The Grand National beckons for one of Ireland's evergreen characters, Hi Cloy, after a determined success at Thurles yesterday. And an endorsement of his chances came not only from his trainer, Michael Hourigan, but also from someone who has already been there, done that at Aintree. "Ginger McCain tried to buy him," said Hourigan. "I had Amberleigh House in his early days, before Ginger did, and Hi Cloy is much better than him."
Indeed he is. Yesterday's contest, the two and a half mile Kinloch Brae Chase, was his 10th victory, of which four have come at Grade One level. But it was his first win since defeating Fota Island two years ago in the Melling Chase over Aintree's conventional fences, and he does throw in the odd stinker. On his previous run, he had finished a tailed-off last of the five finishers as the 66-1 outsider in the King George VI Chase.
The application of first-time blinkers clearly concentrated Hi Cloy's mind this time as he jumped past the trailblazing 2005 Grand National winner, Hedgehunter, four fences from home and stayed on strongly to beat One Cool Cookie three and a half lengths. "He made a fool of me at Kempton," said Hourigan. "He didn't travel and never jumped a fence, but he worked at home on Tuesday and changed back to what he was.
"I know he'll be near the top of the handicap but his aim is the Grand National; he jumps and he stays." The weights for the marathon showpiece will be unveiled on 5 February.
Hedgehunter, who celebrates his actual 12th birthday today week, faded to fifth yesterday, but raced with much of his old verve over a distance far too short, and put the memory of being pulled up at Punchestown last month after breaking a blood vessel behind him. "Very happy," said Willie Mullins, his trainer. The Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown in 23 days' time is the horse's next scheduled outing.
Mullins was on the scoreboard at the Co Tipperary track with two Ruby Walsh-ridden youngsters, hurdler Cooldine and chaser Pomme Tiepy, who put herself in the frame for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase with a foot-perfect 24-length success in the mares' event.
The Co Carlow trainer had reintroduced Rule Supreme, his 2004 winner of the Festival staying novices' crown, in the Kinloch Brae and although the 12-year-old, absent since running second in the French Champion Hurdle in June 2005, could only plug round to finish seventh of eight, his effort was judged more than satisfactory. "He was very ring-rusty and it was all happening a bit too quickly for him," said Mullins, "but Ruby was delighted with him."
Conditions at rain-lashed Thurles yesterday were foul, and the Irish weather may yet prevent the long-awaited reappearance on Sunday of a brighter star than Rule Supreme, the 2005 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero, Kicking King.
The Tom Taaffe-trained 10-year-old, who has not raced since taking the King George VI Chase the same year as his Cheltenham title, is set to make his comeback at Fairyhouse, but the meeting is now in doubt. An inspection this morning will decide its fate; alternative plans for Kicking King include the Hennessy or Hi Cloy's next target, the Red Mills Chase at Gowran.
Course inspectors will be out en masse in Britain this morning, with today's card at Catterick and Sunday's fixtures at Towcester and Market Rasen all under threat. But tomorrow's sport – at Haydock, Wincanton and Ascot – where Twist Magic is due to face six in the Grade One Victor Chandler Chase – may yet be saved. "We're still raceable," said Ascot's clerk, Chris Stickels, yesterday.
The joint-champion Flat jockey Seb Sanders has picked up a 16-day ban – 12 actual, four deferred – for falling foul of the totting-up procedure for whip offences. At a hearing in London yesterday Sanders admitted improper riding on Emperor Court at Lingfield six days ago, a breach of rules which took him past the threshold. He will be out of action from 25 January to 5 February, which will not affect his challenge for this year's title, though the four deferred days – which will be triggered if he reoffends – do fall after the start of the championship race.
A happier rider yesterday was Frankie Dettori, who started his 2008 campaign by taking the first two races at the Dubai Carnival, on Godolphin runners. The Italian scored on Many Colours, headhunted from John Oxx, and ex-Argentine Fiesta Lady. But the most impressive performance of the night came from Brazilian-trained Happy Boy, runaway winner of the card's feature, the Maktoum Challenge, in which British raiders Jack Sullivan and Vortex finished down the field.
Nap: Hucking Hill
NB: Mind Alert