to the tempest. But Carberry did not allow his touch to be coarsened, refusing to panic when both Aitmatov and Muirhead were led into the final hurdle by a rival still going great guns.
In the Bar-One Racing Royal Bond Hurdle, Muirhead was still a couple of lengths down when Cork All Star bungled his jump, losing all momentum. Carberry and Muirhead seized their cue, keeping on to win by a length and three-quarters. Both horses were making only their second start over hurdles, but it was Cork All Star whose inexperience told out in front. Winner of the Champion Bumper at the Festival, he retains every right to respect back on spring ground at Cheltenham, where so many previous winners of this race have prospered.
Muirhead, equally, is entitled to keep progressing. "I'd say he'd improve quite a lot," Meade said. "He's a bit light and weak-looking. He winged the first and I was thrilled with how he travelled after, and he was finishing well. I don't think he'd take much running, so we'll give him a break."
Aitmatov, in turn, had his work cut out if he was to reel in Sweet Kiln in the Ballymore Properties Hatton's Grace Hurdle. But it proved that the mare, tough as she is, had set off just a stride too fast, and she faltered as she splashed her way from the final flight towards the post. Having closed her down steadily, Aitmatov pounced at the line and got up in a photo.
"I was a bit surprised he was able to do it in that ground," Meade said. "I have a secret weapon though: P Carberry! He's just fantastic and can read a race like nobody else. I'm so lucky to have him."
The Irish champion trainer is certainly doing his part, however. He has had his string in rapacious form, and soon found reserves to plug the gap left by Iktitaf, whose career was ended by a recent schooling accident. Aitmatov is likely to head for the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, while Harchibald will probably join Jazz Messenger, last year's winner, in the Stan James Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day. Harchibald's success at Newcastle which restored him to his pomp after two years of training problems makes him eligible for a 1m bonus if following up there and then in the Champion itself.
The other big race at Fairyhouse, the Drinmore Novices' Chase, was won by Sky's The Limit, who seemed so well named when winning over hurdles at the Festival in 2006. True, the conditions made these inexperienced jumpers far too hesitant for a great deal to be read into the result, but at least the winner has got his act together after disappointing his trainer when first trying fences last season.
"He has improved, and come back a fresher horse than last year," Edward O'Grady said. "I was a bit worried as he was out the back more than I would have liked, but Andrew [McNamara] said he was always travelling well."
Harchibald's comeback must meanwhile serve as some kind of inspiration to David Pipe, who yesterday announced that Well Chief will not be able to run this season. Pipe had hoped to run Well Chief against Twist Magic at Sandown on Saturday, but found heat in a leg. "He's sound," the trainer said. "But it's the start of something so you have to stop."
This luckless animal made a spectacular return from 22 months on the sidelines last season but was an early faller when favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Fairyhouse (Grade 1)
1.05 1. MUIRHEAD (Paul Carberry) 4-1; 2. Cork All Star 3-1 fav; 3. Whatuthink 8-1. 10 ran. 13/4, 4. (N Meade). Tote: 5.40; 2.30, 2.00, 2.40. Exacta: 23.60. CSF: 17.32. Non Runners: Captain Cee Bee, Meadow Vale.
1.40 1. SKY'S THE LIMIT (Andrew J Mc-Namara) 9-4 fav; 2. Be My Leader 14-1; 3. Line Ball 7-2. 8 ran. 41/2, 21/2. (E O'Grady). Tote: 3.30; 1.50, 2.90, 1.50. Exacta: 50.70. CSF: 33.33. NR: Mr Robert.
2.10 1. AITMATOV (Paul Carberry) 2-1 jt-fav; 2. Sweet Kiln 2-1 jt-fav; 3. Ebaziyan 8-1. 8 ran. Sht-hd, 12. (N Meade). Tote: 2.90; 1.50, 1.30, 2.40. Exacta: 5.90. CSF: 6.27. NR: Macs Joy.
cheltenham festival odds
Smurfit Champion Hurdle (Cheltenham, March) Coral ante-post odds: 4-1 Sublimity, 8-1 Harchibald, 10-1 Katchit, 12-1 Sizing Europe, 14-1 Afsoun, 16-1 Aitmatov, Jazz Messenger, 20-1 Black Jack Ketchum, Blythe Knight, Catch Me, Clopf, Farmer Brown, Silent Oscar and Straw Bear. AIB Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Cheltenham, March) Coral ante-post odds: 12-1 Cork All Star, Muirhead, 14-1 I'msingingtheblues, 20-1 Alfie Flits, Captain Cee Bee, Megans Joy, Snap Tie, 25-1 Pigeon Island, Salford City, Solent & Townabrack
Nap: Dundridge Native(Fakenham 1.50)
NB: Double Magnum (Folkestone 2.30)